I walked into the San Francisco Immigration Court for my initial deportation hearing right before Christmas 2011. The courtroom was packed with immigrants mostly from India and Mexico, awaiting their deportation to countries they had left behind years ago. One by one, they stepped up; someone entered a plea for asylum, someone asked for more time, and many others accepted their fate: imminent separation from their family members. When they came to my name on the docket, I took a seat next to my attorney, fully prepared to hear and battle the charges against me.
WESTWOOD, CA – MAY 18, 2010: Students and supporters including Andrea Ortega, right, Prerna Lal, center, and Mayra (would not give her last name), left, hold signs during a press conference calling for passage of the DREAM Act, on a corner outside of the Westwood Federal Building. The DREAM Act would assist illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, a path to citizenship and make it easier for them to receive college degrees. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times).
To the average desi, illegal immigration is a “Hispanic” problem. Indeed, from the rhetoric that swirls around this issue, one gets the sense that every undocumented immigrant has skulked across the Mexican border at night, desperate to milk the American welfare state and steal good old American jobs (an argument whose efficacy seems to be uncorrelated with its inconsistency!) But the undocumented have many stories to tell—of escaping persecution in their homeland, of arriving as employees and staying on past their visa expiry dates because of their ties to this country, of unscrupulous employers and terrible immigration attorneys mishandling their cases. Or, as in my case, arriving as a child and “aging out” before I could petition to change my status. And yes, Indians cross the border from Mexico too. After Latin Americans, Indians are the largest group of immigrants caught at the Southwest border. And we’ve been doing this since the late 1800s—entering the United States without inspection through Mexico and Canada.
The Notice to Appear (NTA) document read, “She entered the country around November 13, 1999 and was authorized to stay till November 10, 1999.”
The Honorable judge smiled. “Well, obviously that is wrong. Would you like to suggest a friendly amendment?”
The government lawyer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not clear. It says in my files that she entered at or around May 2000. Is that not true?”
The attorney assigned to represent me looked sideways at me with her eyebrow raised. I returned the raised eyebrow and shook my head.
“That’s not true,” she countered.
“In that case, I don’t know what the facts are,” the government attorney declared in apparent frustration.
I don’t blame him. A lot has happened in the past 13 years that his job as a prosecutor would never allow him to consider beyond arrival and departure dates.
From what I can recall, I was around 14 when my father decided to pack our belongings and move us to the San Francisco Bay Area all the way from the islands of Fiji. He said he was running away from years of ethnic violence against Indians in Fiji. The rest of us did not have his sense of urgency but he wanted out and it didn’t matter if anyone else understood. I’ve often wondered about his reasons but no longer think the question holds any relevance.
The 2010 March For America. Photo by Judy G. Rolfe.
Cold dreary weather gave me a warm welcome to the United States. We came to live with one of my uncles in Hayward, CA. I was enrolled in a public high school and expected to pick up right where I had left off, as if nothing had changed. My grandmother—a U.S. citizen—filed papers for us and I was told not to worry about immigration matters. My older sister had been studying here on an F-1 student visa and there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t do the same upon graduation from high school, and then eventually adjust my status to a green-card holder.
In hindsight, South Asians would ask me why I wasn’t smart enough to just stay on a student visa. It’s actually illegal to attend a public high school in the United States on an F-1 visa without compensating the school, and I couldn’t afford that. Besides, I was a dependent on my father’s visa and attended high school legally. I ended up graduating near the top of my class with admission to attend several reputable schools but discovered that I was unable to accept any of the offers because the newly formed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied my application for a student visa.
Apparently, the visa petition filed by my grandmother when I was brought here was evidence of immigrant intent. In order to be an F-1 international student, I had to prove ties to my former country. USCIS emphatically declared in their denial letter that I was unable to prove any ties to Fiji and that the visa petition filed for my parents by my grandmother meant that I intended to live here. The irony in all of this is that had they allowed me to study here in legal status, I would have probably left the country after college. However, because I started to accrue “unlawful presence” due to the visa rejection, leaving the country triggered a senseless 10-year ban. I became someone who could neither live here nor leave here. I became undocumented.
