One Undocumented Immigrant to the Other 11 Million
Why We Must Keep “Showing Up, Diving In, and Persevering” After Obama
“Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.” President Barack Obama, 2017
“I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America. And if you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us. Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.” Mr. Barack Obama, 2007
Then-candidate Barack Obama said these words as he announced his presidential bid in 2007 in Springfield, Illinois. I watched him say them from my bedroom in Maryland, where I was contemplating an uncertain future even while holding a highly-sought after Chemical Engineering degree. Tuesday night, sitting once again in that bedroom, I watched the president bid farewell to the nation, reminding us that “change only happens when ordinary people get engaged,” — his words palpable and relevant.
As a young Nigerian immigrant, four years out of college and no closer to working as an engineer, I felt that the candidate was making a personal request from my TV screen to me: He was a half black, half white, half Kenyan community organizer from Chicago, suggesting that I reach beyond my fearful and quiet existence as an unknown, undocumented immigrant, and take a stand. That would mean I had to step out of that protective shadow, where I hid my immigration status from everyone, and lived with persistent shame. That would mean I would have to speak up.
Before 2007, I seemed only capable of secretly mourning the existence that left me unable to use my degree. Having dreamed of being an engineer since I was eight years old, brought to the United States at the age of 14, and relentlessly pursued that dream until I held that diploma in my hands at the age of twenty-one, words fail me to express the heartbreak of such a dream deferred. As an undocumented immigrant, I could not accept any of the many job offers I received even though my training and talent proved me capable. I privately shed tears for the lost dignity of work and the ability to provide for myself. I silently said a prayer every time I left home — knowing that even with a valid driver’s license and a nearly perfect driving record, a traffic stop could uncover the truth of my immigration status. Then comes the march to an immigration detention facility where I would be chained like a criminal and deported to a country less familiar to me than the one that shaped my ideas of democracy, opportunity, and civic participation.
Nevertheless, in the face of all that could be lost, the gravest being separation from my family, I heeded then-candidate Obama’s call to take up the cause, march, and work. In 2008, I began working as an unpaid volunteer with the National Immigration Law Center. I was the first and only undocumented immigrant volunteering full-time in Washington D.C. advocating for the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to young immigrants, like me, who have grown up in the United States.
For years, I volunteered full-time advocating for passage of pro-immigrant legislation at the state and national level. I had no formal training in advocacy, policy or communications, so I spent every waking moment educating myself on the pertinent issues and creating opportunities to prove my competency. I worked diligently without pay for the cause, backed by my band of undocumented idealists. We founded the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation, the United We Dream Network (UWD).
To survive, I lived on what I earned doing odd jobs. I tutored math and science, edited books, and even created and sold my own line of organic hair care products. I rarely had enough to provide to the already strained household where I lived with my sister. As we, the Dreamers, told our stories, we decimated the false narrative of undocumented immigrants as a monolithic group of uneducated and ill-engaged individuals. Standing tall in the face of fierce opposition, we revealed a diverse, committed, commanding, and relatable group of immigrants.
In under a decade, I made the unlikely journey from an unemployed, undocumented chemical engineer to a respected immigrants’ rights advocate and an internationally recognized social entrepreneur. I founded the consulting firm that launched and managed a communications task force of 25 nonprofit organizations and labor unions instrumental in the 2010 passage of the DREAM Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the unprecedented support for the bill in the Senate. I co-founded Welcome.us — a charitable, non-political organization. As Welcome’s founding executive director, I helped establish June as Immigrant Heritage Month — a federally recognized celebration of our nation’s immigrant heritage.
I worked tirelessly on the 2013 U.S. Senate immigration bill, stood with the Senators in the bipartisan Gang of 8 at the introduction of the bill, and introduced President Barack Obama at the White House on the day the Senate began debate. When the president asked me to share my story, I felt that it was another call to arms to heed this legacy, and I took it.
The work I have done in conjunction with the president’s executive actions on immigration held promise to change my own immigration status. But once the Supreme Court failed to reach a decision on his initiatives, my status, along with that of millions of my peers, remains unknown. Many maintain that the president waited too long to act on immigration reform. Still, I am saddened that not only is he leaving us with unfinished business, but his successor has threatened to undo our work. The uncertainty we face threatens to return us to the shadows.
The incoming administration brings uncertainty for all immigrants, but since I have never believed in sitting silently when my voice could make a difference, I will continue to lend my perspective in support of efforts focused on immigrant integration, women’s empowerment, employment, access to technology, and education — whether in the United States or elsewhere. I’ll never let fear tempt me to retreat to the shadows again.
Eight years with President Obama taught us that better is possible. Better should be our mission, not simply survival.
For the next four years, immigration reform will be off the agenda. But there are other, important things to fight for. We can collaborate with nontraditional allies to protect the progress we have made. We can create political space for substantive conversations rather than the usual vapid political rhetoric. We can invite all hands on deck, from established immigrants to those newly arriving on our shores. We can protect the progress we have made, preventing further separation of families, and supporting the economic potential of hard-working immigrants.
To my fellow undocumented immigrants, I acknowledge that our fight is now longer and significantly harder. But, in the fight for our lives, and our destinies, we must agree not to fall victim to the colorless existence of the “paperless,” shrouded in fear and hidden in the shadows. I ask you now, as then-candidate Obama did ten years ago, to shake off your slumber, and slough off your fear — the time is now to use our collective voices to shed light on our plight. We must stand firmly to protect the progress we have made. And as we look towards an uncertain future, we must anchor our hopes to our battle-tested united strength to usher in a new birth of freedom.