Countless demonstrations have taken place in a national effort to bring attention to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as The Dream Act. In solidarity with the Dream Act, and the countless students who would benefit from this legislation, I share with you my own journey from a small country in Central America to the vast urban jungle of Los Angeles.
From 1980 – 1992, my country of origin, El Salvador, was deeply entangled in a civil war. Financially supported by the U.S. government under President Carter and President Regan, the Salvadoran government was able to wage war against its citizens in the final stages of the Cold War.
I lost my father because of this war. He died trying to protect the basic human rights of farmers, mothers and children.
In 1983, when I was just three years old, my mother, just in her early 20’s, made a decision that would change our destiny. She would go to the U.S., work and to find a way to send money back home so that I could join her. The irony of relocating to a country that enabled the Salvadoran government to propel thousands of its citizens to leave doesn’t escape me.
Within a few years, working as a nanny despite having a bachelor’s degree, my mother had saved enough money and sent for me. I was five years old. She had remarried and I had a new family. Life was wonderful and the American dream was within reach. I was the oldest of five daughters, and went on to be the first in my family to graduate from an American high school. I receive my undergraduate degree from Cal State Los Angeles and just last year, a Masters from the University of Southern California, where I was the student speaker at the Chicano/Latino graduation ceremony. I took out loans and worked countless jobs from selling TV’s at Circuit City to walking dogs to answering phones – my parents had taught me to value of hard work and setting goals.
A few weeks ago, my state senator, Gloria Romero, recognized me as “Woman of the Year” for my work as a broadcaster and for my community service.
As I read the headlines of students risking deportation in acts that are nothing short of true American patriotism in efforts to increase the dialogue on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, I cant help but wonder about my own journey.
You see, I was thirteen years old when I learned I was undocumented – that I was “illegal.” Turns out I had crossed the Mexico and U.S. border with a Mickey Mouse shirt in the backseat of a coyote. Me, the girl who played violin, loved the Dodgers, received straight A’s and always sat in front of the class. How could I be illegal?
Turns out that despite living in a country where people were being murdered, women raped and children going missing, the U.S. government refused us political asylum. We were faced with the option of 1) risking death through war or 2) being in the U.S. without proper paperwork.
The choice was a simple one of survival.
For most teenagers, turning 13 is a right of passage, high school looms ahead with dreams of prom, boys and football rallies. For me, I learned the truth of my status and began to see the world through a different lens. We didn’t leave El Salvador because we wanted to; we left because we had to.
The choices that followed that decision have been a trickle-down effect that occurred the moment President Regan agreed to increase funding for the Salvadoran civil war.
This issue – American involvement in international affairs – is often missing in discussions on immigration. I would wager that most Americans don’t know where El Salvador is or know how much money was pumped into its civil war.
I was fortunate enough to become a resident of the U.S. in my teen years, and in 2004, I proudly cast my first vote as an American citizen during the presidential election. I love this country because of the opportunities it has offered me through my own hard work and dedication. I look at its history and know that its future is bright and solid, and one that I am helping shape.
My story isn’t anything special, extraordinary or unique. There are countless young people just like me who have overcome incredible obstacles.
As a supporter of the Dream Act, I look at the young students risking everything they have ever known and wonder about their talents, contributions and passions.
As a country, we have invested in their education, their successes, and their dreams and now, they are in limbo, unable to work with degrees they have paid for. They are unable to contribute to our economy, our tax system, our military or our research institutions.
I have received countless honors, accolades and recognitions. People say I am a role model and someone young people in the inner city can look up to.
Me, the girl who at 13 learned she was illegal. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been able to legalize my status? Would I have been able to contribute to the extent that I have?
The Dream Act is not about giving a hand out to undocumented students, it is about our ability to recognize talent, drive, and look to the future of our nation.
We owe it to ourselves, our country and our future to pass legislation that would enable a pathway to citizenship for young people willing to serve in our military or go to college.
Our society is no longer sustained within our borders; we live in a global economy where a country’s success is measured by the resiliency, strength and courage of its people – all qualities exemplified in these students.