"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” —Mark 9:37, NRSV
I was raised in a family with strong beliefs in our faith. It is because of my faith that I continue to strive for a better future and do good to others. This is why I’m so passionate for my advocacy in education, regardless of gender, race, and immigration status.
When I lived in Mexico, I thought about America every day. To me, America was a country of freedom, a country where every dream could come true. My grandparents waited 12 years to get their visas. The wait was agonizing; every year we faced poverty and struggle in Zacatecas. With every year, my dreams of a better life in America got farther and farther away. The feeling of hopelessness was overwhelming and pushed me to attempt suicide.
In that moment, I turned to faith. My family came to my aid and helped me through. Knowing how desperate for opportunity I had become, my parents reached out to my aunt in the United States. Together, they saved enough money to pay for my visa application. I finally had a chance at a life outside of our small family farm.
It was the summer of 2009 when I finally arrived in America. I was 16.
I started school at North Cobb High School, the biggest high school in Cobb County, Ga. Within two years I was student body president and graduating with honors, sitting next to my principal at the commencement ceremony. It was a day to celebrate for most of my peers, but I was unable to share in the excitement.
My visa had expired, and I was unable to renew it due to lack of funds and family support. I had overstayed my visa and was now undocumented. As a senior in high school, I realized that I could not apply to my dream university, and all the effort I placed in my grades, extracurricular activities, and merits meant nothing. That feeling of desperation returned and again I turned to faith because I did not have immediate family to turn to.
The frustrations spurred me to create Freedom House, a nonprofit organization based in Georgia that advocates for education equality. I wanted to support students like me and provide them with an opportunity to succeed regardless of their immigration status. America means the right to pursue a better future.
If my immigration status weren't an issue, I’d be traveling, graduating college, and would probably be on the path to law school. My work in advocacy and in my community would have been exponentially stronger, and I may have even started my own business.
Our immigration system needs to be fixed for the 11 million undocumented individuals so they can come out of the shadows and live a life of dignity — while continuing to contribute to the fabric of America. Fixing the system would mean that high school students can pursue college degrees and would not feel the desperation of being unable to seize opportunities and work toward a better standard of living.
Why are students with so much potential prevented from contributing to the country they call home?
I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. I ask our country's leaders, what do you want to do with me?
Eduardo Samaniego is the Executive Director of Freedom House Georgia, an organization focused on advocacy for education and youth civic engagement.