On July 8th, 2014, I received life-changing news: My application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals had been approved. At the time, I had been planning my next blog post in this series about how I learned to find resources, how I tried to cultivate some semblance of agency, and all the truly incredible people that gave me guidance along the way. It was those people I called, emailed, and texted that day. And their reactions made it clear that I was fortunate to have a support network that was truly invested in me. Even though so much about being undocumented feels like a solo battle, there were so many moments along the way that I had true allies.
After I graduated high school, it took me a few months before I was ready to tackle the issue of where to go to college. Once I took stock of my circumstances, the choice was clear: CUNY. CUNY was the most accommodating to undocumented students. I was allowed to pay in-state tuition because I could prove I was a New York State resident through my high school records. I remember going in to apply with all my records, being embarrassed by my transcript, but beyond ready to prove myself in school again. I chose City College of New York out of all the colleges in the CUNY system because it had the latest application date. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made because the faculty at CCNY has been a better support system than I could have imagined. With my immigration status, with my career ambitions, with any personal problems, my mentors at CCNY have always been compassionate, creative, and extremely savvy.
Once I matriculated though, I had to confront the issue of how to pay for college. As an undocumented student I could not receive any public financial aid, and most scholarships were also closed off to me. I also did not have the authorization to work. So I spent my first year working odd jobs, service industry jobs, tutoring, enrolling in payment plans, borrowing from family–needing to find creative ways to fund my education. Throughout that freshman year, even when I had professors offer me scholarships, I had to turn them down because my status made me ineligible. Often, I could not tell them the particular reason I didn’t apply because I was afraid. In this way, the institution also suffered. How many qualified candidates for research, arts, activism stayed hidden because disclosing their status to the wrong person could be disastrous for their future?
It took time but eventually I was able to identify faculty members that I could confide in. I realized that someone at the university needed to know my status, so that they could help me navigate the CUNY system; I needed allies. I timidly approached a professor and I remember almost whispering that I was undocumented. With his help I was able to apply for a fellowship that did not require legal status. And with that I was incorporated into a network that cared about my success and not a visa.
Even with triumphs in the system, however, being undocumented is still a daily trauma; the anxiety is constant. I was driven to succeed, but imagining my future was painful. I had no solutions. So I will never forget the day DACA was announced. For years, I employed whatever agency and creativity I had, but my status was a looming cloud. DACA meant that I could actually realize my full potential.
I wrote this the night I found out about my DACA approval:
One would think that after years of fantasizing about a moment, I would be armed with words to describe it; I am not. I have never felt happiness like this. Happiness without the latent worry that something about this moment will be taken away from me. But perhaps this is what ownership over one’s life feels like. That such moments exist, when you are fortunate to experience them, which are Solid. Sturdy. Enduring.
Maybe that’s naive. I just know that I am up writing this at 4am, for once jolted not by worry but by possibility.
My co-workers at Sakhi bought me a cake and joked that they didn’t know what song to sing as I cut it. “Certainly not ‘Happy Birthday’”, they said. Yet, the more I think about it, nothing sounds more appropriate. So much of what I experience in the next few months will be firsts and rites of passage that I missed out on–today feels like a rebirth.