There is a story which I rarely tell. I don’t tell it partly because I would ultimately feel I have to justify my existence because of it. However, I feel compelled to share it now to add to the conversation about the Dreamers, immigrants and what we, as a society, should aspire to be.
I was seven years old when my parents and I moved to the United States. We arrived after Independence Day in 1980, settled in Utah after spending a few days with family friends in California. My parents enrolled me in elementary school in August. I had an interview with the school’s principal who decided that I did not know enough English and held me back a grade. In the first few months, I experienced my first Autumn and the many colors of falling leaves, moved into our first apartment in America, celebrated my father getting work in a manufacturing company, and my mother as a seamstress in a garment factory. I looked into the sky with giddiness at my first snowfall. Fluffy cotton slowly drifted down from the sky. For a child who had only lived in the tropics, it was magical.
It was three years later when I understood that we did not have legal status. We moved to California, where my parents were promised a path to residency through an advertisement in a Thai language newspaper. The advertiser offered to sponsor them if they worked for her and paid her what turned out to be most of their savings. They later found out that she had no intention to do anything for them except to take their money. She did the same to a number of other families. When my parents confronted her, she threatened to report us to the INS. We lived with the anxiety of not knowing whether we could stay, or be discovered and deported, or give up and return to Thailand.
Our lives were put on hold. We did not feel like we could go back to Thailand and did not see much of a path forward in America. My life was consumed with reading as many English books and Thai periodicals as I could. I felt that I needed to be natively fluent in both languages because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. It was a way to cope with the feeling of the precariousness of our situation. We ultimately settled in Los Angeles. My parents decided that we could live quietly and hope that things would work out.
We were lucky though. We had social security cards, and my parents worked and paid taxes. There were fewer restrictions then. After the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, employment without proof of legal residency was criminalized. Undocumented immigrants could not get social security numbers required for work, income tax, and obtaining state identification cards. Immigrants who came later were not able to establish a semblance of a regular life in the same way we did.
I was thirteen years old when the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed in 1986. My parents followed the news closely. My father was fearful that this was a ruse, but started organizing our documents months before the bill was passed anyways. My brother was born that year. He was the first American in the family, and was very much a beacon for our yearning to live here. On the first day that applications were accepted, my parents pulled me out of class, and we spent the day in the local immigration office with hundreds of other families waiting to submit documentation of residency to the INS.
Before the bill became law, I did not think that I could go to college. We did not have the resources and our residency status made financial aid out of reach. My father simultaneously pushed me to do well in school and scolded me for focusing too much of my studies and not being handy enough. He said that I should learn to at least clean toilets well if college wasn’t going to happen. After the bill became law, all he talked about was how I should be a doctor. My mother did not care what I pursued, but believed that as long as we did good, we would be accepted. My father believed that we had to be twice as capable.
I graduated high school, matriculated at Brown University, and four years later, attained a bachelors degree in Computer Science. My senior year at Brown, I was naturalized and sworn in at Federal Court in Providence. Among the many faces of those who were naturalized with me that day, I was surprised to see the professor of the Physiology class I took a year or two earlier. I felt less alone.
Since then, I helped see my younger brother through college. I got married, bought a house, developed video game software, published an industry article, worked in a couple of start ups. I now work for a wonderful company doing web related development. I volunteered in immigration workshops helping limited English applicants with their paperwork. I helped organize alumni interviews of prospective students for my alma mater for a number of years. I joined the board of a non-profit community development center for eight years, supporting and funding for programs that help people start businesses, fight labor trafficking, and provide legal, health, housing and social services for residents in Los Angeles. I made many friends and colleagues through school and work. I gave when I could and saved what I could.
I consider my life to be thoroughly ordinary. I don’t take for granted the opportunities I have been given. I have been very fortunate. Everyday, I am grateful that things turned out the way they did. I hope that lives for Dreamers involve all the things that are ordinary. I am inspired by their courage to stand up and be counted as part of the fabric of this country. I am saddened that we require that they prove themselves more capable and good to be worthy of being here. We ask of them more than we ask of ourselves. I want us to be a country that aspire to be generous and compassionate, to be just and fair. I want us to be country of thinkers and doers, but more importantly, I want us to be a country of dreamers.