This is the second installment of a five part series featuring the staff of HILSC and their experiences with belonging.
Belonging … on this Independence Day
The concept of belonging has almost always eluded me. For most of my life, I never felt that I fit in any one place. My only sanctuary was my family home –the place my parents built together and vehemently guarded to help my siblings and I feel protected. Stepping out of my comfort zone was always anxiety-provoking and I hardly ever allowed myself to explore anything outside of what was considered “safe.” Admittedly, writing this blog post is not easy for me but I have come to understand and appreciate the importance of sharing one’s journey of belonging.
Growing up as an undocumented immigrant was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. In many ways, it has defined me and guided my most pivotal choices.
I was 3 years old when my family immigrated to the United States. I do not recall the exact age at which I learned that I was undocumented, but I was very young and unable to comprehend the profound impact this would have on my life. Like most young children who grew up as a “1.5 generation” immigrant, I went to school and went through the motions of everyday life. Life was seemingly normal –except it wasn’t. There was one major aspect that marked my childhood –my fear of the very real possibility that my parents would be deported, and I’d come home to an empty house. No level of preparation ever made me feel prepared should the worst-case scenario happen. The fear was irrevocably lingering, and I did my best to live with it, never really understanding the deep impact it had on my emotional health and worldview.
As the years went by, I developed a deeper understanding of the many challenges undocumented immigrants face in this country. During my adolescent years, peers started experiencing rites of passage such as getting a driver’s license, getting your first job, and applying for college. I yearned for those experiences too, except that mine led to dead ends. Unlike most of my peers, I was not eligible to apply for a driver’s license, I was not eligible to legally work, and I was not eligible for FAFSA –the application for federal student aid. My senior year of high school was not what I had hoped and grown up seeing in the movies. Rather, it was a year full of uncertainty and a battle to find a sense of belonging in what felt like an ostracizing world. The highlight of my adolescence was not the teenage angst that we all experienced growing up but rather the realization I might never achieve my dreams. This was reinforced when my high school career counselor told me, “I didn’t realize that people like you could even attend college.”
Fortunately, a couple of years prior to my final year of high school, Texas passed legislation making some undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition. My two older siblings navigated the college application process before me, modeling the strength I needed to keep treading forward. Together, we learned the different (and limited) channels that existed for undocumented students to obtain higher education. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I became hyper-focused. I didn’t want to think about what the future held. I knew more challenges awaited me because even though I was earning my degree, I would not be eligible to legally work upon graduation –a fact that I tried to compartmentalize along with the pervasive fear of deportation.
The day I graduated from college was one of the happiest and saddest moments of my life. I felt honored to be a first-generation college graduate. I felt proud of my parents whose hard work and dedication was reflected in my achievement of higher education. And yet, the uncertainty of my future was looming over me. I spent the following year unable to legally work with my college degree. It left me wondering if all my hard work had been worth it. Admittedly, this transitional year was one of the hardest of my life. I felt gutted by the reality of my situation.
Growing up in this country from a very young age instilled a relentless internal battle to belong. I spoke English, pledged allegiance to the American flag every day at school, and felt a sense of patriotism, and yet, there were constant reminders that I was a foreigner, undeserving of the word citizen. Those reminders morphed and seeped deeper with time. Events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, impacted the entire country, but for the immigrant community, it brought additional aftershocks in the form of curtailment of refugee admissions and the divisive narrative of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants.” As an immigrant, I felt the increasing need to distinguish myself from the “bad immigrant” narrative. I bought into the notion that as DREAMERS (immigrant youth brought to the United States by their parents), I am the “innocent” good immigrant – young people bearing the burden of their parents’ decision to enter the country illegally. I was stuck in this notion that I was a “good” immigrant deserving of legal status and an earned path to citizenship. It would take me a few years to understand my own privilege and to fully comprehend the complexities of being an immigrant.
