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.
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.