The Thing Is, I’m Undocumented

This is Oumou Troure. She's an all-American girl who grew up in Boston and loves the Celtics, playing the saxophone, and window-shopping on Newbury Street. She's also one of the 65,000 kids in the U.S. who graduate high school each year but aren’t legal residents.
Oumou Troure

Oumou Troure photo by Rania Matar

This is Oumou Troure. She’s an all-American girl who grew up in Boston and loves the Celtics, playing the saxophone, and window-shopping on Newbury Street. She’s also one of the 65,000 kids in the U.S. who graduate high school each year but aren’t legal residents. So even though she’s been accepted to college, she can’t get a loan to pay for it. She can’t get a job to support herself, either. When she tells me this, I step closer, ignoring my parents’ constant warnings to never talk about what I’m about to say — you can never tell who’s listening. “I know what you’re going through,” I whisper.

It’s Senior Grant Night at Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school for the performing and visual arts. Squirming in blazers and ties, the students stand in front of display boards and laptops, part of the presentations they’ve put together for arts programs they’re proposing to lead in city neighborhoods. Imagine a science fair without the science. Professionals from the community wander the classroom, evaluating the proposals.

Oumou Troure is rocking back and forth in kitten heels. Her display is bare-bones, some printouts pasted to a board, and she doesn’t look at the three of us judges as she explains her project, a combination jazz concert and storytelling event that involves undocumented teen immigrants talking about what life is like without papers. Oumou tells us that she’d like for her project to raise awareness about the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The proposed federal law, she says, would create a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants who’ve been living in the U.S. for years after they were brought here as children. Suddenly, Oumou falters and brushes tears from her face. “The thing is,” she says, wiping the tears on her pants,“I’m undocumented myself.”

We listen, captivated, as she tells us that she was born in Cape Verde in 1994 and lived there with her father while her mother traveled back and forth to the U.S. Her mother left the islands for good in 2000, sending for Oumou a year later, when she was seven. Oumou came to the States on a nonimmigrant visa for temporary visitors and began living life as an American. Virtually indistinguishable from a citizen, she pledged allegiance to the flag at school, made friends, and dreamed of having a career and buying a house. When her visa expired in 2006, she hardly noticed. Her life was here now.

But now at 18, after a decade in the country, Oumou is coming to understand exactly what it means to be here without documentation. It’s November, and in seven months she’ll graduate. When she does, she will be one of the 65,000 undocumented students who earn high school diplomas every year in the U.S. Lacking citizenship or legal residency, Oumou won’t be able to access federal financial aid for college, and she’ll be barred from joining the military or even working to support herself.

Oumou tells us that the DREAM Act would give individuals like her eligibility for conditional permanent resident status, a first step toward citizenship and everything that it provides. But there’s no telling when or if the act will actually pass and become law. Oumou says she has no idea how she’ll pay for college, but she’s going to fill out the applications anyway. It’s only autumn. Maybe something will change in the next year.

One of my fellow judges leans in and touches Oumou’s hand. “You’ve inspired us,” she says, promising to donate money to an immigration-advocacy organization. When the woman asks what else she can do to help, I want to suggest that she can pay Oumou’s college tuition while we all wait and see what happens with the DREAM Act. But I don’t. As the others move on, I step closer to Oumou, ignoring my parents’ constant warning to never talk about what I’m about to say. You never know who is listening. “I know what you’re going through,” I whisper. “When I was a high school student, I was undocumented, too.”

“Really?” Oumou exclaims. “You?”

Yes, me. I was a teenager when I learned from my successful physician parents that I was actually an “illegal alien.” America was the only country I knew, yet it turned out that I had no legal right to remain within its borders. It was a painful period, a time I haven’t thought about, much less spoken of, in years. I’ve had no reason to.

I tell Oumou to maintain hope, maybe the DREAM Act will pass. If it does, she won’t have to fear being detained every time she leaves home. She’ll get a Social Security number, a driver’s license, a bank account. She’ll be able to legally work and pay for higher education with financial aid. If it doesn’t pass, though, I know what she knows — that she’s probably screwed. Estimates are that just 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates attend college. Many end up working under the table in the cash economy. I know this. But it’s one thing to read statistics about undocumented youth and another to stand across from a wide-eyed high school student caught in this predicament. “You’ll be fine,” I assure her.

“I will?” she asks.

We exchange contact information. “Keep in touch,” I say. “If there’s anything you need….”

Oumou grasps my business card, jumping up and down as if she’s just won the lottery. She hugs me. I’m not really sure what’s going on. Has she misinterpreted my empathy for some kind of promise, a commitment to help?

I move on to the next student presentation, but I’m distracted. I glance at Oumou. She’s chatting loudly with friends, and a judge finally shushes them quiet. Later, as I walk out the school’s glass doors, I recall the anticipation I’d felt during senior year. While I didn’t know which colleges would accept me, I knew for sure I’d be going. But what would happen to Oumou?

