People often evoke the historical tradition of immigration to the U.S. Usually, though, this hollow memory is detached from reality, referring to old stories of Europeans arriving on the Mayflower. Today, however, we live in a globalized world where the phenomenon of immigration is more alive than ever as immigrants flow between different countries and regions. Immigrants often take great risks to enter a new country, and many must cross borders without proper documentation. In the U.S. there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living without a real pathway to come out of the shadows.
Until recently, I too was one of those undocumented immigrants in this country. I arrived with my family in July of 1999 to Southern California with the hope and dreams of obtaining a better life. My dad had been laid off after working more than 25 years for a major Mexican bank. After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed, competition increased, and my dad lost his job. The economic situation in our family was dire and the only choice to survive was to immigrate to the U.S. Moving to this country seemed like a dream. We were going to have the American lifestyle that everyone in Mexico imagines as a distant fantasy. It did not take long after coming to the states for reality to hit.
In the summer of 1999, before I entered high school, my mother worked at a factory, manufacturing hangers. The machines were too fast for her to keep up, so she would take me and my siblings with her to help. I was in charge of helping my mother pick up and pack hangers during the graveyard shift. I remember being surrounded by pallets full of boxes in a hot room with high ceilings. There were between 10 and 15 immigrant women working non-stop as every machine was running at full capacity. The smell of burned plastic would seep into our clothes and calluses would develop on our palms from the constant grabbing and fixing of hot hangers. This was my first experience as an undocumented worker in the United States.
I graduated from high school in 2002 and hoped to attend college and become a professional. However, due to my undocumented status, I was uncertain whether college would be within my reach. Today, in most states undocumented immigrant students must pay international tuition and fees at public universities. Some states pass even harsher policies which ban undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities at all. I had the fortune to graduate from high school right after California Assembly Bill 540 passed, which allowed students who attended and graduated from California high schools to pay in-state tuition. I soon began attending classes at a community college and believing once again in my potential.
However, finances still stood in my way. Though this law allowed me to pay tuition as any other Californian, it did not allow me to apply for state and institutional financial aid. To support myself, I cleaned warehouses and homes, and served food at restaurants. Facing the ever increasing tuition fees was like a race against time. On the one hand, if I left school to work and make money, I would come back to a higher tuition fee. On the other hand, if I scrambled to pay the tuition, quarter after quarter I would end up with no money for transportation or even food.
As an undocumented college student, I hovered between the labels of “criminal” and “non-criminal.” When I was in the classroom, engaging in discussions of pressing issues in American society, I felt as if my classmates and professors valued and respected my thoughts and opinions. Whenever I left the university, though, that artificial sense of belonging diminished. I ran the risk of police stopping and detaining me for driving without a license or working without proper documentation. I lived under the dehumanizing label of being “illegal.” I felt as if my dreams had been cut short.
The toughest time I had in my whole education experience was during my first quarter of graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. There, tuition was much higher and much less flexible. I could not attend part-time and the courses and requirements were more demanding. Attending an academic program where I was the only undocumented student was also difficult because no one else could relate to my experience.
Little by little, though, I started to meet other undocumented students who were in my same situation. I started to feel a genuine sense of community and belonging both on and off campus. Together we created new student organizations and began to learn about a rising national movement to fight for the rights of immigrant students. This gave me great hope. I worked my way out of isolation and built a support network in my program as I shared my story and educated classmates on the issues undocumented students face.
Storytelling is the most powerful tool that undocumented immigrants have in the fight for a better way of life. Every time I shared my story as an undocumented student, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Our stories become a voice of dissent against unjust system that dehumanizes and exploits individuals.
Recently, I fell in love, got married, and gained legal status through my wife. This is not an option available to everyone in my situation, and I feel fortunate and privileged. Now, more doors have opened and the country is finally accepting and welcoming me.
We live in a society that tells us that if we work hard enough we can become successful. Yet, as undocumented young immigrants, we are also told that our presence is illegal and that we should exercise “self-deportation” to countries of which we often have little recollection. Undocumented immigrants are resilient. We build new a life in a country we see has more opportunities than our distant land of origin. We work endless hours to support ourselves, our families, and our studies. These struggles are not unique. These stories, our journeys, are part of the American narrative. Regardless of the current political debate, our struggle is shaping this country’s history. As the immigrant struggle in the U.S. continues, we continue to write history as new Americans, sharing our challenges, contributions, and stories.
Carlos Amador is Project Coordinator of the Dream Resource Center, a project of the UCLA Labor Center. In March, Dream Resource Center will release a book, Undocumented and Unafraid, which tells stories from the undocumented immigrant youth movement. For this and other information about the work the Dream Resource Center does, please visit the DRC website.