The Thing Is, I’m Undocumented
It’s springtime, just a few months from Oumou’s graduation, when she and I meet at a café near her home. She tells me that her mother knows an Angolan man with U.S. citizenship who, for a fee, will marry her. Her mother can raise some of the money, but Oumou would need to come up with the rest.
“Don’t,” I immediately blurt out, before Oumou can tell me that she’s already refused this option. She doesn’t want to commit fraud, and besides, she hasn’t even started dating. She leans back in her chair and stares at the table. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do when school ends — babysit, clean homes, whatever. She looks depressed. She’s sitting right next to me as we sip smoothies, but she seems far away. “Sometimes,” she says, “I just don’t want to be here anymore.”
“You’ll go back to Cape Verde?” I ask, recalling that awkward moment from a recent GOP debate when Mitt Romney advocated “self-deportation.” I worry about what will happen to Oumou if she takes a one-way flight back to Cape Verde. She doesn’t have anyone there except for her father, whom she speaks to by phone every few years.
Oumou shakes her head. That’s not what she meant. “Sometimes I feel like it’s not worth living,” she says. “I regret that I was even born. I’m not going to be born into a world where I’m not even going to have rights to anything. I don’t have the right to work, to go to school, to get a license.”
A few days later, she calls me. She’s been crying all day at school. Graduation is so close. I feel helpless, but also conflicted. In writing about her experience, I’m supposed to be disinterested and detached, but I can’t turn her away. Perhaps like no one else, I understand what she’s feeling.
I was fortunate enough to have been born to parents who could pay my college tuition out of pocket, and I was lucky to have had Reagan give me a pathway to citizenship. If not for that, I would have been like Oumou, unable to have the full adult life I’d earned, living in constant fear of deportation. I can feel myself crossing a line, but I make appointments anyway with people who might have answers, and I invite Oumou to come along. I think I’m helping.
It’s 8 a.m., and Oumou is texting me. Only yesterday she got the money to turn her phone back on. I haven’t heard from her in a while, even by e-mail, because the neighbors with WiFi within range of her bedroom were late paying their bill this month. Now she’s texting me to make sure I’m still meeting her at UMass Boston later that afternoon. The last time we spoke, Oumou told me she was going to give up pursuing funding for college, even though she’d been accepted to several schools. A year’s tuition might as well have been a billion dollars. I was surprised by how that affected me. She couldn’t just give up on herself like that, I told her. I encouraged her to head out to the UMass campus and ask if they could help. So today we’re going to ask an admissions counselor if there’s any way Oumou can attend the school even if she has no way of paying.
Oumou’s anxious texts start again an hour and a half ?before the meeting. School’s just let out; she’s waiting for the T; she’s at the JFK stop now; she’s stepping onto the campus shuttle; she’s too cold outside the campus center because she left her jacket at a party over the weekend, so where should she wait? When we finally meet up, Oumou’s wearing a thin pink cardigan and her hair is slicked into a bun. She appears years older and, but for her “I Heart Boobies!” bracelet, part of a breast cancer campaign aimed at teenagers, could be mistaken for someone who works on the campus.
“Where do we go?” she asks.
I point to the sign in silver letters — Admissions — right in front of us and try to hide my impatience. I’ve never seen her this riled up before. The admissions counselor tells us that Oumou’s SATs are slightly low, but her grades are strong, so if she successfully completes a special summer program she’ll be guaranteed a spot in the fall class. She tells him she wants to attend, but that she has to pay out-of-state tuition, even though she’s lived in the neighborhood most of her life. Finally getting that she’s undocumented without her ever actually saying so, he suggests we visit “The One Stop,” a centralized office for students to take care of their accounts and registration. There’s hope: Someone in the next office will show her how to pay for college. Oumou’s relieved as we walk to the One Stop, but her smile fades as soon as she hits the desk. The woman working doesn’t even want to hear Oumou’s question until she hands over identification. Oumou fumbles for her high school ID and the woman hands it back. “I need government-issued ID,” she says.
“I don’t have one,” Oumou says.
“Then let me type in your Social,” the woman says.
“I don’t have one,” Oumou says. She’s squeezing her forehead and covering her eyes with her hand.
“How can you not have a Social Security number?” the woman asks. Oumou backs away from the desk, teary. The woman doesn’t see a foreigner, but a young black woman much like herself. She sees an American. As I spend more time with Oumou, I’m growing increasingly confused about my role. Am I a journalist or an advocate? But Oumou is crying right now, so I speak up.
“She’s a newly accepted student, but she won’t matriculate until the fall semester,” I say. “She wants to find out how to pay for college.”
“Just fill out a FAFSA,” the woman says. Actually, Oumou has tried to fill out that financial aid form online, but the program never allows her beyond the field where she’s supposed to enter her Social Security number. We’re sent upstairs to the scholarships office, but we don’t get past the reception desk, where the woman tells Oumou that she needs to figure out her immigration status first.
