By Diana Villalobos
On the cold and brisk morning of January 5, 2017, in a ceremony that took place on the 15th floor of a Federal Building in Newark, New Jersey, I had the privilege of becoming an American Citizen. It was a day that I had been waiting on for a very long time— more than a decade.
Having a blue passport for me is not just about being able to travel the world without requesting a visa (which happens to be a requirement under my former Colombian passport for some countries on my bucket list); it is not just about not being deported— it’s about the privileges, the rights, the responsibilities and the blessings that come with being an American citizen.
To write about my journey is not an easy subject for me. The journey towards citizenship and naturalization is so widely misconstrued and misunderstood by natural born American Citizens that I start off by saying that asking someone how they became a Naturalized American Citizen is as personal a question as asking why they’re getting a divorce— just a simple etiquette suggestion for future reference when talking out the topic with an immigrant.
Even though there are immigration laws that apply in general to most, each person’s immigration status cannot and should not be compared to another person’s situation, and their path towards legalization. Every case, every petition, every process, everyone’s journey towards legalization is different.
We are fortunate to live in a country that has comprehensive immigration laws. However, there are currently 12 million undocumented workers (this should always be the correct designation— not illegal immigrants) who are urgently calling for immigration reform and new immigration policies that could grant them the right to legally work, study and live in the U.S. A great majority of these undocumented workers have embraced the culture, have learned the language, pay taxes, and have conducted themselves in high standards of the law. Unfortunately, like anything else in life, there have been some exceptions to the rule. Those exceptions have made it increasingly difficult to get an immigration reform plan pass in Congress and become law. It did not happen under the Bush Administration, and it did not happen under the Obama Administration. With the latter it got very close, but it did not happen.
Before I share some of my story with you, I’d like to address four of the myths that I’ve heard throughout the years from people who don’t know much about immigration policy. Please note I am not an immigration attorney nor an immigration paralegal; I am speaking based only on my experience. Anyone who has doubts regarding a possible immigration law or rule that might protect or prove detrimental to their case should contact an immigration attorney.
- Seniority and longevity in the U.S. grant you the right to apply for Citizenship. This is false. Citizenship is not obtained or granted to individuals just because they have been living here undocumented 10, 14, 20 or 30 years. A proper application, case by case and depending on the individual, should be submitted. The rules apply differently to people who entered the country legally v. illegally.
- People who have children born in the U.S. automatically become U.S. Citizens. False. If an undocumented parent has a biologically born child in U.S. territory, they are not entitled to immediate Citizenship. A petition from that U.S. born child could be made in the future when that child becomes legally an adult (18 years old). They will have to prove that they have good standing moral character, have no criminal record, are in good standing with the IRS, and can financially sponsor their parents until they themselves become naturalized U.S. Citizens.
- Undocumented Workers do not pay taxes because they don’t have Social Security Numbers. Also false. Although an undocumented worker does not have a 9-digit Social Security number, there is a number that undocumented workers are able to apply for: ITIN, which stands for Individual Tax Identification Number. This number does not grant permission to work within the U.S., nor does it serve the purposes of a work permit. However, it does allow for undocumented workers to pay taxes to the IRS. Also, they do not get State or Federal refunds.
- Undocumented Workers are not entitled to sue. Another falsehood. Whether there might be a potential claim for unpaid wages, race discrimination, domestic violence, child support, a motor vehicle accident or a personal injury matter, Undocumented Workers have legal recourse and are protected by the laws of this state or country.
I entered the country legally in the year 2000. Just a year before that horrible tragedy that impacted all of our lives and changed forever the course of not just immigration policy, but all policy and all branches of government. I grew up in Colombia, raised by my grandparents who compensated for my heartache and longing for my parents with a healthy dose of love, and weekly meetings at the local church, and a love for God.
In my opinion this was the best thing my grandmother could have done for me. It set a foundation for years to come. Although today I might not be as good a Catholic as I was when I was younger, I take pride in knowing the difference between ‘praying’ and ‘saying my prayers.’
When I graduated high school back in 1999 (yes, a very long time ago!), I took the Colombian version of the SAT’s, followed by interviews at a couple of Universities. I was accepted at a very reputable university for studying Law in the country. Even at 17 years old I knew I wanted to pursue a career in Law. No one in my family is an attorney nor did my decision come from a place of peer pressure; I just always disliked injustices, and felt the need and urge to aide and advocate for those fragile beings—like myself at the time— who needed a voice or someone to speak up for them. I always thank life for allowing me the opportunity to graduate from high school in Colombia, as I feel that I could have been bullied if I had gone to school here. My co-workers laugh when I tell them this but I feel there’s a very high chance, as I wore eyeglasses ever since I was four-years-old, never really did fit in with the popular crowd, and always ended up befriending those controversial people while in high school. I guess subconsciously it was my way of standing up for the underdogs, as I was one of them too. Not extremely pretty, not a lot of knowledge about makeup or boys— but I knew I was a good kid. Always respected authority and respected those who guided me.
