Written by ELLA
When I was 5 years old, my mother was sentenced to two years in prison. I was taught to say that she was "on vacation," to make the idea of cold cell palpable and to avoid additional questions. I had visited my mother (very seldomly) in prison. Not sure I can speak for all 5-year-olds, but I only recall so much -- I think I only walked through Danbury's gates once, on Valentine's Day. Maybe that's because we took a picture that day, a photo which reminds me of her strength and haunts her with her mistakes.
In February of my second grade year, she was released and we had a welcoming party for her at our house. I remember she wanted to hug me... but I didn't know how close I should get to the stranger. She pinched my cheeks and told me I was too skinny, then asked me if I was eating. I was offended. I didn't know her. What I did know was that she always fumbled at the register when she wrote checks and had to pick an ID - both had her picture on them, but one had a name I only recognized from letters that came to the house to some woman named Maria. While my mom was away, my siblings went to New York to live with family, and I stayed in our house with my mother's Colombian friend. The social security checks I received from my father's death (he died in a car accident when I was 9 months old) paid the bills. You see, my mother has always been able to make things work. That's her greatest strength, and her only downfall.
The Christmas she returned, I asked her if we were "having Christmas". She told me she wasn't sure. When you live with strangers who are using you for a check, you're nothing more than a foster child. The most bizarre part of my experience was that I was disregarded in my own home. What I've learned in the years that passed are that my siblings were no better off. I thought "family" was better until I went to visit my sister and felt my grandmother's hatred first hand. I wanted to go outside and play with the neighbor. Perhaps Brooklyn was too dangerous for her taste, or perhaps she was still angry at my mother having gotten arrested for selling (something) to an undercover officer. Sometimes, I thought it was because I was the only dark-skinned person in my family, and while everyone told me I reminded them of my father and his great heart, I might have also reminded them of his addiction to crack-cocaine. And maybe that's why my sister overheard a conversation where my grandmother and my aunt were discussing my mother and accusing her of being a user herself. For the record, my mother never used. I know because she told me, and she's the one who taught me to omit, but never lie.
My mother is very quiet and doesn't really tell people her problems. When I would ask her why she was in jail, she would say, "I'll tell you when you're older." When I was older, she told me about how she found my father in a bar, high and buying rounds for his friends with the money he'd withdrawn from their bank account... from the loan they took out to put new siding on the house. Then he died one night on the way to the liquor store around the corner. I can point you to the pole he hit. He left my mother with three children, no "papers," 2 jobs and 2 mortgages. My aunt went to jail because she got caught at the airport, moving weight for the Colombians who used to run my city. My mom didn't travel. They just said someone would come to her house to pick something up... and they did.
My hometown, Central Falls, Rhode Island is full of immigrants and the drugs they use to get by (either to get high or survive... or both). Jimmy had this barbershop on Dexter Street that the cops used to raid and shut down once a month, cuz his moms (the Colombian) was deep in the game. There's no way they could afford all they did working in factories putting backs on earrings, everyone knew that, including the cops. They only thing they couldn't get was somebody to snitch. "They asked me to tell them names, but I told them I couldn't. I have children," my mother explained. So when I tweet something about my mother being a Gangsta, please know that I learned "no snitching" at home. While my mother served two years in a Federal Prison, she asked me to write her letters every week. As long as she took it easy on correcting my spelling, I tried. So when I say I've been writing since I was 5, I was.
My mother was sentenced to be deported to the Dominican Republic. She asked the judge to give her some time to set her children up, and she would surrender herself at a later date. The judge agreed, but my mother never left (I forgot, that was her only lie). Instead, she lived in my cousins' attic. I don't remember if we had Christmas that year, but we probably did. My mom used to bring me to pick out my Barbies and would put them on layaway. I used to check the back of her closet every so often to see if she had brought them home yet, and even though she had, I still had to wait forever to get them. We were big thrift store shoppers (back when they were called Salvation Army and it wasn't a "trendy" place to get clothes) and I was always in the toys section... or books. I had a Barbie jeep and a convertible. I brought my Barbies to the attic, and would spend the weekends with my mom and playing with my cousins. My mother made everything seem normal. I rarely asked questions.
During the week, I lived with my big brother who let me watch Jerry Springer before I went to bed. His friend (my sister's ex, and a secret pedophile) used to live with us. This was the most dangerous part of my life. It's the part when you learn to smile when you don't want to. When you dance with the devil and sneak out when he's not looking. When you ignore the facts and naively look forward to the future. You just sit by patiently and hope that everything will even out... things will be okay. Most folks pray, and that helps a bit. My mother was a secretary at an oil company until immigration went looking for her. Her boss loved her so much he was going to rent us an apartment on the second floor of his house. They had a pool and I swore we were moving up. But, that dream disappeared and so did my mother. She spent a little while living in her friend's house, sharing a bedroom, before being able to come back home, comfortably. It wasn't until my senior year in high-school that the men in suits came knocking at our front door. For 2 days, she didn't leave the house. On the third, she put on comfortable clothes and went to work. When the men in suits came in, she stood up, walked up to them, said "Let's go," and lead the way out.
