By Leezia Dhalla
In December 2010, I learned that I am “less than legal.”
I was two days shy of hitting my milestone 21st birthday and, just minutes earlier, had returned to San Antonio from a weeklong ski trip spent on the powdered slopes of Copper Mountain, Colo., with my closest college friends. After I arrived home from the airport, I trudged my hefty suitcase upstairs to my room and was preparing to unpack when my dad appeared at my door. Without enough warning, he nervously confronted me with the news: “You don’t have papers,” he said.
I stared blankly, expecting him to follow-up with a goofy smile or playful laughter, or something else to show that he wasn’t being serious. The smile never came. As it turned out, the Department of Homeland Security had sent a notice to my parents’ house confirming that my visa had expired. The letter verified that I was now considered an illegal immigrant who, upon conviction, could face a 10-year bar from reentering the country where I grew up.
I was completely blindsided by the news.
Most Texans think of so-called DREAMers as undocumented Mexicans, but my heritage is Indian and African and I was born in Edmonton, Alberta. Financial struggles led to my parents’ decision to move the family from Canada to San Antonio in October 1996 when I was only six years old. That makes me part of the DREAM Act-eligible population whose path to permanent residency stalled temporarily two Decembers ago when legislation failed to pass in the U.S. Senate. Like thousands of other foreign-born, American-raised students of undocumented status, I am caught in a legal limbo as a result of decisions that I, myself, did not make. My story is particularly unique because unlike many other undocumented young people, I grew up completely unaware of my legal status. I had always considered myself American because in every possible way, I was:
I went through the Texas public school system starting with first grade until my senior year at Ronald Reagan High School, where I graduated Summa Cum Laude, ranked in the top six percent of my class. By that time, I had been a Girl Scout, an accomplished cellist and was already proficient in four languages.
In high school I logged close to 800 hours of community service and, as a side project, organized a fundraiser that netted $10,000 for the emergency bone marrow transplant of a young boy I had never met. I was a member of Reagan’s Model United Nations program, Spanish Club, debate team and National Honor Society. I was also an editor of the student newspaper, which was the culmination of a decade-long dream to pursue a career in writing.
Years earlier, in the second grade, my teacher had recruited me to join the school’s Newspaper Club. I was instantly hooked. By the ripe age of seven years, I had established an unbreakable morning routine that involved poring over the San Antonio Express-News’ latest headlines before heading to school for the day. I was young, but my curiosity was insatiable. I wanted to know every detail about the people, places and culture that built the melting pot known as the United States. And while my classmates had hopes of becoming astronauts and ballerinas and firefighters when they grew up, I dreamt of becoming a writer.
It was no surprise when I chased that dream all the way to Chicago, where I enrolled at Northwestern University to study journalism. While there, I landed several internships: first with the U.S. House of Representatives in San Antonio, later with a nonprofit hunger relief agency and, finally, with the San Antonio Express-News. The following year, when an editor with a different high-profile newspaper in Texas called to offer me a paid internship with the news reporting team, I accepted without hesitation. I was ecstatic.
And that’s when I hit a roadblock. I had applied for a work permit and permanent residency years before, and I knew my “papers” were still processing. Without this document in hand, most businesses could not legally pay me to work. (At this point, I still did not know I was undocumented because many people – such as tourists and students – are able to legally live or study in the United States, but are not authorized to be employed.)
I explained my dilemma to the newspaper editor, who went so far as to consult with the company lawyers. Imagine my disappointment when he called the following week and explained that because I did not have a valid work permit, he could no longer offer me the internship.
I was crushed. I was enrolled in one of the best journalism programs in the country. I had spent my summer building up my news reporting experience, and I wanted that internship more than anyone I knew. I didn’t care about the money – I just wanted to write. The editor had chosen me for the position, so I felt I had rightfully earned it. I deserved it. It was supposed to be mine.
The only thing holding me back from pursuing my dream was a sheet of paper that, as far as I knew, was sitting amidst stacks of documents piled high on the desk of an unknown immigration officer. Once the document was signed, I would be issued a work permit, but, until then, I would simply have to wait. It was sorely frustrating because I knew there was nothing I could do to speed up the process of obtaining the permit.
