Last week would have been the 71st birthday of my mother who was tragically killed abroad 15 years ago. Because of my undocumented status, I still have not been able to visit her grave site. This experience is all too common in the undocumented community. This is one of the many reasons why, despite the fact that I am an American by default, I struggle with my connection with this country and with the very concept of citizenship.
My mother brought me here legally when I was 9 in 1985 after fleeing our home country of Senegal following a painful estate dispute once my biological father passed away. She found work as a diplomat at the United Nations, and I came here as her dependent. I then attended high school at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and thus switched to a student visa. I continued my education in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania for two years but had to leave because I couldn’t afford the tuition. My mother was in Zimbabwe then and I couldn’t afford going to join her. Unfortunately, neither my diplomatic visa nor my student visa statuses count towards getting a Green card. When I left school, my status lapsed, and I became undocumented. Three years later, my mother was killed — a victim of domestic violence. With no “home country” to go back to and no way to adjust my status, I had to adjust myself to a life in the shadows.
I’ve always been passionate about service and social justice, so decided to join a Catholic Worker house of hospitality. During that time, I was exposed to the tradition of nonviolent activism, and I have spent my time trying to be a positive asset to my community by working at a homeless shelter and volunteering at numerous projects like Habitat for Humanity and an AIDS clinic. Inspired by the Jesus of the gospels, I eventually became an anti-war and social justice organizer. I am currently on the steering committee of the Syracuse Peace Council, the oldest anti-war grassroots organization in the country, and work with two other community groups in Syracuse: the Workers’ Center of Central New York, and the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, an interfaith progressive community group.
I have lived in this country for 25 years now. The reason that I say that I am American by default is that it is simply true. If I were to tell someone that I was Senegalese, I would feel like a liar. In fact, were I to be deported, I would always feel like an American-in-exile. Though I have distant relatives in Senegal, my only close family member is in this country — a U.S. citizen, currently applying for a Green card for me. However, under the current system, I’m still looking at about a nine-year wait. And I’m one of the lucky ones: at least I have a path to legalization. Most undocumented people I know do not. The cultural dislocation of being sent to a country that I haven’t set foot in since I was 10 would be intense.
But my story is far from unique. For the past seven years, I have been organizing on the immigration issue, and it has been both a transformative and painful experience. At first, even as an undocumented person myself, I had internalized the idea that I myself was “illegal,” that my very existence was a crime and that I did not deserve a home. I lived in constant fear. Then, I worked on a few cases of individuals in Syracuse facing deportation. We did everything the system has taught us to do: wrote petitions, organized protests, contacted our congressmen and women, got the media involved, etc. In almost every single case we lost.
Most of the folks who ended up being deported were local farm workers whose only “crime” was to work on the farms that provide this country’s food. Being introduced to this country’s deportation machine convinced me that the immigration system in this country is utterly broken.
I started to ask myself deeper questions about this immigration system, its role within the context of the larger prison industrial complex (with private prisons profiting from the massive incarceration of both migrants and mostly U.S. citizens of color), and the meaning of citizenship itself.
What does citizenship mean, for example, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, or a poor person in Detroit who is too poor to pay for water services while rates have skyrocketed?In my organizing, I’ve been trying to emphasize that it is important to create solidarity between poor undocumented workers and poor U.S. citizens who are all suffering from the economic policies of the past 30 years.
Ironically, my own organizing has been informed by great Americans who have struggled with the meaning of this country like legendary figures Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer. In a sense, perhaps my very tension with the American project, my desire to wrestle with it, to make its ideals a reality, might be the most “American” thing about me.
The reason that I joined the #1of11Million campaign in hopes the president would offer relief to some of the 11 million of us who are here. Deferred Action [for Childhood Arrivals] was a start, but it is not enough. America needs to live up to its heritage as a country of migrants.
I ask our country's leaders, what do you intend to do with me and the other 11 million who are already contributing to this country?
Aly Wane is an established community organizer in Syracuse, New York. He originally came to the U.S. as the son of a diplomat that worked at the United Nations. He eventually traded his diplomat visa for a student visa and completed his studies with a BA in Political Science from Le Monye College in Syracuse. He missed the age cut-off for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and is filing affirmatively for Deferred Action consideration.