That is how a lot of South Asian immigrants live in America. We make up a significant number of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States but we are also conditioned to stay silent and remain fearful about our status. For a long time, I lived in fear of my life. Afraid to go to hospital when I broke my hand, afraid to talk about the abuse I underwent at home, afraid to ask for help if I was involved in an accident, afraid to tell teachers and friends in college that I was undocumented and needed financial support, afraid to apply for jobs or seek scholarships out of fear that someone would find out and report me to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
My mother constantly told me not to worry about my immigration status. According to her, all I had to do was work hard and go to school, and things would eventually sort themselves out. With the little money she had saved up from cleaning hotel rooms and working a fast-food job, she bought a small cleaning business. She enrolled me in a local community college. The college was more than happy to take me even without the proper immigration paperwork.
I would go to school in the day and work for the cleaning business till the crack of dawn. I didn’t have work authorization. I was paying out of state tuition for school with no access to student loans. I could not drive so I would bike and take public transportation up to six hours daily to get to college. I had no identification besides a passport with a photo that no longer resembled me, so I could not travel. For a long time, I dealt with these barriers by compartmentalizing them and throwing myself into my studies.
I worked hard and somehow graduated from college and graduate school before I was 22.
By then, I had spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder, waiting for the axe to come down on the life we were leading in this country. Fortunately, my parents finally became eligible for a green card and we went to a lawyer’s office to file for adjustment of status.
Then a new wrinkle appeared.
“What do you mean, she aged out?” my mom asked the lawyer, perplexed.
“She is too old now to qualify for a green card with you. You would need to file for her again separately, after getting your green card. She will have to wait in line again. Alternatively, there’s always the DREAM Act (a piece of proposed legislation that would give certain undocumented youth brought to the United States before the age of 16 a pathway to legal residency).”
“How many more years does she have to wait? She has already waited 8 years for her green card.”
“7-8 more years. There is no way to tell. Maybe she should consider getting married.”
“I keep telling her to find a boy,” my mother said, agreeing with the lawyer.
“She has plenty of time. Just make sure he is a U.S. citizen.”
It hurt. Up to that point in time, I had kept quiet about the fact that I was gay. I’m sure my parents knew but they refused to acknowledge it. Depressed, lonely, and frustrated with living multiple lies, I tried to kill myself on several occasions. When my mother and sister started to look for prospective husbands for me, I decided that the only way to put an end to it was to be as out as possible. The best way to protect myself was to break through the barrier of invisibility. And that was the first step to breaking my chains.
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a proposal that was first introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2001. This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented youth of good moral character who graduated from U.S. high schools or gain a GED, arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning, they would obtain temporary residency for a six year period.
The legislation went nowhere for several years and was later tied to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 1348) as low-hanging fruit. With the failure of “comprehensive reform” legislation, Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chief proponent of the DREAM Act in the Senate, made its passage a priority for his office.
In October 2007, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act once yet again, I met other undocumented youth like me on an online portal, who were willing to do more than just sit around in fear and live in the shadows. There was Mohammad Abdollahi, brought here from Iran at the age of three, whose attorney had filed the wrong fee for his dad’s work visa and then failed to appeal the adverse decision, which made the entire family undocumented; Kemi Bello, brought here at the age of six from Nigeria by her mom because her severely handicapped sister could only get medical treatment in this country. I found and created family in these students. Little did I know that the family I was created through email, GChat, Facebook, and phone conversations would evolve into an entire network of fierce and envied immigrant rights activists in just a few short months.
With the little cash I had from doing odd jobs, I bought a web domain—DreamActivist.org—and started working on building a website to act as both a resource and action center for undocumented youth. The Internet allows users to be anonymous, so it was a safe way to gather and share our stories while protecting our identities, meet other undocumented youth in the same state and forge friendships as well as alliances. I traveled to dozens of states, teaching undocumented youth across the country how to use the web and social media to share their stories. Immigrant rights organizations started noticing our growing network and reached out to us to speak at events and conferences across the country. After all, we were building the very base that they purport to fight for and support with their money. Currently, we have more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook, and over 100,000 members on the mailing list and growing—a network that even multi-million dollar immigration reform campaigns have been unable to match.
