Aly Wane has been an undocumented immigrant for almost 20 years. Odds are he’ll have to wait six more before he qualifies for permanent resident status.
I met Aly back in 2007, when I was facing an immigration nightmare of my own. At age 27, after my mother passed away over a decade ago, I was facing deportation proceedings, despite the fact that I'd been in the U.S. legally for more than 22 years. At the time, my conception shaped largely by the portrayals I’d seen in the media, I assumed that most illegal immigrants were LatinX. So I was surprised and happy when I got a Facebook message from Aly, a black African like myself. It felt like finding a fellow unicorn.
Today, Aly is a social and political organizer who talks openly about his status, and we’ve been friends for 10 years. A few weeks ago, I sat down with him to interview him about his story. I wanted to ask him the same questions people used to ask me. Why is he still undocumented after all these years? And how has he coped with being in limbo for so long?
Describe how your immigration journey has affected you.
My journey has been the theme of my life in many ways. I came here legally on a diplomatic visa when I was 8 years old. My mother brought my sister and me and I switched to a student visa in 1996 at age 16 in order to finish my high school years at Georgetown Prep and start college.
Unfortunately, I ran out of money after being in college for two years. I had to leave and I was on a student visa and sadly my mother, who was the sole provider for my sister and me, passed away and I ended up overstaying my visa.
Can you elaborate?
That [overstayed visa] has been my status since 1996. Which coincides with the terrible anti-immigrant laws that were passed under Bill Clinton. Ever since 1996, I have been undocumented on an overstayed visa and it’s been hard. Having lived in this country for so long, in many ways I identify with the culture and in many ways to a certain degree I am “American.” But at the same time living in legal limbo. At first, frankly, I didn’t want to deal with this issue of immigration.
I ended up becoming a grassroots activist and an organizer. I worked on a whole bunch of issues like anti-war, economic justice issues, things like that. But I did not want to get involved with the immigration fight because frankly I was terrified that someone would find out about my status.
I honestly did not seriously start getting involved until about 2007 or 2008 when some immigrants here in Syracuse, New York, where I live, started to get picked up by ICE and Border Patrol. That’s how my organizing started in terms of the issue of immigration. So I started doing anti deportation work.
When did you know that you were undocumented? When did you realize it?
It’s so interesting because there are layers to that question. Once I was on a visa overstay, at that point I was technically undocumented. But it didn’t really impact me then and there because at the time my mom was still alive. I assumed that I would take a leave of absence from school and then figure out a way to get back to college and things would be okay. And then unfortunately, tragedy struck and mom died as a victim of domestic abuse. That was hard and traumatic for me. That’s when it hit me in a harder way that I was in a very, very tough immigration situation. Because then it occurred to me that the only way to regularize my status would be to go for something called an H1B visa—a skilled worker visa.
Were you able to pursue the H1B visa?
Though I was eventually able to finish my undergrad, studying political science, H1B visas tend to be given to folks who have graduate level degrees or who are specialized in science and technology. With a bachelors of political science, I wasn’t going to get an H1B. It didn’t occur to me because in many ways I was still steeped in middle-class mentality. I really thought that somehow, because the system was just, there would be a way for me to wiggle out or define my status. It was an education process because once I graduated from college, I started doing all these job interviews, and the only way companies could hire me was to sponsor me for an H1B visa.
Is that when it really struck that you were in legal limbo?
I went to job interview after job interview, and I did really well. But the supervisor would say at the end of every interview, “Great candidate, but we cannot afford to sponsor him for an H1B visa.”
At the time, I was juggling the pain of my mother’s loss, but then there was this other pain of realizing that I was really stranded. I hadn’t been to my home country since I was nine years old. I was born in Senegal. In a way Senegal was not a home for me, but I didn’t have a way to legalize myself in this country. That’s when it hit me that I was stranded and that I was an “illegal” person. When that really hit me, it was hard. I went through a serious early bout of depression where it was about those twin things. It’s been a 20-year process for me to go from that sense of feeling undocumented, powerless, and illegal to where I am now, which my sense is that I am owed some of these rights and I am interrogating the system.
How have you coped with being undocumented for 20 years?
The conversation around citizenship has gotten complicated for me. I used to want citizenship to affirm my humanity in a country that designated me as illegal. Now I see how that concept is problematic. In this country, the concept of citizenship is tied to the idea of white property male identity. Over the years I have really reflected about my connection to this country and to the issue of citizenship. I ask myself, who does this country value?
I am undocumented but I am also a black person, and over the years, as an organizer, I have come to understand that even if I were to have access to citizenship status, how much more protected would I be in this country?
What does it mean for example to be a poor African American or Latino U.S. Citizen? Let’s say you live in Detroit and you don’t have access to water. Does the concept of citizenship really mean anything? Are you valued because you are a citizen? So I am really interested in complicating those conversations around race and citizenship.
What do you think about the millions of Americans who would argue that you should be deported?
If folks tell me “Go back to your country,” on the one hand they are correct. Senegal is where I lived the first 7 years of my life. With that being said, if I were to show up in Senegal today at the age of 40, I would feel like a stranger. I am not knowledgeable about the culture, the politics. I mean, I have book knowledge about that stuff, but I grew up in this country, so if someone tells me to go back to my home country, that doesn’t even make sense because my technical land of origin is not really my home. That’s not where I grew up.
What motivates you to speak on behalf of others when you have every right to only think about yourself?
When I first became undocumented, I thought I was the unlucky person that this happened to. Over the years, I realized that there is a movement. I started to understand that this is becoming the humanitarian crisis. Of the 11 million undocumented people in this country, many of them have been here since they were kids.
I have a friend who was undocumented from South Korea. His parents brought him here when he was a year old. I believe he is 35 or 36 years old now. It’s absurd to tell someone to go back to their country when they have lived here their entire life. Yet unfortunately, because he was brought here and he crossed the border by his parents, there is no legal pathway for him to become a citizen.
I think that’s one of the things most folks don’t hear about the system. You hear that rhetoric about going to the back of the line in order to become legal. For the majority of folks who are undocumented, under the current system there is literally no line for them to get in to become legal.
Why do you speak out?
One of the reasons I came out as an undocumented immigrant is because as bad as my case is, I am one of the lucky ones. Here is what I mean. I was brought here as a kid, but I was brought here legally. Which actually gives me some options, whether it’s the H1B process or something else. My sister became a U.S. citizen three years ago, and under the current process, I probably have another six-year wait until I can apply for a green card. I get that it’s not a guarantee, but I still have another five years to wait to become a citizen. I cannot emphasize enough that I am a lucky person because I have a process. I have a pathway, whereas many of my friends don’t have a pathway at all.
(To hear the live interview with Aly Wane, click here.)