The day I learned that I am undocumented – just weeks after that internship offer was rescinded — was the day I put my dream on pause. In the grand scheme of things, knowing the truth behind my legal status has helped me make better sense of the conditions that have shaped my life. During my high school years, my parents always kept me close in sight, afraid that if I somehow ran into trouble with the law, I would be picked up, detained and immediately deported. Because of this, my time spent behind the wheel was incredibly limited, as was my socializing. I never really understood why they refused to let me work while my classmates collected paychecks with their part-time jobs as cashiers or sandwich artists. Later, they told me they withheld the truth from me so I could concentrate on school without any legal distractions..
“You need to focus on your studies,” my mother would tell me, when the reality was that I didn’t have a valid work permit.
And now I understand why my parents discouraged me from studying abroad in college, even as my friends were flying off to Buenos Aires and Paris for the academic term. It’s because if I left the country, I wouldn’t be allowed back in.
For most college students, graduation day marks the birth of a new chapter in life. It’s an opportunity to move on from formal schooling to join the workforce. For an undocumented student like myself, graduation day was terrifying. I had deeply dreaded commencement since I learned of my legal status because it meant that I would no longer be comforted by the familiar confines of my school. I would no longer be a student, where my primary responsibility had always been to learn under the guidance of others.
Instead, I would be sent off into the “real world” with the expectation of not only practicing my trade, but excelling in it. Our commencement speakers explained that Northwestern had prepared us to make a difference in our communities. “Be bold and be brave,” they told us. All that was left for us to do, they said, was to “go forth and prosper.” It was inspiring, really, but mostly it was scary as hell. Making a profound difference in the community is a tough standard to live up to. It’s even more challenging without a work permit in hand, when I’m carrying nearly six figures of debt on my shoulders.
On June 15, 2012, as I was sitting next to my classmates at our commencement exercises, someone in Washington also was thinking of the financial concerns that plague undocumented students. That morning, President Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced a new program (called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”), which will enable thousands of young undocumented Americans to obtain a work permit. In order to qualify, people must be age 31 or under and have arrived in the country before their 16th birthday. They must also meet criminal, education and military service requirements.
It was a gratifying graduation present, to say the least. And I’m happy to say that two weeks ago, I became one of the first young people in the country to be issued a conditional work permit – valid for two years – under the deferred action program. The card is my equivalent of a golden ticket. It is now possible for me to professionally practice a skill that I’ve loved since I was a little girl on the staff of my school’s Newspaper Club. What’s more relieving is that I can start paying off my student loans from my undergraduate education and start saving for graduate school.
Although I’m ecstatic about the opportunities that lie ahead, deferred action is not a long-term solution for my legal limbo. What’s most important is that the program does not create a lawful path to permanent residency. Receiving a work permit is a temporary fix that enables me to plan my life in two-year increments because the document will expire in July 2014 and, before that date, can be revoked at any time. And although I can legally find employment, I’ll continue to contribute sales and property taxes – and now an income tax – into public assistance programs like federal financial aid and Social Security that I won’t be able to benefit from.
Suffice it to say that I am American in every way except by virtue of birth. My parents did not ask my opinion when they chose to legally immigrate to this country 16 years ago. As a six-year-old child I did not have a choice to stay in the nation I was born, but I certainly took advantage of the opportunity to flourish in the country that I was raised.
Because of programs like President Obama’s deferred action initiative, I can say with confidence that my vision of the future is clearer and more promising than the day I first learned of my undocumented status two Decembers ago.
For more information about the deferred action program, visit: http://www.nilc.org/FAQdeferredactionyouth.html
Leezia Dhalla studied journalism and political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where she graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree. A longtime San Antonio resident, Leezia is an aspiring investigative journalist with plans to attend law school and one day open her own legal clinic to serve low-income immigrants. In addition to writing, Leezia enjoys running outdoors and watching football, as well as baking (and eating!) pastries.