HITTING THE PAPER CEILING — ‘I AM AN UNDOCUMENTED HUMAN’
EDITOR’S NOTE: A young undocumented Mexican immigrant says not having a piece of paper can change your whole life and put dreams on hold. Diego Ramirez, 21, works for the Youth Communications Team of New America Media. His name has been changed. Third in a series of articles on growing up undocumented.
SAN JOSE, Calif.–I fall into the category of being an undocumented human. It’s a concept I can’t grasp. I don’t understand why holding a piece of paper would change who I am. But not holding it changes everything about what I can do now that I’ve hit adulthood.
I came here when I was five years old — my mother paid a “coyote” to take us across the border from Mexico. I’ve always gone to school in this country, from kindergarten through community college, but when it came time to transfer to a four-year university, I discovered I’d reached the end of the line.
People think, “You’re not going to college because you’re not smart enough,” but it’s not that. I had good grades, I ran track, I do a lot of community work — I got into a number of schools. But I can’t get financial aid because of my status. I’m 21 years old and I’ve hit a wall.
When you’re an immigrant child, the dream of your parent is for you to do the best you can. My mom wants that fulfillment of being able to say, “My son went to a university.” And I’d like to give it to her. It’s hard for her to accept that I’ve gone as far as I can.
My first sense that my opportunities would be limited because of a piece of paper came when I was 8 years old. I had a best friend who was really privileged, and he invited me to go to Italy with him and his family. I was really excited, until I found out that I couldn’t leave the country. Without a U.S. passport, I wouldn’t be able to come back.
I’d hear of raids in other places and I’d have visions of that happening, and what I would do. It’s something you have no control over — tomorrow you could wake up and your parent’s missing. Now that I’m older I can be more self-sufficient, but when you’re a child, it’s just a horrible feeling. No one can comfort you.
When you first hear the term “illegal alien,” there’s no way to understand it except that you’re a criminal. You’re seen as “something else.” Then your mind has to process the idea that you’re not human — because that’s how you feel, dehumanized. “You’re not the same as me. Even though we walk and talk and eat the same, you’re not the same. You don’t have the same rights.”
That’s when I started to create this lie within myself. All through high school, I didn’t tell anybody that I wasn’t legal. I came up with this lie that I had committed a crime and that’s why I wasn’t able to get a driver’s license. When it came to traveling, my excuse was that I didn’t have any money.
Eventually, I got to an age where I said, “There’s no need for lies.” I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t make a decision to break the law. At age 5, I wasn’t thinking, “Let me go invade this country and give them my tax dollars!” Even today, people will say to me, “Why don’t you just go back now? Maybe it wasn’t your decision to come, but now that you’re an adult, just go back and undo the crime.” But how can I go back to a place I barely remember?
My mom is optimistic — she’s always coming into my room saying, “Look, they’re gonna pass a law, you’re gonna be able to drive!” Or “Guess what, they’re passing a law and you’re gonna be able to get help with college!” Then it doesn’t happen.
I try not to think about that stuff so I don’t get my hopes up. But I’m always trying to figure out ways to be able to cross over and visit my family in Mexico. My mom is the youngest out of eight sisters and one brother, and except for her and my aunt, they are all in Mexico. My father is too, so I don’t know my family. I don’t know my roots. It makes me feel like an incomplete human being.
College students I know go and get drunk in Tijuana and they walk right over. I don’t want to be thinking, “OK, what can I buy, what can I forge?” just so I can go visit my family and then come back to my life. But that’s the reality — to see my family, to be complete, I’d have to start thinking like a criminal.
By law, I’m not allowed to get a job, but I’ve always found ways to work — everything from the stereotypical dishwasher to graphic design. I pay taxes, and my mom has paid taxes since the minute we got here. We’re not draining something from the economy.
I’ve always felt that other immigrants from European countries are seen as dreamers — they’re doing that American dream thing. They came as immigrants and they’re gonna strive for a business, but if want to do the same thing, I’m seen as a burden.
I don’t want to take anything from the government. I just want to be able to be a human, you know? I have the will; I just don’t have the way.
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