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. 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.
Oumou Troure photo by Rania Matar
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?