You constantly hear about the need to cut bureaucratic red tape in order to allow businesses to thrive. Well, I can tell you that the hardest part of being undocumented was not the fear of deportation. It was convincing myself that it was ok to dream, that I was deserving of a future that might consist of more than just an anonymous face in the background. Our current immigration system serves as psychological red tape that discourages millions of immigrants from fulfilling their dreams, starting businesses, and contributing to our economy. Instead of thinking about launching a business, I’m thinking about my family and the unresolved immigration issues we are still grappling with. Our immigration system is too complicated, too lengthy, and too uncertain. It is time to let our immigrants be the entrepreneurs that can help move our economy forward. It is time for immigration reform.
After I was born, my family moved from Mexico City to a small farming village in Baja California. Our new home was made of whatever branches and twigs could be found with some plastic tarp for insulation. At night, the desert temperatures would get so cold that all my single mother could do was wrap me in a blanket and pray that I’d make it through the night. With less than a high school education and few job opportunities, her future - and mine - looked bleak.
Soon enough, my mother would be presented with a life-altering opportunity to immigrate to the U.S. The only catch – she would have to leave me behind. Almost overnight, she was forced to choose between her only child and our dim prospects together or moving north and gambling on an uncertain future in America.
I'm writing this story now because my mother believed so strongly in the idea of the American Dream that she was able to put aside her fears and make the gut-wrenching decision to say good-bye to me, not knowing when she might return. Eventually she gained legal U.S. residency, but before she had the chance to petition for me, my grandmother became sick to unable to look after me. My mother returned to Mexico, picked me up and brought me to the America.
Shortly thereafter, my mother’s siblings and their children would make the same move, all of us eventually settling into a trailer park community on the outskirts of Seattle. Our parents valued education, but given their own inexperience, were unable to illustrate how school might translate to success. Meanwhile, the reality of our circumstances spoke volumes – all around us were housekeepers, landscapers, dishwashers, drug dealers. It would not be long before many of my relatives would lose their faith in the power of education and when my eldest cousin graduated from high school and still faced a dearth of post-secondary opportunities and inaccessible, well-paying jobs due to his undocumented status, the allure of education continued to lose its luster. School became non-practical and it became easy to eschew long-term planning.
In spite of this, I remained committed to school, knowing I could not let my mother’s sacrifice be in vain. By the time I gained permanent residency in high school, I was well on my way to gaining admission to Stanford University and becoming the first person in my extended family to graduate from college. My time at Stanford was life changing. Thanks to a generous financial aid package, most of school was paid for, but I still worked a job (and sometimes two) all four years I was there to help support my family. Cumulatively, the experience proved excellent training and since completing my engineering degree I have been working in the public sector in an attempt to repay the tremendous investments that were made in me. In Los Angeles, I helped secure over $100 million in energy efficiency funding for residents and businesses. In Chicago, I’ve helped double residential participation in energy efficiency programs and am currently working on an initiative to improve outcomes for justice involved youth. In the future, I plan on going back to school and by then, I hope my family will be able to come back to the U.S. to see me receive my graduate degree.
Note: since writing this post, the author has enrolled at the University of Chicago and no longer works for the City of Chicago.