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.
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 ever been “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.