After I graduated, it was time to give my grandparents a break from raising me and start a life here— that’s what my Dad said. I was not thrilled with the idea, to be honest, but I had no choice. I was a minor and I had no money to pay for law school on my own, so I agreed.
I will not get into the legalities of what went on with my case. What I am able to share is that I had to do a lot of those undesirable jobs and for many years— those jobs they tell you immigrants are taking away from you. Call me crazy, but I don’t think most people are dying to become housekeepers, or eager to work in the food industry for about a month, Sunday to Sunday, 10 to 12 hours per day, to receive a check for $350 dollars—for the entire month and of course, off the books! That was the experience of my first job.
I was angry, and I was resentful towards my parents, who were now divorced. I indirectly blamed the country and the work routine for breaking my parents apart. I didn’t know how to exteriorize my discontent, so I isolated myself. I went to college for my Associate’s Degree, and as a huge disservice to myself I made no friends my first year. An Associate’s Degree typically takes two years to finish, but mine took five years to complete. I had to take pauses in between semesters to work and save money. I was not a candidate for scholarships, federal aid and/or student loans, because of my lack of legal status. So, my Associate’s Degree and my Bachelor’s Degree were all registered as double tuition/or out of state tuition, which means I paid more or double than the average person. I guess in retrospect this was a huge advantage for me because I have zero student loans, everything was paid through my savings, and the joint collaboration and effort of my mother and father.
Contrary to my experience in getting my Associate’s Degree, I made many friends while completing my Bachelor’s Degree. I was part of the Pre-Law Club, and I took classes I enjoyed. I had intellectual and stimulating conversations with students and teachers. I even applied for an Internship with the New York State Assembly. After being officially accepted by them I was told it was not going to be a possibility for me because I was going to be put on the New York State payroll— again, I had no Social Security number, not to mention status. I lost countless amounts of job and educational opportunities. Not for lack of motivation, but for lack of status.
I drove for a while with a driver’s license, but when time came to renew, I was not able to do so, due to a lack of a Social Security number. Like any Long Islander, I commuted and drove everywhere; I had no choice. For a very long time I had fears of police cars and state troopers, however my fear was never of being deported. I was never a criminal, was never arrested, never paid a ticket late, never had any issues at all with the IRS or any other branch of the government. And in good conscience I was only doing what someone my age should do: working, and getting an education. My only issue was wanting to go to Law School, and feeling limited because of my lack of legal status.
When Facebook became popular I was able to witness my high school friends graduating from their careers, going on to their Master’s Degrees, Doctorate programs, traveling the world, getting married and having babies. I fell into the trap of comparing myself to them and invariably feeling depressed.
I would torture myself by doing the math and calculate that if I had stayed in Colombia, I would have graduated from Law school in 2006. Yes, more than a decade ago. I had to psychologically come to terms with my limitations, aspirations and dreams—something that people who oppose the Dream Act do not fully understand. Having no legal status in this country takes a financial, psychological, and social toll on you.
When things finally started panning out for me I was able to get a Social Security number, to have a Driver’s License, to start building up my credit, and to apply for jobs. I was able to go see my family— the family that raised me in Colombia after 11 years without seeing them. I’ve been able to travel the world and visit countries I use to see in movies. I found a great job where I learned more about the legal field and rekindled my dormant romance with and passion for the law. The road to Citizenship has not been an easy one, though— I’ve lost people, friendships, opportunities (and sleep) along the way.
Finally, however, I am thrilled to be able to vote. The Political Science student in me is eager to be able to participate in our democratic process, and to continue to travel the world and educate myself. Although I might be just one person, I am the voice and the face of many other young adults and younger undocumented immigrants who are here doing the same thing I did for many years. They are obeying the law, paying taxes, staying out of trouble— neither free-riding nor taking advantage of the government and their services—. There were times, of course, when because of my lack of status I was unemployed, but I never saw the benefit in claiming unemployment or claiming welfare. I thank God, as he gave me good health, hands, feet and a good head on my shoulders so as long as I was able to physically work, I never saw the need to lean or take advantage of the system. I paid my way, slowly but surely, through higher education without help from the government, scholarships or private loans, like many other young undocumented immigrants out there in need of immigration reform.
The sooner we embrace other people’s challenges and limitations, and all our differences, the faster we can incorporate them into the community and the country at large. The amount of revenue that undocumented immigrants bring to the table is not only beneficial to any State’s economy, but to the Country at large.
My message for those who have had Citizenship since birth is: treasure it, respect it, embrace it, and, more importantly, don’t take it for granted. Value the freedoms that come with it. If you don’t like the way an issue is being handled by your government: participate! Write to your Senators, your Representatives, your local newspaper; join a civic group. Voting in primary elections is not enough. As I mentioned on a recent post on my Facebook page, 9/11 motivated a lot of people to join the military to defend our country. I hope that the recent turn of events in our political system motivates people to join the ranks of government, public policy and public service. I too, like former President Obama, have high hopes that this generation will know better than to simply fight over the Internet when we are here to serve a purpose for the country, and to proudly state: I am an American.
Please follow the firm on Twitter @lmllawyers. Photos courtesy of Diana Villalobos and Unsplash.