When President Donald Trump assures he wants what is best for “the American people,” I am one of those Americans. When Trump promises to remove “undocumented immigrants,” I am one of those immigrants.
I was seven months old, when my parents brought me to America hoping to release me from poverty’s suffocating grip. I have no sensory memory of those first seven months. In my mind, they do not exist.
My earliest memories involve fireworks on Fourth of July, Disneyland, and Santa’s visits every Christmas. When people asked where I was born, I responded, “California.” I learned to walk, talk, and read in California.
In first grade, I memorized my first song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” My classmates and I would inflate our chests and jump up to emphasize, “’Cause there ain’t no doubt I LOVE THIS LAND … GOD BLESS THE USA!” In third grade, my Saturday mornings were spent attached to the TV screen (cereal bowl in hand) watching the latest episodes of Pokémon and Power Rangers.
In fifth grade, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. I was sent home early from school. My parents and I sat crying. Frozen on our couch. “The world hates us! And it’s scary,” my father repeated out loud. It never crossed my parents’ minds to evacuate America and run back to Mexico. We had been in America for nine years. America was our home. Her problems were our burden.
When I was 12 years old, my cousins Angela and Eduardo were discussing their upcoming summer vacation in Mexico. I asked my cousins if I could go with them. Angela threw me a glare. “You can’t come with us because people born in Mexico are not allowed to cross the border,” she said. “We can because we were born here.” I yelled back that I was born in California, not Mexico. I ran off to find Mom, determined to prove Angela wrong.
Mom confirmed the truth. I remember my heart sinking deep beneath the soles of my feet. I felt angry. I felt betrayed. “Why did you never tell me? Why were my brother and cousins all born in America? Why did I have to be the only one born in Mexico?”
I looked up at my mom, her eyes red-shot and tears falling down her cheeks. “Mijo, you are extremely smart and you have the biggest heart. The place you were born means nothing. You cannot choose where you were born; God made that decision. The life you decide to live, and the person you decide to become, is your choice.”
My dad imparted his own life lessons. Once, when my family was out to eat, he pointed at a man with a button-down shirt. “He became the owner by staying in school. Compare him to the other employees running around with grease stains on their uniforms.” My dad was one of those underpaid employees working day and night shifts. No weekends. No vacation. No hope of a better opportunity.
I was afraid to end up living in my dad’s world. It was indisputable that education would be my sword to fight poverty and my shield against anyone questioning my American citizenship. I was convinced a college degree would prove to all Americans I belonged.
Inside my high school classroom, I felt safe and empowered. My effort mattered. Outside of the classroom, I felt unprotected and dispensable. Every circumstance out of my control wanted to tear me apart.
You need a driver’s license? Illegals can’t get licenses.
You need a job to help your parents with bills? Show me your Social Security card.
You need college grants? Congrats on your 4.0 GPA and getting accepted to The University of Texas. BUT the government does not grant money to students like you.
You need a student loan to go to college, but your parents cannot cosign? Find someone who will risk $10,000.
After multiple rejections from family members, Aunt Julia agreed to cosign my $10,000 loan. I reassured her she would never have to pay a cent. There was no way our country would allow students to graduate then go to waste.
During college it became more difficult to keep my legal status a secret. I fabricated pathetic tales of why at 19 I did not own a driver’s license, had not considered studying abroad, and did not seek scholarships or a job so I could stop taking out loans.
In 2010, there was a beam of light: The DREAM Act was a bill aimed at providing a legal status for qualified young undocumented students (aka DREAMers) who have been in America most of their lives and identify as Americans. DREAMers are the kind of citizens that America strives to create: educated, self-driven, and with no criminal activity.
On December 8 of that year, the bill passed the House of Representatives. For the first time, my dream to be a legal resident felt attainable! But my optimism was short-lived. Ten days later, the DREAM Act stopped at the Senate. We got 55 of the 60 votes required to push through the Republican filibuster.
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) was one of the senators who voted against the DREAM Act. During her undergraduate studies at The University of Texas, she walked through the same halls I did. In the same school year that Senator Hutchison voted against the DREAM Act, she gave her commencement speech to the UT graduating Class of 2011:
“America is proud of its heritage, of welcoming the best and the brightest from all over the world who seek to become citizens… to take leadership in our great country. It is what builds our country. If we always remember what binds us, America will remain the beacon of freedom to the world and a model of democracy for the world.”
Did she forget “what binds us”?
If America is “the beacon of freedom for the world,” my American story dims the beacon.
While my peers celebrated their internships and job offers, I questioned the value of my college degree. What was the meaning of my life, if I am thrashed for pursuing my dreams?
Two years later, President Obama passed the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy. DACA provides college graduates/students a two-year work permit, driver’s license, and temporary relief from deportation. DACA does not provide a path to a green card or citizenship. Every two years I must reapply and pay $495 for my DACA renewal.
With DACA, I got my first driver’s license. I graduated with a full-time job at the General Motors IT Center. I make three times as much as my dad. I started paying off my student loans and, of course, paying taxes.
I am grateful for DACA, but it is a temporary solution. DACA can be repealed with the swipe of a pen; launching a direct assault on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of 800,000 young Americans.
I recognize that not all Trump supporters are anti-immigrants, nor did they intentionally vote for Trump to sabotage DREAMers. In fact, a substantial number of Americans, across the political spectrum, have never heard of DACA or the DREAM Act — or even heard one DREAMer’s life story.
If I continue to allow our narrative to be written by individuals unfamiliar with DREAMers, we will continue to be seen as uneducated criminals who steal American benefits, give nothing in return, and refuse to assimilate. That narrative contradicts the perseverance and achievement required to qualify as a DREAMer.
Our country needs a permanent solution to defend the doctors, engineers, teachers, college students, and military members who are helping America fight diseases, unemployment, poverty, and terrorism.
Throughout history, America has failed to protect its most vulnerable residents. American flags are raised around the world in the name of freedom and democracy. Yet we hesitate to bring freedom to some of our own home-grown leaders.
Trump’s presidency promises a wealth of opportunities to champion the freedom and protection of individuals who are American in every way except legal status. America First? DREAMers are American first. It is a choice of whether to view DREAMers as one of your own.
It is not about “Us vs Them.” It is about the ligature that makes us one: our gratitude for the country that endorses the insatiable notion that we can pilot our own lives. Why waste time distracted by our disparate birthplaces instead of focusing on our connection? We are not assigned a home. By virtue of our toil, relationships, love, and countless forces out of our control, we create home.