During my post-graduate “transitional” year, I battled with feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, and overall helplessness. Thankfully, I was surrounded by loving family and friends who encouraged me to go back to school and to keep fighting to achieve my dreams. My concept of a meritocracy and the American Dream had shattered after graduation, but I kept moving forward and went on to pursue a master’s degree in social work. But my morale took two more hits in grad school: I won a scholarship that was rescinded immediately after the granting foundation realized I was undocumented. I was chosen for a graduate research assistant position and was subsequently told I did not meet the work eligibility requirements. Serendipitously, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced. With the help of caring individuals and advocates, I was recommended for another scholarship: they submitted letters on my behalf explaining that, with DACA, I could legally work after graduate school and fulfill my commitment to work in Houston –one of the requirements for receiving the scholarship. With that extra help, and DACA, I was able to complete graduate school and went on to become a social worker.
In 2015, after 25 years of being undocumented, I became a resident and was finally able to visit my country of birth. Growing up, I felt strongly connected to my Mexican culture and therefore hoped that visiting Mexico would finally help me feel a sense of belonging. Despite it being a beautiful and overwhelming experience, I didn’t find belonging there. While I was happy and grateful to finally see where I was born, I could not help but feel like a foreigner who was simply visiting. I am deeply proud of my Mexican culture and traditions, so it was difficult to accept that simply being born there did not foster a wholehearted sense of belonging. Instead, I resonated with a phrase commonly used in the immigrant Latinx community “ni de aquí, ni de allá” (neither from here, nor there).
In the 8 years since I’ve been able to travel internationally, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and experience many new places. This opportunity was one that I eagerly yearned for, and I am grateful to have fulfilled this childhood dream. Oddly enough, the opportunity to travel is what finally helped me achieve a sense of belonging. With every trip I made outside of the country, there was always one consistent underlying factor –a profound sense of comfort and reassurance every time I returned to the United States. I’ve come to realize that regardless of the adversity that came with growing up undocumented, this has always been my home.
On June 14, 2023, I finally became a U.S. citizen. The truth is I could have applied for naturalization 2 years ago. It’s hard to explain why I hadn’t applied. It is an expensive process that requires preparation and significant time commitment. Personally, the thing holding me back was the psychological impact of having grown up in this country and yet never feeling like I truly belonged. This year, I finally decided I was ready. To say that I was nervous during my interview would be an understatement. My closest friends and family made every loving attempt to be supportive and reminded me that the civics test would be a breeze. Logically, that made sense. Afterall, I had grown up here and gone through school just like any other citizen. My working knowledge of U.S. history would be of great help but that wasn’t the problem. The anxiety I felt had nothing to do with feeling unprepared for the civics exam and everything to do with my lived experiences as an undocumented immigrant. The naturalization process required me to actively engage and interact with an immigration system that I had been conditioned to fear. Deep down, I continued to worry that one wrong answer might catapult me back to being undocumented. Is this elusive quest of closure or belonging worth the risk? I believe so. Today, I am proud to say that I survived the immigration process –a journey that took 32 years.
Throughout my years as a social worker, I have had the opportunity to work with many immigrant communities. I have learned (and continue to learn) about the multi-faceted experiences that characterize immigrants’ lives. I strive to no longer make assumptions of who is deserving of opportunities but rather, I do my best to listen and respond with empathy. Working in the immigration space has helped me recognize that my own experiences as an immigrant are not enough to understand the lived experiences of all immigrants. Rather, it provides an opportunity to connect, as we are all searching for our own sense of belonging.
My experiences being undocumented had a profound impact on who I am today. I could highlight the positive aspects such as how it made me resilient and hard-working, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the negative aspects I’m still actively trying to leave behind. I’m a recovering perfectionist with imposter syndrome who is constantly trying to prove through my work and actions that I am worthy of acceptance. I endeavor to be more cognizant of the behavioral adjustments or “code-switching” I sometimes employ to help me navigate professional spaces. As I work through the traumas caused by growing up undocumented, I am learning of the strength it takes to be vulnerable and share the story of my journey to belong. Today, I strive to help others build spaces where people from all walks of life can feel accepted while being their authentic selves, a concept which I believe is the key to developing a wholehearted sense of belonging.