LatinaLista — Two weeks ago, the DREAM Act was reintroduced in Congress. It is a bill that recognizes that undocumented children, who have lived and graduated from high school or gotten their GED, should be allowed to either enter the military or attend college, receive their degrees and be able to put those degrees to work as they work their way towards U.S. citizenship.
Over the next three days, Latina Lista will devote this space to the DREAM Act. In this first installment, Benita Veliz, an undocumented student undergoing deportation proceedings and whose story has garnered national headlines in publications ranging from The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News to countless media outlets on both sides of the border, shares for the first time her personal feelings about what is happening to her and what she hopes will happen for the thousands of students who are depending on Congress to pass the DREAM Act.
I had heard about it on the news. I had seen it happen to friends before. I knew that it was a real possibility. Still, the reality of my illegal status in the United State—the notion of deportation—was never as real to me as on the afternoon of January 21, a day that changed the rest of my life forever.
When I was 8 years old, I was brought to the United States on a tourist visa. It was my first visit to the country. Prior to that trip, all I knew about the United States was that it was a wonderful land, where kids had plenty of toys and everyone had a TV.
I had heard about these things from my cousins, most of whom were born in the US and visited Mexico from time to time. I honestly thought that the trip was going to be a summer vacation.
I brought but two or three changes of clothes and was not allowed to bring my favorite doll. It was not until August rolled around and I found myself sitting in a third-grade classroom that I realized my trip was going to be longer than just a summer vacation.
What I did not realize, however, was that my status in the United States was now that of an illegal immigrant.
Growing up without documentation did not truly become an issue for me until I saw my friends starting to apply for jobs at the local mall and going to driver’s ed.
I was two years younger than most of my classmates, so I was always able to use the excuse, “I’m not old enough yet.” “Why haven’t you taken driver’s ed? I’m not sixteen yet” (I was sixteen as a senior in high school)…or, “I can’t afford it right now.”
Although it was at this time that my illegal status became an issue, it was really two years before that, as a sophomore in high school, that I had to make a conscious decision: Should I let my status become an excuse for giving up on school, or should I use it as a driving force to push me to do the best that I possibly could?
I had always been a good student. Even my first semester in third grade, the first grade I enrolled in at an American school, I was the only student in the class to make the honor roll. I remember my teacher being pretty impressed….”This girl doesn’t even speak English, but she made the honor roll.”
After that first semester, I made straight As throughout the majority of my school years. I knew, however, that if I was to fulfill my dream of going to college, I would need to be much better than just a good student.
It would not be enough to just get straight As. It wouldn’t be enough to just do well on standardized testing. It was then I thrust myself into every activity I could manage.
I became a leader in the marching band, president of the National Honor Society, captain of the Academic Decathlon team. I did as many hours of volunteer service as I could. I began making as close to straight 100s on my report card as I could. I took every single AP class that was offered at my high school, and passed 6 of 7 AP exams.
All the while, without even realizing it, I had become American. I remember meeting people who had just arrived from Mexico at my church. None of them guessed I was originally from Mexico…everyone thought I was American.
After three years of hard work in high school, I was blessed with an amazing, privately funded, full scholarship to St. Mary’s University. (Editor’s note: Benita also was valedictorian of her high school graduating class.) I spent four years working on my Bachelor’s, graduating in 2006 from the Honors Program, with a double major in Biology and Sociology.
Although I was unable to utilize my degrees after graduation, I tried to make the best of my life. I tutored, taught piano lessons, took pictures…any odd job I could think of. All along, I firmly believed one day I would be able to become a permanent resident.
Whenever I felt sad about my situation, whenever I felt like all my education was going to waste, I would remind myself that one day, I would be able to apply for permanent residency. I resolved to live my life without bitterness…things would change someday.
Things did change, but not in a way I would have ever imagined.
On January 21, 2009, I was pulled over for allegedly rolling a stop sign. The officer questioned me, discovered I did not have a driver’s license, questioned me about my legal status and proceeded to arrest me after my admittance of the truth. He informed me that it was the policy of their police department to turn over any person who was in the country illegally.
After spending the night in a detention center, I was able to make bail and was released to await court proceedings. My attorney has informed me that, as of now, there is nothing I can do to fix my legal status.
I cannot apply for permanent residency because there is no avenue for people like myself to legalize our status, regardless of the many years that we have lived in the country, and the fact that we consider ourselves American.
For me, returning to Mexico, and receiving a ten-year ban from re-entering the country, is not so scary because I don’t know anyone there, but because of everything I’m leaving behind. I don’t cry at the thought of being all alone in a place I can’t remember. I do cry when I think I may not be here long enough to go to my best friend’s wedding, which we have been planning and dreaming about for almost a year.
I can’t hold back the tears when I realize I may very well not be there when my grandparents pass away.
I have nothing waiting for me in Mexico. Facing deportation has made me realize that I would much rather continue to live in the shadows as an undocumented person in the US than go to a country I simply don’t remember.
It’s not about being made to leave the land of opportunity, a country with better economical opportunities than the place I was born. It’s not about being made to leave my goals, my dreams, my aspirations.
Quite simply, it’s about being made to leave my home.