Coming Out as an Undocumented Muslim Immigrant in Trump’s America
“I feel like Trump’s been stalking me my whole life.”
This is 29-year-old Fatima Ahmed, who’s been in the U.S. for 28 years. She’s a New Yorker through and through, and now an undocumented Muslim immigrant in Trump’s America.
Ahmed came here with her mother from Bangladesh when she was just over one year old. After a short stint in Queens as a toddler, she moved to Absecon, a suburb of Atlantic City, where her mother found a job at one of Trump’s casinos. Growing up, she was just another regular suburban kid, almost. Here’s her story in her own words:
“I’m from Queens, he’s from Queens. We went to just outside Atlantic City, he went to Atlantic City. My mom worked as a slot machine attendant in a Trump casino in Atlantic City for almost 15 years. It’s crazy, he talks about getting rid of undocumented people and Muslims and I’m like ‘Hey! We’ve been here the whole time. We’ve been working for you.’ There’s this common misconception of what a Muslim or an undocumented immigrant looks like or does.
We are all being labeled as criminals, as a threat, as people who have no regard for the law and that’s not true. I’ve been here since I was a baby and have followed the law to try and get legal status my entire life. I’ve always paid federal taxes. I work in a niche field as a textile specialist. I really don’t see how I’m stealing jobs or how I’m a danger to this country.
Growing up, I was really lucky. I went to good schools that were really diverse and my environment was very diverse, so although I always understood that I was an immigrant, it wasn’t a really big deal. I never really thought of myself as different. My parents were able to get work visas because of the Reagan/Bush Amnesty plan, so they always had legal work. And they both spoke English fluently. They came from very wealthy families back in Bangladesh and were highly educated.
Back in Bangladesh, my father was an art dealer with a master’s in Asian history. But when he got here, he just took whatever work he could get. For most of my adult life he was a cab driver but when I was a kid he worked in some sort of production for low-end fashion companies, like t-shirts, in the garment district. I think that’s what first got me interesting in the business side of fashion.
I think there might’ve been a bit of culture shock for them, from not having their wealth and lifestyle. I mean, they grew up in large houses with maids and stuff like that. My mom never made a bed before she got here and then she was sharing a winter coat with my older sister. I don’t think she realized how hard it would be. She went from that to taking jobs at a Pathmark, a Dunkin’ Donuts and then at a Trump Casino.
My home as a kid was a sort-of conservative Muslim household. My parents were conservative but we never wore the hijab or anything. Some clothing items were off-limits, in a nuanced sort of way, shorts and tank tops could be ok, but not if a visitor was also Muslim. In those situations, we were expected to dress more conservatively, it was a nuanced dress code.
I remember when I was a teenager getting into a fight with my mom about being able to wear a bathing suit. I mean we lived in a beach town! A high-school friend —who also came from a Muslim family— and I banded together to convince our parents we should be able to wear bathing suits. Our argument was that we were attracting more attention being on the beach and not wearing bathing suits than we would if we were wearing bathing suits. It was true, if we were wearing bathing suits no one we would’ve noticed us we would’ve just blended in. Being on the beach in t-shirts and stuff just really made us stick out and people would stare. Eventually we persevered, and were allowed to wear bathing suits. I think they just realized that our reasoning was right.
It’s sort of strange, because I was never really religious but now I feel I need to connect more with that part of my life because that is definitely a part of who I am. I know what is being said about it is wrong. I mean, whenever something bad happens involving a Muslim person, it’s like being Muslim negates everything else about that person. The Orlando nightclub shooter for example. He was seriously mentally ill and was a closeted gay man that was homophobic. I know he pledged to ISIS or whoever before the attack but that wasn’t all that was going on there. When Dylann Roof shot all those people ‘for the good of white people,’ we didn’t blame all white people, nobody asked all white people to come out and condemn it. It was just assumed that anyone who wasn’t disturbed condemned the act.
