As 52,000 children wait in detention at the US-Mexico border, I can’t help but think about all of their stories. Why aren’t we hearing the human side of their existence? Perhaps not knowing is easier because if we knew, it might be harder for us to think about “sending them back” or “not letting them in.”
It’s easier not to know their personal journeys.
As I write this, our President, Speaker of the House, and the Governor of Texas are going back and forth on “executive orders” vs. “congressional approval”; “abuse of power” vs. “no action.” Despite the arguments, a decision on comprehensive reform could come in the next few hours or the next few weeks. In the meantime, there are 52,000 stories of people not being shared who made a tough decision to leave their home country for U.S.—and each of them likely has a different reason for coming.
Do you know anyone who’s made that journey? I do. His name is Daniel.
Daniel made the same journey as many of the 52,000 detainees –he crossed that border years ago, when he was 12, with his mom and dad. He had lived in a town in Mexico where the local factory shut down, leaving many out of work. The cartels moved in, violence became the norm, and suddenly his hometown wasn’t the safe place he remembered from his young childhood. His parents made the decision to create a better life for their son.
But, because of that decision, Daniel is technically here illegally. Now at the age of 21, he’s been a migrant worker, a police cadet, and now a college student. Life for him hasn’t been easy, but here he can live up to his full potential as a human. His goal is to earn his citizenship and work in national security. Because he received DACA last year, his American dream is a possibility.
What I’m reminded about each time I talk to someone with a story like Daniel’s is that we each have come to the U.S. as immigrants; whether that was individually in the last few years or through the paths of our fathers and mothers many moons ago. Some of our ancestors came here legally, some illegally, and some were forced to come to the U.S. But the one thing we all have in common today is the search for the opportunity that America offers.
Daniel shared his story with The Facing Project last summer, and we are honored to share his journey of becoming an American with our readers today as one of our “Featured Stories of the Week.”
Through stories of immigration, we may realize how similar our lives are to each other.
In America I Trust
Daniel’s story. Age 21. Oregon.
In 2004 I came to the United States because my parents did not see a future for my family in Mexico. My town depended on a sugar cane factory, but after NAFTA people slowly started to be laid off. At the same time the drug cartel violence was just starting to pick up.
My parents came here to find the American Dream; they sacrificed a lot and left their families behind. They did not realize how difficult life is here without the proper documentation. They came here with dreams to find a stable job, feed our family, and be able to give an education and opportunity to us that was not in our home country.
My journey has been very unique. When I left my hometown in Veracruz, I did not know why my parents were bringing me to the United States. I didn’t know where I was going. I remember the day I left my hometown; it still haunts me. I did not know if I would ever come back. I cleaned all of my toys in my room making sure everything looked perfect because I wanted things to be ready so that when I came back home my toys were there to play and share with my friends.
I remember packing a big box of toys I wanted to take, but my mom said I could only take five small toys; talk about making a hard choice. As we put our small bags in a truck, I looked back at my grandparents and waved as their faces faded away. As the sun rose I looked back at my town, already dreaming about the stories I would share with my grandparents about a new place called America.
My mother and I walked for miles in the desert. I remember my mom carrying me in her arms, and as I fell asleep I did not say how scared I was because I could see her fear. She would tell me, “We are almost there,” but all I saw was sand. After crossing the border, we moved to Oregon where we have lived since 2004.
After middle school my life changed. I remember sitting in class and my history teacher talking about the American Revolution, World War II, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement. I was interested in all of the sacrifices the American people faced and overcame; they fought to uphold the American way of life. I learned that America is the way it is because of these sacrifices to make our communities better. That is when I decided I was going to do everything to uphold the values of my community. I decided I wanted to go to a military school and work for the CIA. I knew they all required citizenship, but I thought maybe if I could prove to them I am just like them, they will make an exception; I could protect this country from what was being faced in Mexico.
So that’s what I did. After three years I learned English; I went from ESL classes to honor classes to advanced courses. During that time I first realized what it meant to be undocumented because I wanted to serve in my community as a police cadet. I really wanted to apply but my dad did not want me to because he was afraid we would get deported. So one day I invited a police officer to my house and told him I was undocumented but I wanted to be part of his program. He told me that has not been allowed before, but he would get back to me to see if I could join. He got back to me and said I could. For me it was my biggest victory of many. After that doors opened to serve in the JROTC, firefighting, serving as a city youth counselor, and serving on public safety boards.
It was perfect until my junior year.
I was a top student in my class, served about 100 hours to my community, and played sports. As everyone applied for scholarships and got their drivers licenses, I could not. It was hard for me when people would ask what was going to happen to me after high school. To make things worse, my grandpa passed away. I remember my mom crying because she had to choose between her dad’s funeral, which meant never coming back to America, or staying with us. It was so hard for me that all of this was happening in my life; I felt depressed for about two years. I felt ashamed, guilty, and I didn’t know what to do.
People were expecting a lot from me.
After I gave a speech to my graduating class, I did not know what was going to become of me. From top student to a regular student, all of the 15 mile walks after volunteering felt like I did it for nothing.
After high school I started working in the fields. It was horrible because I wanted to be challenged mentally, not physically. It was hard to see workers not treated right. It was hard to hear about the dreams they had—to be doctors, attorneys, police officers, own a restaurant—but they could not because of their documentation status. I often would go home crying, and one day I decided to quit my job because I could not stand how bad they treated the workers. I did not know how, but I was going to find myself an education where I could help create opportunities for others like me.
I went to a community college where they helped me pay for classes. After I got approved for DACA¹, I started lobbying at the capitol to make sure we could get in-state tuition and driver’s licenses. Everyday a friend and I would debate with politicians. Our day started at 7:00 in the morning and ended at 5. For me it was the biggest fight of my life because my parents and many people’s futures depended on Legislators to vote in favor of this bill; which passed this year. Today a Chief Justice and his wife, a Mayor, help pay for my tuition in a four-year university. I major in economics and finance.
Life in the U.S. has been very difficult. It is not easy. Something I have learned from being undocumented is that it is hard to become an American. Like JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That is what dreamers are doing. We are earning our way to citizenship just like the founding fathers. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. earned the right to be called Americans; it was not given.
Life is very difficult trying to have a job, going to school, and trying to volunteer in your community. For me every day is a challenge, but it is worth it because I believe in the American dream. I believe my parents should have the right to earn a path to citizenship. I do this because I believe, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, we need to provide justice, liberty, and the opportunity for a pursuit of happiness for those who want to live the American way of life.”
I hope to earn my citizenship so I can serve our country to ensure our national security, be able to call myself an American, and represent this nation around the world. My fear is that I will not be able to see my grandma before she passes away. My other fear is that my parents could get deported at any time, and my mom and sister do not have the proper healthcare to make sure their quality of life is good. I fear that I will not be able to earn my citizenship if immigration reform does not happen.
I hope people read my story. I hope they help open a path for me to become a United States citizen. I am trying to create more opportunities in this country. I am here because I love this country. I am American.
Daniel lives in Oregon and is studying economics and finance.
¹Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a memorandum passed on June 15, 2012, it directs U.S. Borders and Customs Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to practice prosecutorial discretion toward some individuals who immigrated illegally to the United States as children.