Eddie didn’t know he was undocumented —until he tried to serve his country.
Eddie was brought from Mexico to Michigan as a child. He didn’t find out he was undocumented until he tried to serve his country.
Eduardo Arteaga, better known as Eddie, wanted to serve his country.
He’s nervous during the start of our conversation, fidgeting with the pen in his hand, twisting his watch around his wrist, and self-consciously fixing his tie. But when you ask him about the Air Force and why he gravitated towards the military, his face lights up. The fidgeting stops. “I liked the structure and I loved the uniform. And I liked that you were fighting for something that you believe in — for freedom.” At Southwestern High School in Detroit, he joined the JROTC program. “I wanted to work on their jets. I wanted to be an airplane mechanic.”
It wasn’t until he started applying to colleges in 2003 that he learned his dream wasn’t possible.
“I went to Henry Ford Community College and tried to [enroll] and it was denied. I didn’t have a social security number. That’s when it really hit me. I started asking questions.”
What Eddie hadn’t known until that moment was, like millions of other Americans, he was undocumented. He had been born in Mexico City and brought into the United States by his parents when he was barely a month old. And while he’d grown up here and made friends here and fallen in love here, he’d done so never knowing that he was undocumented. He hadn’t known it could all be taken away.
He doesn’t blame his parents for keeping him in the dark.
“These aren’t things that are talked about, mainly because of fear. Fear of getting deported, fear of going to jail, families getting ripped apart. It was a big issue and it was mainly kept behind closed doors.”
He tried to apply for residency under his mother, but it was denied when he turned eighteen.
“When they denied me, [my case] got turned over to a deportation officer that told me I had to come in and that I had a certain amount of time to get out of the country.” Eddie says this looking down, fidgeting with the watch on his wrist and glancing warily around the Southwest Detroit campaign office. He tries to explain how it felt, in that moment, to be told to leave the only place he’d ever called home.
“I was in shock. I was angry. Every emotion went through my body. To think I’m being shipped away to another county I know nothing about, that I’ve never been to. You’re sentencing me to nowhere, to an island. I don’t know where I’m going.”
His mother wanted to run.
“It was like fight or flight.”
“We have to move. We have to move to a different state. We have to start over somewhere,” his mother told him and his little brother, who had been born in the United States legally.
But for Eddie, who still dreamed of serving his country, running wasn’t an option. “I was tired,” he says.
He’s no longer fidgeting with his watch. He’s no longer nervously pawing at the pen in his hand.
“I said, ‘Mom, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen my friends deported. It doesn’t end well. I want to come to a solution, good or bad, I want to move on with my life.” Eddie looks up and I can see the resolve in his eyes. “There was no DREAM Act. There was no DACA. There was nothing to keep me legally in the United States. There was no law or action that would let me stay.”
For Eddie, it took years.
“I filed with my mom. It didn’t work. I appealed. It didn’t work. I got married to my high school sweetheart. That didn’t work. I moved to Baltimore, and it didn’t work. My wife was in the service, and there was a new law that eventually saved me. The law protected me. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy. I fought for years. It wasn’t a couple years went by and here you go, it took a really, really long time.”
Nine years after finding out that he was undocumented, Eddie was finally granted permanent residency.
“It didn’t hit me until I was down in the immigration office in Baltimore. All I did was receive a phone call saying I could come there and pick up my documents as a United States Resident. I fell to my knees. I was in shock. People talk about the American Dream…”
Eddie shakes his head a little and looks down.
“People talk about the American Dream, but I wanted to live my dream [in America].”
As a resident, he was able to join the Michigan Air Force Reserve, but he couldn’t work his dream job.
“I was not able to do the career in the Air Force that I wanted. I wanted to work on jets. I wanted to be a mechanic. But I didn’t qualify for these jobs because I was only a resident. So my clearance would only go so far, so they wouldn’t let me touch anything classified.” So instead of fixing planes, Eddie worked in logistics and planning. He worked in administration. And he waited for his status to change.
And in 2014 — it did. Eleven years after finding out he was undocumented, he became an American.
“I finally knew that it was over,” he says. “As a resident it wasn’t over, but luckily, through the Air Force, my stuff was approved quickly. I was super nervous for my last interview. They’d opened up a new office on Jefferson and that was where I had to report to. It was a special case, because it was a military case, but my caseworker was military as well, and he was really pumped up [for me].”
Two years after he became an American, Eddie had come to the Southwest Detroit Office to register to vote for the first time in his life. When you ask him why he hadn’t registered earlier, his cheeks turn a bit red. “I guess I was embarrassed about not knowing. I didn’t know what the process was.”
He’d dressed for today, in a nice suit with a red tie and red pocket square. Every so often during our conversation, his watch would catch the sun’s glare and throw light around the office. It wasn’t until he ran into an old baseball friend recently, someone he knew was deeply into politics, that he felt comfortable asking for help. “I pulled him aside and I said, ‘I’m a little embarrassed, but you’re the only one I can reach out to,’ and he invited me to the office.”
He smiles again, that big smile that takes over his whole face, and then he stood up.
“Alright! Let’s do this!”
And just like that, he grabs a clipboard from the table, sits down, and registers to vote.
It takes him less than five minutes and, in celebration, he writes a message on our campaign walls —
“I’m with her because…she believes in bridges, not walls!”
And then, in a mixture of happiness and relief, Eddie starts laughing.
If you’re interested in registering (or checking the status of your registration) visit IWillVote.com. You can also visit the Southwest Detroit Office, located at 7744 Vernor Hwy., Ste. 101 Detroit, MI 48209. You can also text MI to 47246.