Growing Up Undocumented

I met my maternal grandfather for the first time when I was 10 years old. He was recently widowed and had come from Mexico to spend some time with my family. I wasn’t sure what to make of this quiet old man at first, and I think my father must have sensed this when he pulled me aside and told me, “He’s your grandfather. You must look at him with respect and gratitude because without him, you wouldn’t have your mother.” This was a novel thought for me because, until this moment, I had grown up without any of my grandparents in my life. I still remember my dad’s words of powerful simplicity: look to those who you came from with gratitude and with respect. But if I’m honest, I must confess this didn’t always come so easily. Growing up undocumented in this country tainted the view I had of myself and those who I came from.

My family came to the United States just before I turned two years old. Since then, this country has been home, for it is where I made my earliest memories, the happy moments of my childhood.

From early on, my undocumented status was something which I was both aware of and unfazed by. My parents were good at keeping from me any major fears and anxieties they might have had. In fact, my greatest concern in elementary school regarding the matter was that I was unable to go to SeaWorld in San Diego because of the immigration checkpoints on the way back to LA.

The author in 1993, aged 5.

This sense of limitation grew, however, as I got older. Seeing the airplanes that fly so low over my hometown of Inglewood filled me with a longing to visit the country of my birth to see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and imagine what my life might have been like had we stayed. As high school approached, I began to think about the things that any American teenager thinks about at that age: a driver’s license, a part-time job, and college, knowing that my undocumented status presented an obstacle and that these things might not be a reality for me.

I was incredibly fortunate to have received my legal permanent residence in high school, just before any of that became a problem. A few years later, I would become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Though I now enjoyed the full rights of any American, there are some things a piece of paper can’t change. Through the years I had experienced the attitudes of hostility and discrimination that exist toward migrants, and the stigma of coming from an undocumented family still haunted me when I heard words like “illegals,” “criminals,” or “law-breakers,” used to refer to us.

Even well-intentioned comments could pose a problem. In the recent debates over DACA, many who favor the policy have argued that those who would benefit from it came to this country through no fault of their own, implying that those at fault are, in fact, our parents. When something as sacred as family is labeled as guilty or blameworthy, it leaves one feeling conflicted, ashamed, and voiceless.

Several years ago, I came across something that radically countered the negative messages that abound regarding immigration. I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an immigration poster that read: “I am here because my parents are responsible, courageous, and hardworking individuals.” The message spoke to a truth within my heart that was often drowned out by the harmful sound of criticism and judgment. Never had I seen a positive message stated so plainly and directly. There’s honestly not enough of that out there.  

While an instance like this offered a glimmer of hope, it has been my faith which has helped me to break the bonds of fear and shame that often shackle me. Before entering the Jesuits, I went on an eight-day silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which is to this day the best time of my life. In the sacred silence, I got to know myself and God’s love for me in a way I never thought possible. Simply put, it was a very real, very deep, and very personal encounter with the Risen Christ. I remember coming to Jesus with all my anxieties and fears of rejection, and in the Resurrection meditation, hearing him say to me, in my native Spanish, no less, “Se acabó el miedo.” “Your fears are over.”

I understood then, that my sense of worth was not dependent on the approval of others, but rather on the human dignity that Christ unconditionally restored through his Resurrection. Much in the same way that Christ affirmed the goodness from which we came, I have learned to affirm the goodness from which I come, to look upon my parents with respect, gratitude, and love, just like my father asked.

In spite of having such a powerful experience, it’s not as if my struggles have forever disappeared. Christ’s words are something I have to remind myself of every day. The Christian life is a relationship that merely begins with encountering the Risen one, but is ultimately fulfilled in following Christ daily on his mission of healing us and reconciling us to the Father and to one another.

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I am grateful to the Church, which has consistently affirmed the inherent human goodness and dignity of the migrant, the same Church, which, like a loving mother, has embraced my family in this country and nurtured my vocation to the Society of Jesus.

Most recently, Pope Francis launched a global campaign on migration called “Share the Journey,” aimed at promoting a culture of encounter between migrants and non-migrants. As part of this movement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is kicking off its Week of Prayer and Action on October 7th, inviting us to get to know one another and thus grow in community and solidarity. We each have fears, we each have wounds, we each need a Savior. Why not share the journey together?

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