I have been called “illegal” most of my life.
Coming to the United States without legal authorization somehow made me “illegal,” less than, and undeserving of basic human rights. To cope with it, I bought into the lie of merit: If I simply worked hard enough and did all the “right” things, I would become worthy. I always strived to be “good” — to not break any laws and to focus on school. But still, my worthiness never came.
People like me need people who care — people who will step up to change this false narrative, build relationships with us, and help us change unjust laws. This is even more important as COVID-19 exposes the vulnerability of our undocumented and DACA communities: Undocumented immigrants don’t have access to health care, will not receive stimulus checks, and cannot apply for unemployment.
And it makes the upcoming decision on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which the Supreme Court could hand down as early as next week — so much more consequential.
When President Barack Obama announced the DACA program in 2012, which allowed over 700,000 people like me to receive protection from deportation and a renewable work permit, I was led to believe that my efforts mattered. I felt like I could have an identity — that I was worthy. I held onto this idea even though DACA creates a liminal status that holds DACA recipients in a legal limbo: not fully undocumented and not fully citizens.
But despite DACA’s limitations, I felt like I could use this marginal opportunity to help my community. I kept pushing forward in hopes that one day I could merit citizenship. I applied to a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology. This was a leap of faith. I had no hope for financial aid and no guarantee that I would be able to practice as a psychologist once I graduated. Currently, I am in my 5th year of the 6-year program. And after President Donald Trump announced he was rescinding the DACA program, I joined 10 other plaintiffs in suing the administration. That case will now be decided by the Supreme Court. In the eyes of most people, I certainly have “earned” my worth. But my achievements are not enough for our immigration system, nor for those who use the legal system as a rhetoric to shun the “other.”
This merit-based narrative is insufficient. I am still vulnerable, and my future is uncertain. But I’m also painfully aware that “merit” is not the sole factor in my success. I have friends who have worked harder, and yet doors never opened for them. I have friends who don’t fit the narrative of the “perfect” immigrant who are just as human and deserving of justice as I am.
Thankfully, my faith, family, and community (Christian and non-Christian) have challenged the American narrative of merit-based worth. My deep faith in God reminds me of and nurtures my worth. Growing up undocumented, I didn’t know how to process the pain I felt in my heart. But I found wisdom in the Bible, where God promised, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” With this conviction to choose life, I pleaded that God would give me this new heart of flesh, to thrive in the midst of adversity.
In practice, this has meant taking a leap of faith. I allow others to really see me and love me. I risk rejection. I knock on every door possible and disclose my lack of status in the hopes of receiving help. I attend graduate school with no guarantee of finishing the program. I trust people that society says that I should not trust. I choose to believe that real human connection will make our world a better place. I look at my pain and process it instead of running away. I see the darkness and evil in our world and still choose life. I live in the constant tension of uncertainty and hope.
This childlike belief is what fuels my life.
Not everyone I meet will respond to my approach. There are even those who will use the Bible as a weapon in national politics. Closer to home, many people avoid me because I don’t censor how their privilege and lack of awareness affects my life.
Still, I have met enough people who are willing to do life with me from all walks of life, enough people who are willing to enter into the tension of their privilege and my lack of citizenship, enough people who are willing to challenge me to accept their love and call me out if I’m hurting them, and enough people who will allow me to do the same for them. They answer the door and welcome me.
It’s been awkward, painful, messy, and life giving.
Because of this, I hope our respective communities take a risk with vulnerability.
If you are undocumented or have DACA status: Knock on doors. Someone has to answer. While physical distancing is absolutely necessary during this COVID-19 pandemic, we can still connect through technology and continue to care for one another. Here are some resources that can help. Stay connected; don’t isolate yourself.
For those with citizenship: If you’re considering answering the door to let those with liminal status in but are afraid of the awkwardness of being in community with someone who is different from you, own the awkwardness and show up anyway. We need you to stop waiting for us to knock on the door. We need you to step up. Look around and you will find us in your faith communities, in your classrooms, in your work spaces. We need you to be in relationship with us, who are affected by unjust laws and policies. Only then will we be able to change them, together.