While I was busy debating which college to go to, I started thinking, "none at all." My mother spent March and April of 2010 in a local jail and everyday the officers would taunt them, torturing them, calling them names and telling them they were going to be ripped away from their families and sent back to their countries. Again, I spent my birthday with people who didn't give a fuck; they were just happy to put my name on a form and claim money from the government. But my siblings and I were the strongest we had ever been. My sister was just finishing up her law degree and a professor agreed to take the case pro-bono. (I think it was the praying.) I was able to express my situation to the financial aid office of my choice and secure a full-ride to Loyola in Baltimore. My brother was finally able to become the man no one could teach him to be and testify that my mother was his best friend, and that without her, we would be nothing. Long story summed up, we beat the case. My mother is one of the most resilient people on the face of this earth, the only person I trust in this world, and a convicted felon. America needs more people like her.
This is the secret life of immigrants. What if everyday you woke up, you feared people coming to your door because you're "not supposed to be here" in the "Land of the Free"? Perhaps that's why it's the "Home of the Brave." Since I've told my secret, I'll also tell you that our own Health Editor, Pam Fung, is a victorious immigrant as well. When she was 6 and I was 8, I would pick her up from school and we'd walk home together. The other day, she sent me a picture of her residence card & I almost cried. I wrote my best speech about her while I was in college, one she's never heard, but you can't hear anyone's prayers for you. The reason we come to this country is because it's difficult to be from anywhere else. You have to fill out a billion applications to step foot on America's soil, yet Americans can walk (and bomb) the globe at the moment of their choosing. My sister is an attorney for the IRS. And while she feels shame about what my mother did (due to the outlook of the average person and treats my mother like a second class citizen) she wouldn't have had those opportunities had my mother not come back and forth just to have her children on American soil. She wouldn't have eaten.
Americans are greedy and I'm one of them. We want the best for our children. We are the free. We want everyone else to stay where they are and push over as we walk on our roads paved of gold. While I'm all for the Dream Act, etc., I too think about how much more difficult it will be for my children to succeed when faced with a generation of youth who devote themselves to their studies because it's their only way out. Kids who might value the opportunity more than my children. In my opinion, Americans need competition. The middle-class is spoon feed and thinks that everything should simply be given to them. Yet, there are people out here dying for what some people take for granted.
I'm grateful for this struggle and the illustrations of work ethic and endurance I've witnessed first hand. My life wasn't easy. My mother's was more difficult. My brother and sister were never ones to share their emotions. We've had to be secretive our entire lives, and that is what it feels like to be an illegal immigrant. You're here, but no one can really know. Every time you log into something, you might warrant strangers in suits coming up to your footsteps and throwing you in a cage until they decide what to do with you. Usually, they decide to send you back to a country where you no longer know anyone, which has only gotten worse since you were last there, struggling for the same reasons you left, if not more.
I don't think deportation is unnecessary. I think America rids itself of what it can because we have a motto we can't stay true to. We try to eliminate the competition/mouths to feed. I read the NY Times article, Paying Price, 16 Years Later, for an Illegal Entry, and I wasn't so much moved by the story as I was beckoned to share mine. There are plenty comments from ordinary citizens which comment on how "criminals" should be deported, but if that's the case, then we should really take a look at our country's "correctional" facilities and whether or not they're working. My mother should not have been deported and I know this because I judge decided it 11 years later. I had a teacher, who was a Quaker, and once worked for U.S. immigration. All he could tell me was that they're evil people at heart --and you have to be to rip families apart. I think our country needs to really sit down and reconsider the purpose of deportation as well as the criteria used to debate if a person should be deported or not. There are plenty Americans who commit crimes on a daily basis, you just have no place to send them. Americans are no better than anyone from any other country and that is what we have to get across first. As the "Land of the Free" we should try to recruit the best and the brightest. We should try to build a community of those who can thrive and work against the odds. We also need to reconsider these application processes. Perhaps we should take a look at our relationships with other countries --why can Americans travel so freely?
The main characteristic of the "American" race is its inherent greed and racism, if you'd like me to sum it up. We don't consider the individual. We consider whether or not we could win in a war against them. We wonder how it affects our odds. It's selfish. It's always about us in the moment. I don't know what exactly I want of "immigration reform". I do think people should learn English because communication is key. I don't know how exactly to comment on the judicial system until it's actually my peers. But old white men will probably judge the way old white men were taught to until the day they die off. These things take time. I also think that we, Americans, should be aware of the struggles of our neighbors --whether they are "legal" or not. My mother paid her taxes the entire time she was "illegal". They actually found her through the DMV because the car was registered in her name. When the men in suits came to our house, my brother answered the door. They asked whose car it was, he said it was his, my mother had left it to him when she left the country. Another thing I learned in my house: Fuck the Police.
You know what America doesn't value? Family. That's what I'm most disgusted with.