Worn out and discouraged, we sit in silence for 10 minutes on a bench near the elevator. All my help has resulted in a futile scavenger hunt through the campus center. I’m realizing that this might not end well for Oumou, and I’m feeling guilty that I ever got her involved.
In March, I set up a meeting with someone I knew in high school, Jeff Rubin, who these days is an attorney with an immigration practice in Government Center. His desk is covered with stacks of file folders, and he has 55 people to call back before the end of the day. It’s already after 4 on a Friday afternoon.
He picks up a sheet of paper from his desk and dials the phone number for ICE, keying in information to check on a court date for a client. He explains to me that this same service allows you to find out if you have a deportation order, even if it’s 20 years old. Immediately, I flush red. “I could have old deportation orders?” I ask. What would that mean?
Rubin offers to run my alien number, and all the fear and anxiety come right back. I’m here to ask advice about Oumou, but I’m distracted by what might be out there concerning me. Rubin leans back in his chair and laces his fingers behind his head. “You’re being paranoid,” he says. “If you’re a citizen already, they can’t take it away from you.”
His next client comes in, 17-year-old Nelson Perez from East Boston. He would also be eligible for the DREAM Act if it passed. Perez sits across from Rubin’s desk and says, “Every time I come here, I feel nervous that something bad will happen.”
Rubin assures Perez that everything will work out. Later, I ask Rubin how he can be so confident. He says that he has memorandums from ICE stating that DREAM Act–eligible youth are not priorities.
Any advice for Oumou? “Hire an immigration lawyer,” he says. Not a bad idea, actually, for people who can afford one.
A few weeks later my reporting leads me to a free legal clinic that’s put on by the Irish International Immigrant Center. I’ve really started to wonder by now whether I’m actually making things worse for Oumou, unfairly raising her expectations. But I realize that she’s never spoken to a lawyer about her case before. So I ask whether she wants to come along with me.
We enter the Green Briar pub in Brighton, where the clinic is being held. We’re an hour early and it’s empty. The waitress, who seems to know why we’re here, nods toward a set of wooden doors. We walk through and find about 20 people already in the room. When a young man storms out in a huff, swinging the doors hard behind him, we look at each other and laugh nervously. We wait two hours for Oumou’s turn.
Hanging in the air is Oumou’s awareness that there may be a kind of awful finality to what she learns today. The volunteer lawyers we’ll be meeting with know immigration law. Bad news from them might spell the end of hope. I suddenly find myself revealing something very personal. After finding out that I carried the genetic mutation for breast cancer, I tell Oumou, I had a preventive mastectomy several years ago. “Some of my cousins won’t test,” I tell her. “They’d rather not know. But I think it’s better to know, even if it’s bad news. That way you can prepare.”
At last we’re called in. We sit down with the two volunteer lawyers and they read Oumou’s paperwork. Oumou asks whether her aunt could adopt her, but it turns out that option expired when she turned 15. Sure, her sisters could petition for her, but given the way the system works, that could take years, even decades. One of the lawyers looks up from Oumou’s paperwork. “Why doesn’t your mother petition you?” he asks. “She’s a permanent resident and once she becomes a citizen, she can.”
“I just turned 18,” Oumou responds, “so I’m not a minor anymore.”
The lawyers explain that as long as Oumou is younger than 21 and unmarried, her mother can petition for her once she becomes a citizen. I’m stunned by the news. I ask the lawyers to check with the other attorneys in the pub, just to be certain. One of them returns. “Yes,” he says. “Twenty-one.”
I grab Oumou’s arm. “Did you hear that?” I say.
I’m amazed how simple the solution for Oumou turns out to be. I’m able to find a government website that confirms the information in seconds. And yet, for years, Oumou believed she had no solution. She disclosed her problem to very few people because she worried that someone would betray her and she would be arrested. When she did ask advice from people she trusted, she was told to self-deport or to marry a citizen. She didn’t know that organizations like the Irish International Immigrant Center existed, or that all across the city free legal clinics and citizenship classes have helped people navigate the country’s complex immigration system and learn their rights. As an unauthorized immigrant, she assumed she had no rights. And when someone doesn’t believe she has rights, she doesn’t ask for help even when she’s in danger. She sits alone in her room, listening to music. She considers her options, none of them good, and contemplates suicide. She doesn’t ask the right person the right question at the right time, and her window of opportunity closes.
A few weeks later, Oumou hears more good news. In July, she will begin Northeastern University’s Foundation Year, a first-year college program for high school graduates from Boston. She’ll get the support she needs to succeed in higher education. She is the first in her family to finish high school, let alone attend college. Until now, she has never dared to dream, but today she aspires to become a clinical psychologist. She wants to help others who feel trapped by things they can’t control.
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