I was an illegal immigrant from 1996 to 2007 and I spent seven of those years in deportation proceedings. This was long before the politically correct term, undocumented immigrant, existed. There I was, in my mid-twenties, a graduate of one of the nation's finest liberal arts colleges, Hamilton College, as well as one of its top public affairs masters programs, yet a basic state ID was inaccessible to me. It quickly became apparent to me that I needed identification in order to get identification. As a result I couldn't vote, drive, open a bank account or travel nationally, let alone internationally.
Mine is a modern day immigration story where hard work and a commitment to the American ideal does not guarantee an invitation to stay in the U.S. Gone are the days where simply waiting for the laws to improve is a possibility. Today, more people are getting caught in the crossfires of the immigration debate which result in faded dreams. We are not only denied a path to citizenship but we are denied a path to life.
21 is typically the mark of adulthood for many Americans because it's the legal drinking age. For me, however, it meant getting a fake ID in order to gain entry into bars where I got caught every time. Another twist of irony was that I needed identification in order to attend my immigration hearings in Buffalo, New York.
When I attempted to get a social security card in the spring of 2000, a civil servant working at the Social Security Administration office in Albany, New York replied, "You don't sound like the rest of them [illegal immigrants]" and I was placed into deportation proceedings shortly thereafter. My lawyer informed me that since I'd been denied citizenship by my two native countries, I could be deported to a third country or placed in a detention facility for an indefinite period of time -- a fate that seemed to me worse than death.
I was born in Zambia and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the economic disparities between the rich and poor, Zambia has always seemed like paradise compared to the neighboring DRC. DR-Congo, the second largest country in Africa, has been devastated by a 16-year civil war that has left 5.4 million people dead. I was lucky to have gotten out when I did. I came to the U.S. legally at the age of four on a visitor's visa. When my mother died when I was 15, I found myself not only without parents, but also without legal status in the U.S. I was in a legal no man's land between those three countries; not a citizen of any of them. For those arduous years, I was a person without a nation, unacknowledged by the country I called my home and disconnected from the countries of my childhood.
In their attempt to provide me with proper education, my mother and my American-born stepfather had failed to secure a path to citizenship for me. When they died, I literally became a nobody. An asterisk. I didn't belong to any person or country.
I still remember the words of the immigration judge who presided over my case. "You should be ashamed of yourself. You have made a mockery of my courtroom and you deserve to be deported." I stood in the courtroom in shock as the judge's words came at me like bullets while my attorney just stood there, silent and devoid of emotion. Why the judge thought that my lawyer bending the rules to introduce new evidence in the eleventh hour warranted a personal attack on me, I don't know. But after a quagmire of confusion, delay, value-less protocol, a heartless and vengeful judge, endless paperwork, lost documentation, five lawyers, and the unrelenting drive to toss me back to where I supposedly belonged, I was finally granted permanent residency in the U.S.
It was a Tuesday morning, and I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth and running down my to-do list for the day: I needed to call my lawyer, submit the financial report to my boss, begin my renewal application for a work permit, and reach out to my co-panelists from my congressional hearing on the DREAM Act. I was so deep in thought that I barely heard the phone ring. It was my lawyer on the other end of the line.
"Martine, are you sitting down?"
"OK, I'm sitting."
"Martine. It's over. The Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the judge's decision and dismissed your case. It's over, honey! They even went so far as to write an eight-page response validating why you deserve a green card. It's a miracle!"
It took me a few seconds to process the information. "It's over?" I said slowly. "Are you sure?" Then the tears came.
When I got my green card in the mail on July 2, 2007, I was so happy that I didn't care that it wasn't even green.
It was another five years before I got my U.S. citizenship, and along with it, a passport and the government's blessing to travel outside the country. By the time it finally happened, I'd become so accustomed to being stateless that I think I still don't quite trust my freedom as an American.
I spent so many years believing that being an American was everything I ever wanted, and that finally being acknowledged as a citizen would mean the end of all my struggles. But I was wrong. In the two years since I became a naturalized U.S. citizen, I've felt at odds with my identity. At first I couldn't understand why.
Then it hit me: I wanted to hold on to my label as an illegal immigrant. I'd spent so much of my life fighting the system, working side-by-side with lawyers and bonding with my fellow undocumented immigrants in community and camaraderie. Becoming American felt like abandoning them. It was a strange sort of survivor's guilt I never saw coming, feeling like I was leaving them behind on the battlefield instead of standing by my friends and fighting alongside them.
Last month I had another breakthrough. Being an American, I realized, means having freedom --including the freedom to choose the identity that I feel best captures who I am. Some might think it patronizing to identify myself as an illegal immigrant even now that I hold the privilege of citizenship. I don't see it that way. To me, being an American means I have that much more to contribute to the struggle for immigrant justice.
Flaws in our current immigration system not only offer a dead end but it leaves people stranded, with no country to go to and no country to stay -- in effect, creating a nomad state. If we start to listen for the stories that live in the shadows of the immigration debate then perhaps we will discover our humanity as well as the answer.
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