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.
The author at age three with her sister at McDonald’s (left); and the family’s first Christmas in Boston. (Photos courtesy of Grace Talusan)
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.