Why I Gave Up My Legal Status

"My family was concerned because I was the only one with legal status, and I was about to give it up."

Photo Credit: Heap

The following is an excerpt from Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement.
It is part of a short series on the youth-led immigrant rights movement, produced in solidarity withthe 11 Million Dreams Week of Action. For an overview of the movement, you can read the first piece of the series here.

On July 26, 2006, ICE officers came to my house looking for me. They took my sister by mistake and took my parents and other sibling along with her. When ICE realized their mistake, I was told to come in right away or my family would be sent to different detention centers. I rushed to see my family where they were being detained and found my parents chained to chairs with handcuffs on their ankles. It was one of the most horrible days of my life. After a few difficult hours and an interrogation, ICE revealed that the reason they came looking for me was because I was speaking out to the media, and they did not like that. They let us all go but only after ordering me to stop talking to the media. However, I did not stay silent. I got involved in the immigrant rights movement because although I had a legal visa to remain in the United States, members of my family and many of my peers do not. It didn’t seem fair that a small piece of paper gave me opportunities they didn’t have.

I entered this country with a tourist visa, and my parents later obtained a student visa for me to study in the United States. When I graduated from fifth grade and went on to middle school, I lost that visa because my family didn’t realize they had to reinstate it whenever I switched schools. This is how I learned about the importance of legal status in this country. When I graduated from high school, I was blessed to have found someone at Miami Dade College who helped me reinstate my visa again. The only way for me to maintain my status was to stay in school, paying international student rates and earning good grades. When I was asked to participate in the Trail of Dreams, I understood that it would mean making several sacrifices, including giving up my legal status because I would have to leave school. The importance of the Trail of Dreams overshadowed everything else, including a piece of paper that provided conditional status. This was an opportunity to fight for something bigger than myself.

On January 1, 2011, Felipe Matos, Carlos Roa, Juan Rodriguez, and I left Miami to embark on a fifteen-hundred-mile walk to our nation’s capital. The Trail of Dreams was my way of challenging the distorted depiction of immigrants in this country. We set out to dispel the myths by talking to the average American. It was time to claim our to take risks and lift our voices instead of settling for a life full of uncertainty. I have to remind myself that it is an oppressive, broken system that forces us to make these difficult and heartbreaking decisions.

From the very beginning when the participants talked about the Trail of Dreams, we knew we were going to engage in conversations with people from all walks of life. These included people who might have different beliefs or values from ours. We used nonviolent methods and had strategic conversations with people from across the political spectrum. On one occasion, we encountered a white, older US veteran who told us he strongly believed immigrants humanity and change people’s hearts and minds by walking through our country one community at a time.

My decision triggered a lot of conflict within my family, and our attorneys were not happy with our decision. My family was concerned because I was the only one with legal status, and I was about to give it up. They said, “Why give up the little you have?” This made me reflect, and I concluded that the little I had was not worth much if it meant I had to stay silent as I watched other immigrant families get torn apart. This wasn’t about me.

Every year my family wavers between feeling depressed and fighting to stay. My family received a final order to leave the country in 2009. Living in the shadows was safer, but because of my public fight, they now live in a dangerous light. I believe that being undocumented means we need were destroying this country. He used hurtful words to describe us and even resorted to hurling slogans used by anti-immigrant groups to promote their views: “Illegal is illegal! What part of illegal don’t you understand?” We let him speak his mind and tried to understand where he was coming from. He was a human being just like us and had a right to express himself. We wanted to make sure we listened before we shared our story.

After our conversation, he refrained from using the term “illegal” and used “undocumented” instead. He went on to wish us well, and we could tell that he genuinely hoped that we would be successful. This is an example of what we intended to do, to inform people about the immigration issue with the hope that they would see it from a humanitarian perspective. This encounter confirmed our belief that even anti-immigrant extremists have hearts and minds and possess an ability to change. We were changing points of views one person at a time.

In Georgia we encountered members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) having a rally. There were people of all ages surrounded by large Confederate flags. We watched as frail senior citizens were helped into their white robes and hoods and saw parents placing small robes on their children. It was a surreal display of the steadfast, racist views of a small subculture. We decided to have a protest with thirty of our supporters to share our point of view with the crowd gathered on the other side of the street.

The two groups faced each other with police separating us to prevent any incidents. The other walkers and I decided to talk to those attending the KKK rally to have a conversation about our issues. We discovered that there were three types of people at the KKK rally: those who were in strong agreement with the KKK, those who were curious about what the KKK had to say, and those who were angry that the rally was happening in their community. Not everyone expressed hateful resentment toward us, and we engaged in some meaningful, productive conversations, which was in direct opposition to the behavior the KKK members were inciting at their rally.

Unfortunately, racist, anti-immigrant groups like the KKK are gaining momentum all across the South. The human rights of many immigrants are violated each day in this country. We need systemic change that spreads beyond legislative battles down to each individual who can make change.

Throughout our walk, we learned how beautiful the human spirit is. We were joined by immigrant day laborers and their families. Even though they told us they had not been able to find work for weeks or months, they donated dimes, nickels, and pennies so that we could continue our trip. They walked with us and helped us carry our backpacks for the time they were with us. We stopped at dozens of places along the way, with growing support as we crossed each state line. Through all of our challenges, we were also welcomed with open arms. At certain points, thousands were walking with us, sometimes a dozen, and sometimes the four of us walked alone. Solidarity walks were concurrently organized across the country. We arrived in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2010, a day when immigrant rights marches took place across the country. The Trail of Dreams walkers carried with us the voices of struggle and hope from families we met along the way, creating change one step at a time.

Copyright © 2012. Reprinted with permission of UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, Los Angeles, CA.