The Dreamers have been waiting for good news for a very long time. And although I’m happy that something has been done, Obama’s announcement to defer for two years the deportation of young people brought to the country as children is obviously politically driven.
We all know that he had the chance to make this decision a year or two ago, when he ignored calls to take action. But the fact that immigration has remained on the forefront of the political debate, to the point that Time magazine’s new cover story this week is about undocumented immigrants, is probably one of the most hopeful things that could happen.
Time had Jose Antonio Vargas, the Philippine-born journalist who came out as undocumented in a New York Times essay last year, write a story that is at the same time personal and very informative for millions of Americans who don’t really know how complex the immigration system is in this country.
I am moved by the courage Vargas and many other Dreamers demonstrate by outing themselves publicly. By confronting their demons and demanding that something be done to fix this broken system. By the kinds of questions Vargas has faced during the last year after he came out. “Why don’t you make yourself legal?” As if it were that easy!
For me too, this is personal. Over twenty years ago, I came to this country with a tourist visa and soon after I accepted a job with a company that processed an H1-B work permit for me.
A year later I traveled to Argentina to get my change of status stamped on my passport, a routine procedure, and the Chief of the Visa department at the American Consulate decided to cancel my tourist visa because I had decided to change my status.
In her eyes that meant I might want to stay in the U.S. This left my husband and me, (both in our early twenties) in limbo. We had a house, a car, my job in New York; and yet we were no longer allowed into the country.
What were we to do? We fought through all legal means, and eventually decided we had to come back no matter what it took. I loved my job and the beginnings of my life in the U.S.
Needless to say, it was a long, difficult, traumatic journey that started in Toronto and ended up in Tijuana where we met up with a Coyote – who a few years later was murdered – who guided us across the border at 3:00 o’clock on Mother’s Day one Sunday in May.
We were undocumented for three years in this country trying to figure out how to legalize our status.
During what were the most destabilizing years of my life, we bought an almost bankrupt company and made it successful, we paid taxes, and we spent many, many sleepless nights in fear for our future.
Until one day, our lawyer told us about the Diversity Lottery – a green card lottery designed to provide professional people who were in the country illegally with a path to legalization. There were 40,000 visas, 16,000 of which were reserved for the Irish, so only 24,000 were to be divided among dozens of countries. (Argentina was the only Spanish speaking country eligible that year.)
You were able to send as many applications as you wanted. My husband and I sent 200 each. Immigration received 17 million letters and I got one of those 24,000 visas. That’s how I got my green card, and five years later to the date I applied for my citizenship.
So you see, I know how it feels to have butterflies in your stomach all day long. Every time you get in your car and you fear you might get pulled over. Every time you see a cop driving behind you.
That’s why I understand why there’s a move to publicly acknowledge being undocumented. It’s liberating; it lets you breathe. It helps others understand why you act in certain ways, and hopefully it elicits their empathy and help.
Vargas is right when he says that if there are 12 million undocumented people in this country and each one is supported by 5 or 10 people who are American citizens, this is a problem that affects every single one of us.
Perhaps by putting a face to the stories, by explaining to our neighbors how complicated the process is to attain legal status, by sharing what all of us contribute to America’s economy, culture, and society while undocumented we might help get general support for immigration reform. Something that we need to do to honor the fundamental spirit of America and not for political gain.
Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women's careers.