My dad’s hands violently trembled as he gripped the steering wheel. His knuckles became as white as my mom’s face when she turned to my brother and me in the backseat. She told us to duck down. The knot in my stomach tightened as I did and sheer terror muted me. We did not dare budge. My dad was instructed to park just past the booth behind a group of squad cars. When my parents got out, the tension was so palpable, like it had taken the place of their empty seats. After one dreadfully long hour, they silently came back to the car and we pulled out of the Canadian checkpoint into America. A couple of miles later, my dad’s excitement finally burst out of him. “We did it! We made it!” Everyone else in the car was silent. I burst into tears.
My dad was 26, my mom was 30, my little brother was 5, and I was 6. We came from Lithuania, a country that had just gained its independence from the Soviet Union 9 years earlier. We were all so young and the American Dream was an old and romantic notion. But we initially faced only the repercussions. Instead of thriving, we feared deportation and compromised our dreams for food in our stomachs and clothes on our backs. We felt that we had no control. At age seven, I made beds and folded towels at a local Motel 6; at fifteen, I swept floors in a 20,000 square foot car dealership, and vacuumed thirty-six floors at a local condominium complex. Calluses developed on my delicate hands and dark circles formed under my already hollow eyes. I was no longer a child.
But I also fell in love with this country. I learned English from scratch and was always the first to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the last to sit after the Star Spangled Banner. Thomas Jefferson wrote about a happiness that every person in this country has the inalienable right to pursue and I witnessed every single person in my family, especially my parents, sacrifice so much of their lives for it. Not happiness in money or power. Just the happiness of bettering ourselves as humans and freely following our own passions. These thoughts pushed me to embrace my education as a chance to grow into the person I want to be: a volunteer, a leader, and a doctor.
When all other colleges either rejected or refused to acknowledge my inability to afford their tuition, IIT took a chance on me. So I rose up to the occasion. I am currently a freshman Cameras and Leadership Academy Scholar. I work on campus. I do epilepsy research.
I cannot afford a meal plan or housing and the stress of commuting is tearing my family apart. I’m terrified of applying to medical school without being able to take out loans and feel like I have no faculty to confide in about my situation. There’s not one day that I don’t think about it all. I have spent the past thirteen years hearing my peers talk about visiting their grandparents during holidays or studying abroad. I have spent nights crying and wishing for a different past. Wishing that I were as lucky as my friends to have that one piece of paper to prove myself as a true American.
But I’m done crying! Does my lack of a social security number really make me less of an American? I have done nothing but try to prove myself in this country. I watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and eat the same food. And I believe every one of my fellow undocumented immigrants feel exactly the same way. Yes, that’s who we are. Undocumented. Not “illegals.” Not “aliens.” Not “criminals.” We are human beings who demand the same respect as any American citizen and add just as much into this system instead of supposedly draining it.
So get rid of any preconceived image that pops into your head when you hear the phrase “undocumented immigrant” because I’m sure most of you never expected me to be one. No one’s path in life is predetermined. I feel so incredibly blessed to be standing right where I am because I know that one Thursday morning thirteen years ago does not fully define me, but motivates me to succeed and prove myself further. But my story is only one of many. My only wish is for all of you to, please, listen.
My name is Egle, I am undocumented, and I am IIT.