11.27.10

I'm an Illegal Immigrant at Harvard

I was a little girl who hadn't even learned the alphabet when I overstayed my visa. If the DREAM Act doesn't pass, I might have to take my degree and go back to a country I never knew.

I'm a senior at Harvard and I'm undocumented. I’ve spent most of my life keeping my immigration status a secret, but in retrospect it seems that I could have been more discreet at times.

I watched September's live vote of the DREAM Act—the controversial legislation that would pave the way toward amnesty for illegal immigrants who have grown up and gone to college here—as I pretended to take notes in one of my political science seminars. Classmates on either side of me, who may have suspected my secret, shot me glances that alternated between the confused and the sorry as I fumbled with my laptop and watched the C-Span live stream on mute. It didn't look to be going well. Harry Reid looked flustered. And then I saw the news ticker flash announce what I already knew—the DREAM Act was not going in for a vote.

As this lame-duck session draws to a close, and even as Reid and Nancy Pelosi make promises to bring the legislation up for a vote before the new Republican Congress takes power, I am still fumbling with my laptop, signing petitions I fear are useless, and watching the news alerts pour into my inbox. This time, I am protecting my heart. I know the DREAM Act will probably once again wither away. I know supporting it is political suicide and I don’t expect anyone to put their political careers on the line for me or my family. It’s always been just the four of us and I know it probably always will be.

I'm a senior at Harvard and I'm undocumented.

An immigration lawyer recently told me I had no way of regulating my status, save for marriage or legislation, and did I feel OK about that? How can I answer that question?

I was born in South America and lived there until I was 4 but I've lived here since I started kindergarten. That's how I've always measured my life, in increments of semesters and trimesters and marking periods. School has always been my sanctuary, a place where I could be alone with my books and words, a respite from reality, a place where I could be loved and appreciated for my mind and my heart. Opponents of the DREAM Act say citizenship is not a right, it’s a privilege, and no amount of patriotism can entitle you to it, no matter how hard-earned or heartfelt—you cannot deserve your way into becoming American. But despite that rhetoric, the discourse of immigration reform always falls into a discussion of individual merits and goodness.

My parents were only a little older than I am now when they overstayed their visas. I hadn't even learned the alphabet when I overstayed mine.

It is important that I make clear I was the valedictorian of my high school class and got full scholarships to the country’s best schools. It is important that I point out I have been published in some of the top magazines and am currently working on a book, an excerpt of which has already been published. And it might be worth emphasizing that we’d make excellent permanent neighbors. My parents have been paying taxes for years, even procuring a special taxpayer ID number from the IRS in order to be able to do so. We go to church every Sunday. We’ve adopted from the animal shelter. We go running together in the summers. We recycle.

But you and I both know this changes nothing.

My parents were only a little older than I am now when they overstayed their visas. I hadn't even learned the alphabet when I overstayed mine. Immigration law has never been straightforward, and 9/11 made it impossible to do anything about it. I am 21 years old and this is a burden I’ve had to carry for most of my life. I'm emotionally exhausted from living my life in a perpetual state of purgatory and I now know I am expected to also live in a perpetual state of penance. We broke the law and deserve to be punished, the argument goes. So why haven’t we been punished?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but in lieu of an answer, I could tell you that perhaps we have been—daily, privately, painfully. Punishment isn’t made legitimate by the presence of an audience.

There was the time, years and years ago, when I got on the bus and an elderly woman walked past me and said loudly but to no one in particular, “Why can’t these Mexicans just learn English?” Or the time my father's boss looked me up and down, letting his eyes linger where they may, and offered me a job at his restaurant, the first and only post-Harvard job offer extended not despite but because of my legal status.

I can tell you that I spent my first two years at Harvard paralyzed by fear and self-loathing.

I can tell you about the day my father’s driver's license was suspended. He had worked as a cab and ambulette driver since setting foot in the country and was suddenly out of work. Our family’s only government-issued identification card was suddenly gone. My father collapsed into my arms the minute he walked into our apartment. He buried his face in my hair and sobbed violently—it remains the only time I've seen him cry. He was unemployed for a couple weeks and then began doing deliveries by foot at a restaurant in our city's financial district. Our family lives off his tips. Sometimes he needs me to help him stand up after he’s been sitting for a while. I hold onto his arm and lift him while he closes his eyes and tries not to grimace. The doctor says his back and knees are so bad he will have to retire early. He is 45.

I can tell you the sight of a police officer makes my heart beat fast. I can tell you I've had to sit through my friends' thousand-picture slide shows of their backpacking trips through Europe and that I feel more and more deflated after each click because I can't leave this country and I can’t study abroad and I’m even afraid to take the Greyhound. I can tell you I am only now beginning to trust people enough to talk about what we refer to as "my situation.” I can try to tell you I’m scared you might be able to figure out who I am and I will be deported.

I can tell you so many things.

Joan Didion once explained that someone with a plane schedule in their drawer lives according to a slightly different calendar than everyone else. Will these next seven months be the last I spend in the United States? It is November and I have already lost the ability to think in the future tense, as if my heart had anesthetized my mind in preparation for the possible disappointments of the next several months. I sleep without setting any alarm clocks. I speak faster in hopes that I might get more English words in. I kiss slower to feel more, here, longer. I’m at a road that bifurcates into continents and I am terrified because I know I might once again have to live with a decision that is not mine to make. It would hurt to be forced to leave, but it hurts to stay the way I’m staying now. I belong to this place but I also want it to belong to me.