I’m 30 years old and I’m embarrassed to say I have never been able to vote. I’m politically and civically active, but because of my immigration status I’ve never had this right. For most of my adult life, I’ve been an undocumented immigrant.
My immigrant story, my American story, is complicated and sometimes difficult to tell. But it’s far from being unique. In fact, I share it with millions of others. Some people call us DREAMers.
I came to the U.S. when I was 15 years old on a tourist visa and overstayed. I was following my mother to a small town in southern California where she had come to visit family just one year earlier. Our plan was to stay in the country only a few years, until I learned English and my mother saved up some money. Then we would return home. What held us back from returning to Mexico was that the U.S. delivered its promise of being the land of opportunity.
While the transition to the U.S. wasn’t easy, I was able to adapt rather quickly. I learned enough English to get by within the first year and then I began to do well in school, particularly in science.
At that time, my mother and I were living in Phoenix and I was attending Carl Haden Community High School. It’s there that I met two teachers who would have an incredible impact on my and my mother’s future, earth science teacher Fredi Lajvardi and computer science teacher Allan Cameron. They convinced me and a few other students to join a robotics competition.
You may have heard of a team of four underprivileged high school students that defeated college teams, including MIT, in a national robotics competition. Three of these students were undocumented immigrants. A movie was recently released about them, “Spare Parts” starring George Lopez. I wasn’t on that team, but I was part of their predecessors and, like it did for them, being a part of that competition changed my life.
It was during this time that I heard the first people, besides my mother, tell me I could and should go to college. The dream started to become real and I started to want it more and more. I wanted to become an engineer.
My mother and I had many long, difficult talks. We were both still undocumented. Staying here, going to college, would be difficult. But we decided we needed to stay. We knew that the opportunities open to us here outweighed the struggles.
I’d learned a new language. I’d excelled in school. I was smart enough to get into college. But I didn’t have papers. This obstacle proved to be the biggest road block.
I was able to successfully graduate from college with a degree in electrical engineering, but only with the help of a few extremely generous teachers, mentors, relatives and friends. They helped me side skirt traditional admissions processes, find ways to pay for tuition when I thought all was lost, and advocated for me when no one else would. And besides these generous souls, there were the other undocumented students I met along the way who made me feel that I wasn’t alone. They’re now my lifelong friends.
It was in college that I became an activist. I met other undocumented students going through the same struggles that I was. We knew things needed to change. We knew it shouldn’t be this difficult to get an education or a job, to become a real part of the country we called our home.
I knew I was lucky, but I didn’t want things to be so difficult for the next generation. I didn’t want opportunities to be so hard for them to come by.
Today, I’m still an activist fighting for undocumented rights with my colleagues and friends in the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition (ADAC). I’m also a business owner, a wife and a mother. And I just applied for U.S. citizenship, the opportunity presenting itself when I married my U.S. citizen husband.
I can only hope that this country will embrace me as I have embraced it. And I hope that it will open its arms to the millions of others who share a story similar to my own. I have the right to fight back. Things need to change.