By Catherine, ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education) Member
In honor of National Coming Out Week: Undocumented and Unafraid we are featuring stories of API dreamers. The DREAM Act would provide undocumented students that arrived before the age of 16 in the US a pathway to legalization.
It’s Coming Out Week.
Unlike the prideful and upbeat Diana Ross song, I am not “coming out” because I “want the world to know.” The fact that I am undocumented has always been an intimate secret, a part of my identity that I’ve only shared with special, trusted people. Sharing this secret with others has always hurt me, as if I had broken pieces from my very heart and given them away.
I am bearing the pain to write this because my own mother does not believe that I have a legitimate place in America. At the bank last week, I carried in my foreign passport for ID. Afraid that others would see, my mom frantically insisted that it put it away as if my passport were a badge of shame, like an ankle bracelet or a mark of Cain.
My mother’s attitude led me to think of myself like the unfortunate monster in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, awakens to discover that he has experienced a sudden and irreversible transformation; he has become a repulsive insect overnight. Though he is still the same rational person inside, his changed exterior alienates him from his family. Til his last breath, Gregor futilely wishes for their acceptance.
Sometimes, I try to imagine when I became a “monster” – or rather when others began to see me as a monster. It might have been sometime in 1993. I was four years old. Overnight, my tourist visa expired and I became undocumented. It might have been sometime in high school when I finally discovered that I lacked a green card. Like Gregor, my transformation was beyond my control. No SSN meant that I was a “monster” in my own home. Being regarded as a monster caused me the deepest shame, for I was powerless without the digits that would grant me access to financial aid. I was forced to give up the university of my dreams for community college. Hot, angry tears and shout matches with my mom didn’t change anything. I was discouraged from my dream of higher education not because I lacked the talent or will, but because of the stigmatized identity imposed upon me.
Maybe one day, I thought, America will accept me with open arms. So, I kept out of trouble. (I don’t even cross the street illegally or download movies and music illegally.) So, I assimilated. (I speak English flawlessly, but I cannot speak my native language without the harsh, adulterated influence of my American accent.) So, I excelled in school, hoping that my academic success was proof enough that I was living the American Dream. (With red, white, and blue tassels on my cap, I graduated from American High School, home of the mighty Eagles.)
But then I experienced another dramatic and irreversible transformation. My real education began at UC Berkeley. I met other non-citizens, fighting to meet their basic needs in addition to handling the stresses that other students face. (Imagine missing a final exam because you’re too hungry to think.) I learned about Ozawa v. US, an Asian American who challenged the traditional understanding of citizenship. Is it white skin that makes one a citizen? Is it race? Is it level of acculturation or assimilation? In this contemporary context, should access to citizenship depend on manner of immigration?
This is a debate worth re-engaging. Young, undocumented students are facing deportation, but it isn’t clear what heinous act that they’ve committed worth any punishment, let alone one so grave. A healthy discussion exercising reason, not rhetoric, would undoubtedly be informative for both the supporters and detractors of the DREAM Act.
It’s Coming Out Week. Not only is it time for us DREAMers to assert our rightful presence in America, but it’s crucial that the topic of immigration come into the forefront of political discourse. As painful as it may be, it’s time for all of us to break out of our confining comfort zones by challenging our assumptions.