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A Young Undocumented Student Reflects on Being Called Illegal

LatinaLista — One of the reasons why the immigration marches and rallies of last spring were so powerful was because the actual voices of those affected by the debate were speaking out.

Too often their voices get lost amid the rhetoric from everybody else (including Latina Lista :)) who are so busy trying to speak for them, that we don’t stop long enough to let them speak for themselves.

Regardless of their citizenship status, it’s an inalienable right of every human to be able to express themselves – and to be heard.

On a listserve of an organization in Dallas, Texas, called DFW International Community Alliance a young person who is undocumented shared his/her feelings about being called illegal.


This afternoon, as I was driving home from work, this extreme anger came over me that ultimately led to me feeling like a coward. I was recalling the day before; my mother and I had stopped by La Michoacana to get some groceries and as we walked in, I noticed El Dia newspaper and it’s headlines. In big black bold letters, the word “ILEGAL” or “ILLEGAL,“ was written. Twice. Twice on the front cover. It wasn’t written on there 3 times because there was no space left. My mind was overflowed with thoughts, the primary one being, “hasta nuestro mismo pinche pueblo, nos quiere convencer que somos ilegales.” “even our own want to convince us that we are “illegal.”

After thinking about that for a while I began to think harder and longer. I figured who exactly is “our pueblo?” Who is writing these headlines that we are constantly bombarded with? How many times is that filthy word written in their publication? Once, twice, it doesn’t really matter. Just because it is a Spanish written newspaper, do they deserve my thought of “nuestro pueblo?” After thinking longer, I was left with the thought that to do so would be to give them more credit than they deserve.

“illegal,” according to is defined as “forbidden by law or statue.” After thinking about the definition of the word “illegal,” I thought about how the word has managed to become so mainstream. So mainstream in fact that it is accepted even by Spanish written media. We all know what fruits await us when persistence is practiced. So I guess if enough Lou Dobbs, or organizations like US BORDER WATCH, throw the word “illegal” around, even our “own,” will adopt and accept the word. I thought about how amazing it is that this country has adopted a hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. This rhetoric only perpetuates a cycle that has happened at various points throughout history. So many groups of people have been terrorized and outcast in this country. The Irish, the Polish, Blacks, and now it is our turn. I wonderd then, how many of those who were once terrorized and outcast now proudly stand and blame “illegals” for everything? How many of them now say that they came here legally? How may of them arrived in New York where a simple signature was enough to make you a citizen?

I have been fortunate enough in my young life to be able to spend time with plenty of fellow “illegals,” I have seen the faces, I have heard their stories, and have shared in the fight. I have sat across those who retell the story of their “tio,” or “tia,” being deported. To witness the tears and to share in the pain is excruciating. Day by day the feelings grow stronger. To witness organizations like US BORDER WATCH dragging the Mexican flag tied to a “sombrero,” while basking under the cover that catch phrases like “for the sake of national security” gives them. What does national security have to do with dragging the Mexican flag?

I wondered then, if those who are responsible for writing “illegal,” or those folks from U.S. BORDER WATCH ( who for the last few Saturdays have been terrorizing day labor sites) have had the opportunity to be in similar situations that “illegals” have been in. Situations like the one that an interviewee retold. The 21 year old was telling about how his grandma was dying in Mexico, and how all he wanted to do was go and visit and at least be able to witness his grandmother’s death. He was caught in a no win situation: go back and have a hard time coming back, or stay and get a dreaded phone call making his grandma’s death official. Another told a story of how he awoke to the sound of his wife asking him if he had seen his brother in law. His wife had not heard the brother in law come back from work. The small family heard nothing of their brother in law for days, until some neighbors from within the apartment complex told them that “la migra” had been there and had taken the young man.

We have all heard the stories, but I wonder if those same folks who proudly yell the word “illegal” really know who they are talking about. Do they really know the mother, the father, the son or daughter at the receiving end of their insults? Or do they just sit in the ignorance that false patriotism gives them? Are they scared that if they cared to meet the families or if they put down their hateful signs long enough to look into the eyes of the “illegals” that their stone cold hearts would melt?

As to how all these thoughts eventually led to me feeling like a coward happened as follows. I am a DREAM ACT student. For those who are not aware of the DREAM ACT, it is proposed legislation which would basically provide a means of legalization for undocumented students. Under the proposed legislation, a student has the choice of joining the military or going to college. Upon it’s implementation the DREAM ACT would immediately help thousands and thousands of students. Students like me. I came here at the age of 4 with my mom and sister. Assimilated, studied, did all that was asked of me. Bought the “American dream.” Without the DREAM ACT, when I graduate with my degree in social work, I will not be able to legally work. Many ask, “ why don’t you just legalize?” Simply put, with the backlog of immigration applications, my tiny application is insignificant and remains pending. (another requirement of the DREAM ACT, is the student must have filed for his or her paperwork)

I then thought of the massive protests around the country last year and the current efforts by various advocates, organizations, and students around the country to build support for the DREAM ACT. I wondered what it would be like if I alone walked up to the ICE offices and just turned myself in. Just walked up and said, “ here is your “illegal” tired of hiding, tired of being in this psychological prison. Tired of following the rules for 23 years only to be told that the one rule my mother broke years ago of crossing the border is my ball and chain. (if pursuing a better future for her family can be considered breaking the rules)

Would ICE take me in, process me, and take me to the place I was born? Would the action attract media attention and start a revolution? Would the world finally notice what has been happening to over 60,000 students a year? After thinking of the possibilities that an action like that would have, I slapped myself in the middle of the freeway. I dare not risk the safety of my family. My sister, my mother. These thoughts are what ultimately made me feel like a coward for not going that very minute to ICE headquarters and turning myself in.

I was left with anger and a self loathing feeling that maybe that action alone would be all that was needed in order to stop students from being held back. The memories of interviews like the one of a young lady who graduates this semester ran through my mind. To hear her despair as she felt lost and alone. To accompany her in her efforts to get a driver’s license only to be turned down for lack of documen
tation. To be able to bear witness to great people such as her is what keeps me going. To remember their words, their pain, their struggle is what keeps me alive. To think of how students like her keep going even under the constant harassment of slurs like “illegal,” is my food for thought.

As for this “illegal,” I have nothing left to do, but to join the young lady and to continue “pisando fuerte.”
All these thoughts for the bargain price of 25 cents. 25 cents which I’m sure El Dia doesn’t consider “illegal.”

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