Oumou Troure

Oumou Troure photo by Rania Matar

The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. Though it’s come close to becoming law, it never quite has. Two years ago the House passed the bill, but it fell five votes short of moving forward in the Senate. Massachusetts’ senators split on it, with John Kerry voting yes and Scott Brown no.

Over the years, variations on the act have also been put forward, most of them containing similar conditions for people who were brought to the country as children to be given legal status — graduation from high school, good moral character, and so on. Where they differ is in precisely who would be eligible and what the benefits would be. Some proposals call for a path to citizenship, while others don’t. Depending on how the eligibility is ultimately defined, the DREAM Act could benefit as many as 2.1 million undocumented children and young adults who were brought to the country before the age of 16.

The 2012 American National Election Study found that 44 percent of the country is in favor of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents, while just 25 percent say they oppose such a measure. Another 31 percent say they’re not sure. Still, this being an election year, there seems to be little momentum for any kind of sweeping reform of the country’s fractured approach to immigration.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” says the DREAM Act is a “political gimmick” masquerading as comprehensive immigration reform. “The point of it was to be able to say, ‘Here’s little Luis. He’s valedictorian of his high school. Lived here since he was two months old, knows no language but English, and his goal in life is to join the Marine Corps and kill American enemies.’ Therefore, all 12 million illegal aliens need some amnesty.” Krikorian says the DREAM Act is just too ambitious, but could pass if it were rewritten with significant changes, such as limiting eligibility to children brought to the U.S. before the age of seven. The problem with the act, he says, is “It was all or nothing for these guys, and now they have nothing.”

Krikorian is certainly right about one thing: Neither the DREAM Act nor any other serious proposal out there provides anything that looks like comprehensive immigration reform. And lacking any kind of federal leadership on the issue, the states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws of their own — many of them affecting young people who would be helped by the DREAM Act. While 14 states, including Rhode Island, allow eligible undocumented students attending public institutions to pay in-state tuition, Massachusetts does not. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, says the tuition issue in Massachusetts has been controlled by “those who are opposed to undocumented immigrants specifically and often immigrants more generally.”

Up in New Hampshire, the state Senate voted last month to compel students attending public colleges to swear in an affidavit that they are legal residents of the United States. And for their part, South Carolina and Alabama have passed laws prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public postsecondary education.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, deported a record 400,000 people last year, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) insists that it’s not going after young people who would be made legal under the DREAM Act. But a growing chorus of law professors is arguing that President Obama should not wait for Congress to pass the law. More than 90 of them signed a letter to Obama in May that insisted he has “clear executive authority for several forms of administrative relief for DREAM Act beneficiaries.” Harvard Law School professor Deborah Anker, who signed the letter, says Obama could help undocumented young people right now. “The president definitely has the power,” she says. The question is, Will he use it? (As it turns out, he will. The Obama administration announced June 15 that it will no longer deport young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and have stayed out of trouble. These kids may also be eligible for work permits.)

 

A few months after Senior Grant Night, Oumou and I get together at a downtown Boloco. It’s winter, and she’s dressed in a puffy jacket and earmuffs.

Since we met in the fall, I’ve been thinking about her. I know that even as the politicians continue to debate the DREAM Act, she’s going to graduate high school. And then what? She’s bright and motivated, but she isn’t a superstar student who’s going to get into Harvard and find private scholarships. Without access to financial aid, high school will probably signal the end of her formal education. She’ll have to support herself, but what kind of work is available for job seekers whose highest priority is that the employer doesn’t check papers?

And forget that hottest of graduation gifts, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! The geography of Oumou’s life will be contained within the U.S. — if she leaves the country she’ll be unable to return. Even domestic travel puts her at risk. Government agents have been known to board Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains for immigration checks, escorting off the undocumented. In 2010, then–Harvard sophomore Eric Balderas, brought to the U.S. from Mexico at age four, tried to board a domestic flight in Texas and was detained by ICE. After public outcry, he was not deported.

Oumou and I have had a series of conversations over the past couple of months. In time, I’ve come to realize that I want to write about her as a way of ­exploring the broader issue of ­immigration in this country. I’ve offered to conceal Oumou’s identity, but she wants me to use her name, to tell her story even though it scares her. Now we’re sitting in a booth eating wraps, and I notice that every time we say the word “undocumented,” we whisper it.

Oumou tells me her first impression of America was, “Wow, this place is beautiful.” There were so many bright lights and tall buildings. Her first meal in the U.S. was Chinese takeout, boneless spareribs with duck sauce, and to this day that’s what she orders at Asian restaurants. She learned English by watching television, and her only detectable accent today is that of a Bostonian. Oumou begged to be enrolled in school, and started second grade at the age of eight. She learned to play the clarinet and, when it was time for high school, was accepted at the Boston Arts Academy. For most of her life now, she has considered Boston home. But the truth is that at any moment she could be told to leave.

