Marta Paczkowska

Marta Paczkowska

Clifton, NJ

As a kid, living in the United States without a green card was little more than an occasional inconvenience – waking up extra early on a Saturday morning to meet with a lawyer, being restricted to the United States side of the Niagara Falls. Nothing too life-altering. My earliest memory of feeling affected in some way – my immigrant coming-of-age moment, so to speak – was when my parents missed my 8th grade graduation. They were scheduled for an interview for permanent residency that day. That was the first moment I felt a twinge of unfairness and a slight discomfort with my undocumented status. At the age of fourteen I didn’t know how to tell my friends why my parents weren’t at my graduation. “My parents wanted to be here,” I told them. “They just had an emergency.” The first of many uncomfortable, vague and deliberately elusive answers to innocent prodding from friends. I worked at being a model student in high school – took honors and Advanced Placement classes, was lead cellist, varsity swimmer, volunteer reporter for the regional paper, president of Model Congress, graduated 11th out of 700 seniors. I even drafted a version of the DREAM Act for my school’s Model Congress Club, which passed into law at the annual high school congressional convention. But that was simply simulation and I distinctly remember the reality of watching the immigration reform protests of 2006 on television, feeling like a coward and a hypocrite on the sidelines. I had always been vocal about human rights issues but tried to slip by these particular debates unnoticed. By that time, I had heard enough arguments between my parents on the issue, had filed enough paperwork, had made enough visits to immigration offices to understand that something more important than my 8th grade graduation was at stake. My parents’ application for permanent residency got muddled in bureaucracy after their interview on the day of my graduation – paperwork followed by waiting, followed by more paperwork and more waiting, and then switching of lawyers and more paperwork that suspended us in a grey area of existence all too familiar to undocumented immigrants. So I learned to lay low until the storm passed. And it did. The immigration reform protests fizzled out with no discernible effect on my life. I continued to study and take the SATs and apply to colleges because that had been the plan all along. But graduating from college and then working as a nanny – with no better alternatives available to me – was not part of the plan. Without a worker’s permit, I could not be legally employed outside the realm of domestic service and other such jobs. Then almost two years after my college graduation, I was granted permission to work legally in the United States, as many undocumented youth were thanks to President Obama’s Deferred Action policy. But I am still waiting on the DREAM Act. I am waiting on a real, lasting solution that provides a path to citizenship, not just another two years of the same uncertainty and instability that has made planning for the future an agonizing impossibility. The last ten years of my life are the reality for many, many undocumented youth. The specific details may be different, but the general course of events is the same: you are brought to the United States as a kid, get sent to school, study hard to justify your parents’ sacrifices, get old enough to understand the situation you’re in, and ultimately hit a dead end. And you ask these kids, who by now may be twenty four like me or older, who are you? And what can they say, with one foot here and one foot there, straddling cultures and identities? Half-American? I know I’m not American, at least not by legal standards, which, let’s face it, is what matters when you’re trying to be a functioning member of society. I’m not an American. But the harnessed power of Ernest Hemingway’s words runs a chill down my spine and veterans singing the United States national anthem bring tears to my eyes and I insist that there is a difference between undocumented and unauthorized because I feel the English language deep in my bones. What does it mean to be American? This question is being asked of every single person living in the United States. It is not an individualized, isolated issue anymore. It is not only whispered about and dealt with in the living rooms of the undocumented immigrants. What does it mean to be American? Even unspoken, it is clawing at our insides, forcing us to question long held norms, slowly shifting the structure of our society. It is creating a whole generation with an identity crisis, and it’s not only a crisis for the young people in my situation, but for the entire United States. This country that was founded on immigration, what is this country founded on now? Is it not still a country of aspiring freedom fighters, of revolutionaries and law-breakers, of Samuel Adams and George Washington, of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan? Aren’t these people the revered heroes of American history? We forget sometimes that they were initially on the wrong side of history. We are reminded that “sometimes heroes and heroines break the law. After all, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a Montgomery Alabama bus she broke the law too.” (David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in his article “Jose Antonio Vargas Takes His Seat.”) Change is never welcomed with open arms. I can’t speak for other young immigrants without lawful status, but I don’t want sympathy – I want solidarity. I want to show that we are worth fighting for. We are a varied, vibrant group of contributing individuals who have, in our own individual ways, been quietly fighting for recognition all our lives. We are your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, your tempest-tossed. We have backbone. And we want to bring this country back to greatness. But we first need to be made a part of this country.

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