Over the past few weeks, like many others in the immigrant community, my emotions have been fluctuating between two different states: depression and outrage.
As someone who lived undocumented in this country for 20 years, watching coverage of the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids is personally distressing. I wake up every day struggling physically and emotionally to function in a society that once deemed my existence “illegal” and relegated me to its shadows. The fear and anger I felt while being undocumented has resurfaced.
This is not just my reality, but the reality of many other formerly undocumented immigrants. Our wounds are fresh; the pain so recent that its reminder can still be draining, but its familiarity is precisely its power. Before they heal and our scars forget the suffering that created them, we must lend a hand to those still struggling with undocumented status. We must ask ourselves, how can we help?
To answer this question, we, the formerly undocumented, must look back on our own experiences.
Like many other immigrants, we risked everything to escape economic hardship or social instability and go to the “land of the free”. We came in search of our versions of the “American dream”. However, the cost of leaving our countries was becoming undocumented in this one. This meant that we did not have equal access to education, employment, housing, or even healthcare. In fact, even the pursuit of such essentials threatened our own livelihoods and that of our families.
As children, we were taught that all it took was an anonymous tip from one nurse, one teacher, one coworker, or one landlord to be swept into the next set of deportations. So, we had no choice but to grow up in survival mode: always vigilant against immigration raids, hesitant to go to the emergency room, and afraid of sharing stories with friends or colleagues. We pretended to fit in, we watched what we said, and we were careful with whom we trusted. We made sure not to slip up and accidentally reveal our status. Being undocumented forced us to develop the ability to hide in plain sight.
We were stuck living in an inescapable cage—one that both protected the invisibility of our undocumented identity, but also reinforced all of its limitations. No matter how hard we worked, we could not break free. But we endured and persisted beyond its limitations because we had the courage to keep dreaming dreams worth reaching. We risked everything we came to know in this country in pursuit of those dreams not just for us, but also for our families, our communities, those who took the risk and were criminalized, and those who succumbed to the hardships of our status.
And after all that, some of us hit the green card lottery. This meant that we could finally travel abroad to visit our place of birth and reunite with our family, that we no longer were afraid to make that doctor’s appointment, that our access to higher education was no longer limited, and that we had some measure of security that we would not be deported. The feeling of becoming a permanent resident is hard to describe, so let me share an experience. A few months ago, after getting her papers, a friend said to me that, “I’m a person again.” It broke my heart that she felt that way, but that’s exactly how I felt as well. Our cages finally shattered, our invisibility faded, and our identities slowly emerged. We were people once again all because of a few sheets of paper. This is what we experienced, but no undocumented immigrant should ever feel like this, that they are less human than their colleagues, friends, and neighbors.
Now documented, we still carry the experiences of our previous lives. Although we are still looked upon as second-class citizens, which makes it hard to break out of the behaviors from our past lives, we need to do just that. So, against the lessons of my upbringing, I have broken my silence and shared my truth.
I want to be the person I wish someone was for me when I was undocumented: someone who validated my pain, understood the burden, supported my dreams, and believed that I mattered. This is why I refuse to hide anymore.
Now, I’m asking other formerly undocumented immigrants to also speak up. We all need to step out of the shadows and into the light, mindful of the continued risks, but ready to help today’s undocumented community feel safe and realize its dreams. Together we must redouble our support; this is the time they need us most. We must be the voice of the undocumented when we protest, support sanctuary schools and cities, and write our senators. And, at the individual level, we must also be their personal support system.
And, to the undocumented immigrants reading this, struggling not just to survive, but to succeed, never forget that you belong here and we are committed to making it so. Even in times when it feels like you don’t, fight the feeling. Remember that your dreams and aspirations matter. Lean on each other and lean on us, for you are not alone.
Robert was born in Lima, Peru and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 4 years old. He spent most of his life as an undocumented immigrant, but his perseverance and the support of his mother fueled him to pursue an education despite the limited opportunities available to him. He attended Union County College in NJ where he received an Associate’s Degree in Business. He went on to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Biotechnology at York College/CUNY in Jamaica, NY. After receiving his permanent residency in 2013, he is working on his PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and is also a PD Soros Fellow.
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