Making that even harder on her is that not even her family members can truly understand what she’s experiencing. Like untold numbers of the estimated 11.5 million people living in the country illegally, Oumou is from a mixed-status family. “Everyone is all set in my family except me,” she says. Her four half-siblings, also born in Cape Verde, were able to become U.S. citizens—her brother married an American, and her sisters were petitioned for by their father after he became a citizen. Recently, one of the sisters petitioned for permanent residency—a pathway to citizenship — for Oumou’s mother. Oumou wanted to have a sibling petition for her, too, but discovered that siblings are not considered immediate relatives, meaning the whole thing could have taken a decade or two.

Oumou tells me that during parts of her sophomore and junior years, she and her mother were homeless and wound up at a shelter in Waltham. (Her mother’s other children are all older and have their own lives.) She says she learned a lot from living there. For one thing, she won’t have children until she is financially stable. She tells me that her refrigerator is often empty, and that she sometimes relies on friends for meals. Then she says something that really rattles me.

“My aunt wanted me to ask you if she could adopt me and get me citizenship that way,” she says. I’m starting to realize that she might not understand my role. I explain that I’m not here to offer advice, just to write about her experience as an unauthorized immigrant. Something in the exchange affects me and, for the first time, I understand that if Oumou is going to reveal her story to me for print, it won’t feel honest if I don’t do the same. These days I vote and carry a navy-blue passport, so I can pretend I never knew what it was like to be threatened with losing the right to stay in the only country I have ever called home. Am I ready to out myself and, in the process, my parents? Even their closest friends don’t know their secret.

I struggle with the question for the next hour as Oumou and I sit inside the restaurant. She never takes off her jacket or earmuffs. If she needed to disappear quickly into the winter day, she could.

 

I’ve been driving in Dorchester for almost an hour and I’m lost. I’m supposed to meet Joe Ureneck, cochair of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, but I’m late, and that makes me uncomfortable. Ureneck leads a group that advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. He’s been quoted in the press opposing the DREAM Act and has said that anyone in the U.S. illegally should return to their home country. Since I’ve never met him, I can’t help wondering if he has something against immigrants — like me — in general.

Finally, I park behind Gerard’s restaurant in Adams Corner. I can see people eating inside the restaurant, but I can’t find the door. How did they get in? I can see that the restaurant exists, I just don’t know where to access it. Then I spot Ureneck, a gray-haired man in denim who’s waiting for me on a bench. He tells me to follow him. We enter a convenience store, pass gallons of milk and bags of corn chips, and come to another door inside the shop — the main entrance to the restaurant, hidden in plain view. As someone who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, this experience is familiar: There are just some things you don’t know you don’t know.

We settle into a high-top and Ureneck tells me that he doesn’t think much of the DREAM Act, which he calls “amnesty in disguise.” He doesn’t want to reward the lawbreakers already here or motivate new ones to come. As for Oumou and the millions of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., Ureneck has a solution. “Deportation,” he says.

We talk about his organization’s work in preventing unauthorized immigrants from receiving Massachusetts driver’s licenses and in-state tuition at public universities. Sitting across from Ureneck, I begin to wonder how he feels about my presence in this country. And soon enough, the conversation turns to me. Ureneck asks what my background is. I tell him my parents are from the Philippines and came to the country on a student visa. “Were you born here when your parents were on student visas?” he asks.

“No,” I say, tensing up. “I came over when I was three years old.”

“Legally?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him.

 

I was a teenager when my parents told me why I couldn’t visit my cousins in Canada during the summer, and why my older sister couldn’t travel to Japan on tour with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

That’s when it hit me: I was an illegal alien. My younger siblings, who had been born here, had a right to be in the country, but I didn’t. The future suddenly went dark. I could be deported to the Philippines, a location as unknown to me as Mars. I couldn’t fathom starting over in a foreign nation, even though that’s exactly what my parents had done by coming to America. I never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I suddenly was told I didn’t have it. That feeling has stayed with me ever since learning that, with a shuffle of papers, my life as I knew it could be lost. My parents said that we shouldn’t worry — the lawyer was working on it.

I decide to ask my mother about the period when we were undocumented, and she describes a term in the Filipino community called TNT, short for tago ng tago. It’s a Tagalog term translated literally as “hiding and hiding” — from immigration. She explains that we weren’t actually hiding because “Immigration knew where to find us.” There was plenty of documentation that we existed — my father had bought a house, started his own business, and paid taxes. When the student visa ­expired, he hired an immigration lawyer, but straightening out the paperwork dragged on much longer than he’d expected, and my parents, my older sister, and I were soon out of status, in administrative violation of the nation’s immigration laws. We were advised not to leave the country if we expected to be allowed back in.

And then President Reagan’s 1986 ­Immigration Reform and Control Act gave us a pathway. My father fired his lawyer and filled out our paperwork himself. We, along with 2.9 million other people, came forward. I was relieved to be given a temporary alien resident card, but so ashamed to have everbeen “an illegal” that I hid it behind my first driver’s license. In 1995, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and my college friends threw me a party. I blew out candles on an American flag cake striped in red strawberries, white cream, and blueberries. For the first time in years, I felt safe.