When 9/11 happened, it literally changed everything, almost immediately. I mean, legislatively speaking, there was a lot of progress on immigration reform and that all stalled. Aside from all the overwhelming emotions and feeling of loss and worry and collective grieving, especially since I had friends and family living in New York at the time. There was this entire other change as well. I guess it was the first time I became hyper-aware of my identity and all the ramifications of that.
I was 14 then, so obviously I was in high school, and I remember other kids talking about how they were worried about going to the grocery store because ‘Muslims were going to blow it up,’—it just hit me so hard when I realized that it was literally me and my family that they were talking about being afraid of or angry at.
There were other things, too—my mom always just sort of banked on her work visas being renewed annually, and that became a huge stress for our family. Flying was nearly impossible. I mean, my name is Fatima Ahmed, how much more identifiable could it get? And I had to use my Bangladeshi passport, I had no American identification. Also at that point all travel from Muslim countries stopped, so my step-sister was not allowed to come visit, which meant that she wasn’t able to see her father, my step-father, for eight years.
And I was undocumented, too, which I think just because of getting older became something that I was more aware of. Like lots of other high-school kids, I was looking at college options, but because of my immigration status I couldn’t get any scholarships, not even private ones, no student loans, I couldn’t even get in-state tuition. I had the greatest guidance counselor and he tried so hard to find me any financial help and it just wasn’t there, because of my status. Even though I had really good grades, I had to just start looking at schools that I could afford. I’d say being undocumented definitely has shaped my opportunities in life and eliminated some of them.
There were also other things small things, like I always had an attorney, all growing up. I mean what sort of kid has an attorney? But at the same time, you know, I was lucky and privileged enough to have an immigration attorney.
My status has also really shaped who I am, in a good way. I’ve always had to work full-time, even through college, and it’s forced me to have a really strong work ethic and an ethos of striving to achieve. And at the end of the day I got to go to school. There were little things that made it hard, finding work and not being able to get a bank account or a driver’s license, or rent an apartment— it’s made it so that I’ve always had to rely on the help of others.
Then in 2012, Obama passed DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival. That changed everything for me. It was like the world opened up. I could get a state ID, I could apply for any job I wanted and I did, and I got a really great job at a high-end architectural firm. I launched a textile company with a close friend from grad school. Things have gotten a lot better. I mean I still don’t have a driver’s license, but now that’s because I don’t know how to drive.
But I worry now, that under Trump, DACA will be repealed and I will have to look for under-the-table work, you know, it’s nuts. I have a master’s degree, I run my own textile company, and yet I might not be able to find a job or have an ID. I’m married now, I want to start a family, I don’t know what I’d do.
There are also other freedoms I’d like to have, especially travel, I’d really like to travel. I’ve never left the United States—I can’t. I barely even leave New York. I haven’t been able to see my father in 15 years. He left, went back to Bangladesh in 2005 after I graduated high school. It’s been hard on him here, and he is getting old and driving a cab takes a toll, physically, I think it was just too much and we were grown up. But things like, I got married and he couldn’t come, he’s never met my husband. I’d just really like to be able to see him.
It’s this crazy thing, that I’ve been here almost my entire life and I’m married to a white guy from Kansas, and it’s been two years since we’ve been married and I still don’t have even a green card. It’s another one of the obstacles of being undocumented. Even though I come from a position of relative privilege, it’s just—all our savings, instead of going to our future, like other people, is going to pay for immigration attorneys, to file paperwork, it’s really expensive.
And it’s sort of ironic, the problems with my immigration status all stem from me coming here so young, you know before I had a choice in it. U.S. immigration can’t find a record of me entering the country, you know, because I was so young, and that’s been a major obstacle.
The rest of my family, now has citizenship or legal status, but there are problems with my status, even after being here basically my entire life and even though I’m married to a U.S. citizen. It would be comical, if it wasn’t this huge looming thing in my life.
As told to Sarah Shears. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.