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.

By Grace Talusan | Boston Magazine |
Oumou Troure

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?

Oumou Troure

Oumou Troure photo by Rania Matar

The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. Though it’s come close to becoming law, it never quite has. Two years ago the House passed the bill, but it fell five votes short of moving forward in the Senate. Massachusetts’ senators split on it, with John Kerry voting yes and Scott Brown no.

Over the years, variations on the act have also been put forward, most of them containing similar conditions for people who were brought to the country as children to be given legal status — graduation from high school, good moral character, and so on. Where they differ is in precisely who would be eligible and what the benefits would be. Some proposals call for a path to citizenship, while others don’t. Depending on how the eligibility is ultimately defined, the DREAM Act could benefit as many as 2.1 million undocumented children and young adults who were brought to the country before the age of 16.

The 2012 American National Election Study found that 44 percent of the country is in favor of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents, while just 25 percent say they oppose such a measure. Another 31 percent say they’re not sure. Still, this being an election year, there seems to be little momentum for any kind of sweeping reform of the country’s fractured approach to immigration.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” says the DREAM Act is a “political gimmick” masquerading as comprehensive immigration reform. “The point of it was to be able to say, ‘Here’s little Luis. He’s valedictorian of his high school. Lived here since he was two months old, knows no language but English, and his goal in life is to join the Marine Corps and kill American enemies.’ Therefore, all 12 million illegal aliens need some amnesty.” Krikorian says the DREAM Act is just too ambitious, but could pass if it were rewritten with significant changes, such as limiting eligibility to children brought to the U.S. before the age of seven. The problem with the act, he says, is “It was all or nothing for these guys, and now they have nothing.”

Krikorian is certainly right about one thing: Neither the DREAM Act nor any other serious proposal out there provides anything that looks like comprehensive immigration reform. And lacking any kind of federal leadership on the issue, the states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws of their own — many of them affecting young people who would be helped by the DREAM Act. While 14 states, including Rhode Island, allow eligible undocumented students attending public institutions to pay in-state tuition, Massachusetts does not. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, says the tuition issue in Massachusetts has been controlled by “those who are opposed to undocumented immigrants specifically and often immigrants more generally.”

Up in New Hampshire, the state Senate voted last month to compel students attending public colleges to swear in an affidavit that they are legal residents of the United States. And for their part, South Carolina and Alabama have passed laws prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public postsecondary education.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, deported a record 400,000 people last year, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) insists that it’s not going after young people who would be made legal under the DREAM Act. But a growing chorus of law professors is arguing that President Obama should not wait for Congress to pass the law. More than 90 of them signed a letter to Obama in May that insisted he has “clear executive authority for several forms of administrative relief for DREAM Act beneficiaries.” Harvard Law School professor Deborah Anker, who signed the letter, says Obama could help undocumented young people right now. “The president definitely has the power,” she says. The question is, Will he use it? (As it turns out, he will. The Obama administration announced June 15 that it will no longer deport young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and have stayed out of trouble. These kids may also be eligible for work permits.)

 

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.

 

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 everbeen “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.

grace talusan collage

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)

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/06/dream-act-immigration/