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.
"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.
My name is Tabitha Sookdeo, and I’m 20 years old. I was born in a third world country called Guyana. When I was 13 days old, I immigrated to Saint Maarten — a beautiful island in the Dutch Caribbean. From here appeared a foreshadowing of struggles. My father lived on the island for more than 20 years, and they never issued him an opportunity to get his citizenship, much less a status of permanent residency. However, he legally owned a construction business and paid taxes. When I turned 13 years old, the government refused to renew my stay. I attended school from kindergarten to 8th grade. I spoke their language of instruction, and I was recognized by the government as a top student. My family even helped to run a local ministry.
To move back to Guyana would be regression. Our lawyer recommended that we come to the U.S. so that my sister and I could go to school, because I was not allowed to attend high school on the island due to my legal status.
I admit it: A few years back, when I first heard about the E-Verify program, I thought it sounded reasonable. The program was described to me as a way for employers to voluntarily verify the U.S. citizenship of their employees by cross-checking their information with the online databases of the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security administration. I knew that there were flaws in the system, which sometimes misidentified workers as undocumented even when they were not. However, I thought, what employer doesn't deserve the right to check the employment eligibility of his or her workers?
"I will call them my people, who were not my people. And her beloved, who was not beloved." (Romans 9:25 referencing Hosea 2:23)
Estranged, alienated, and removed; anyone living in an industrialized modern society in the 21st century would be able to define, or at least identify the sentiments of these words. Our time is one of mass communication and instantaneous access to knowledge. And yet our lives are too compartmentalized, increasingly divided, and our society reflects this. Indeed the existential writers of yesteryear were correct in diagnosing the iron cage that would befall us, ultimately leading to an eclipse of reason.
My grandfather taught me that "There is magic and meaning in every moment." These words were passed down to him from his grandfather, and from his grandfather's grandfather, and I witness the truth of those words with my eyes every day. I have come to realize that as Shakespeare wrote, they are "upon me proved." As an undocumented immigrant, I do not need to be accepted into your terrestrially timed nation-state to be the human I was created to be. My life trajectory has a destiny and fate that is not controlled by the powers of empire. As my grandfather taught me, I am sure that there is magic and meaning in my life. Love is what brought me into this world, and it is by compassion and grace that I was raised. I am done begging, sitting, waiting, and crying at your doorstep.