With the support of an entire community behind me, I was no longer afraid to take on the system. So when the largest newspaper in the country, USA Today, decided to brand us as “illegal students,” I wasn’t going to allow them to get away with it. The label “illegal” has a way of dehumanizing the person involved, and from there it is a quick step to creating an unknown and amorphous bogey man who is responsible for all the ills befalling citizens.
I directed thousands of emails and calls to the newspaper asking them to change their discourse. A retraction was printed within days and the reporter quit her job a little later.
Inspired by the small campaign, Colorlines, a news site focusing on issues of racial justice, launched their “Drop the I-word” campaign, asking media professionals to stop using the word.
Through my work, I found other undocumented South Asian students in various parts of the country. One such student was Taha, who was brought here at the age of two and lived in New Jersey for 16 years. He was being deported back to Bangladesh in less than a week. But due to the shame and stigma of being undocumented, his family wanted no media exposure. We had to launch a behind-the-scenes campaign, urging his Senators to stop his impending deportation and directing a few thousand faxes to the Department of Homeland Security.
Senator Robert Menendez wrote to the Department of Homeland Security on Taha’s behalf, requesting that they defer action on Taha’s deportation because “our nation benefits more by his presence than by his absence.” Indeed, one recent UCLA study estimates that between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period by DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining resident status through the legislation.
A week later, at a June 2009 United We Dream governance convening, I learned that Taha and his family had been granted deferred action—a stay of removal that authorizes a person to live and work in the United States.
That amazing realization that we could now stop any deportation holds mostly true to this day.
Since then, immigrant rights organizers and attorneys across the country have banded together to halt deportations in similar cases. Every week, friends, families and organizers gather to fax, email, call, and arrange meetings with officials in the Obama Administration.
Some of this momentum has led to the formation of new organizations with numerous local alliances, such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) in Chicago. Undocumented students have started to realize that their growing numbers and visibility actually help their cause. Undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic is the new mantra of the movement.
As part of this movement we attend City Council hearings, organize educational workshops for community members, hold rallies, and lobby legislators to support the DREAM Act. The more courageous ones partake in civil disobedience actions—from hunger strikes to shutting down streets to occupying Congressional offices to placing themselves in detention to gather evidence of ICE abuses against detainees.
Out in the open, nothing seems to be impossible. We have stopped hundreds of deportations. We have found ways to get undocumented youth employed by creating limited liability companies. We have created Undocuhealth.org to battle the shame, stigma, and stress of being an undocumented youth. And I have embarked in my own form of civil disobedience—placing myself in deportation proceedings while attending law school in the nation’s capital.
Given the current immigration court backlogs in San Francisco and the pending litigation with regards to my case, I probably won’t be scheduled for an individual deportation hearing till 2015. By that time, I should actually be able to get a green card through my mother. Till then, I am “an alien authorized to work” in the United States.
I did pay a heavy price. My mother was hospitalized upon hearing about my impending deportation and she is now suffering from depression. My father does not speak to me because I am openly gay. As a poster child for the DREAM Act, I have a tougher time gaining and keeping employment because people assume that my undocumented status means that I don’t have work authorization or clearance, which is a classic case of job discrimination.
I’m not writing this to garner widespread sympathy or empathy regarding my deportation. I am writing this story to ask everyone to live their lives as honestly and openly as possible because living in the shadows and hiding our problems doesn’t do anything for us as a community. My experience has clearly shown me that finding people in the same situation as me and working together to fight the system has been tremendously successful.
Some would deride my personal journey and battle as a sense of entitlement. Some would extoll the courage and conviction I have displayed in the face of adversity. I’d peg it down spending half my life figuring out how to keep my family together by making a broken immigration system work for us. I sometimes question whether the struggle has been worth it but my dream is to sit on the beaches of Fiji sipping coconut water with a green-card in my wallet.
Prerna Lal is a law student at The George Washington University Law School and the co-founder of DreamActivist.org. She can be reached atPrerna@dreamactivist.org