Toward the end of my senior year in college, I had grown accustomed to not sleeping. The therapists didn’t know what to do with me. “It must be difficult,” they would say, “to feel like you’re responsible for the well-being of your family.” They never gave me concrete strategies to cope. Instead, I spent my time helping them understand the realities of an undocumented Latino in the United States. Medication didn’t help, either. I believe my stress levels were so high that they rendered any sleeping aid useless.
The thoughts were always the same: In a few months, I will graduate from Harvard, but I can’t work, I can’t stay in the U.S., and my family depends on me. I am undocumented and don’t want to go back to my country. What do I do?
I cried, stared at the ceiling, tried to focus on the sounds outside, prayed and rolled in bed. I never wanted to kill myself. At least, I never thought about it seriously. I do remember lying awake in the middle of the night in my dorm room, thinking, “This is how some people must feel before dying by suicide.”
When I was 11, my family moved to the United States, leaving a country that had seen its share of violence and sociopolitical instability. My father left a business, and my mother her career in television. They knew the sacrifice was worth the promise of a more stable life for my 6-year-old sister and me. At R.L. Turner High School, I excelled in academics and involved myself in every extracurricular activity imaginable. I had sleepless nights then, too, but those were by design, a choice I made as a child who desperately wanted to excel in honor of the sacrifice his parents had made.
Nineteen years living in immigration limbo have taught me resilience and faith.
When I received my acceptance to Harvard in 2006, my parents were elated. I had spent my high school years worrying whether Congress would pass immigration reform. “Don’t worry. It will pass before you graduate,” I would hear often. I knew my parents could not pay the high price of a college education, and so when Congress failed to pass immigration reform, my only hope consisted of receiving a full scholarship. Harvard gave me one, but I again spent my college years worrying whether Congress would pass immigration reform while I finished my bachelor’s. It didn’t, and so the agony of uncertainty began to consume me.
Then, a couple of months before graduation, I received my acceptance letter to Harvard Divinity School. As an undocumented immigrant, I did not qualify for loans, but once again, partly thanks to luck and merit, I received a full scholarship in recognition of my dedication to public service.
I did not know what would come after graduating from Divinity School. I just prayed Congress would pass immigration reform. Again, it didn’t, but this time, President Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which granted people like me temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit. My mother and I cried, because it meant that, at least for two years, I would be safe in America. It also meant that I could travel to Peru to visit her (she had returned to take care of my aging grandparents).
For four years now, and thanks to DACA, I have worked at Casa de Esperanza: National Latin Network, one of the national organizations trying to end violence against women and girls by helping develop public policy, conducting research, and engaging in consultancy with organizations and communities throughout the United States and abroad. I have chosen to dedicate myself to public service, and I would like to do it in the United States, a small gesture of gratitude for the many Americans who laid a rock in my path of my success. The benefits of DACA have been innumerable: I hold a driver’s license and qualify for health insurance as well as credit cards; I work for a steady income and am able to board a plane to spend Christmas with family that reside in other states. And for a time, the sleepless nights seemed an event of times I had left behind.
I know the privilege that comes with my education and age will carry me through whatever comes next.
Then, since the 2016 election, I have wondered whether my hopes to stay in the U.S. are realistic. The sleepless nights have returned, but not out of a sense of hopelessness or desperation. I now spend time considering options: Would Canada accept me? What about Australia or the U.K.? Maybe even Peru. And if any of these places accept me, would I be able to stay true to my passion around working on issues of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking? I would think so. Nineteen years living in immigration limbo have taught me resilience and faith. The U.S., too, has prepared me well ― both educationally and professionally ― to excel in my field. I know the privilege that comes with my education and age will carry me through whatever comes next.
Nonetheless, I urge the president to protect those of us who came as children and have “proven” ourselves over the decades. It’s the right thing to do, not because those 800,000 of us with DACA will contribute $433.4 billion in GDP over the next decade or because we fight in the military, work as doctors, and teach elementary school children, but because it’s who we are as a nation. We don’t shatter 800,000 dreams for political gains. We aspire to improve the collective American wellbeing by welcoming those who make our country a better place. At least, that’s the America I learned to call home.