IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was An Undocumented Immigrant

Like many other undocumented students, I discovered my legal status, or lack thereof, when I went to the DMV to get my provisional driver’s license.
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Barbara Sostaita
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Like many other undocumented students, I discovered my legal status, or lack thereof, when I went to the DMV to get my provisional driver’s license.
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I was undocumented until I was 20 years old. For most of my young life, I tried to hide that part of myself and pretend I was “normal.” I lost the accent, hid the homeland, and tried my hardest to dissolve my differences into America’s great melting pot. 

Yet, with discussions of immigration surfacing to the center of our national consciousness, now is a good time to come out of the shadows of fear and trepidation and share my experiences as a former undocumented student from Argentina growing up and going to school in North Carolina.

Like most immigrant families, mine came to the United States out of economic desperation. After losing our home, shuffling back and forth between apartments we were quickly evicted from and facing threats from loan sharks who promised death if my dad didn’t return their money, my parents decided to start over in the land where dreams were said to come true. So in 1998, we boarded a flight to the USA and hoped for the best.

At the time, I was clueless as to what was happening. My parents told me we were going on a vacation to meet Mickey Mouse -- little did I know that the vacation would be permanent. I resented them for a long time, for keeping the truth from me and for bringing me to a place where my humanity was questioned simply because I lacked a 9-digit number. Now that I’m older, I understand how hard it must’ve been for them. How do you tell your child she’s about to lose everything she knows, everyone she loves? How do you tell her she might not live if she stays?

Leaving Argentina, I lost my language, culture, friendships, support system, and reality. Argentina was no longer my home; I no longer had cousins to dance to Xuxa with; I couldn’t charm the street vendor into giving me a free alfajor anymore. I was forced to enter a completely new world where people didn’t know who Xuxa or what an alfajor were. 

Starting first grade in the middle of the school year, I struggled to balance learning English and adjust to the new learning environment. It didn’t help that my teacher had no experience working with immigrant children, regularly lost her patience with me and singled me out for not understanding the lessons. But how could I learn to add and subtract when there was a civil war raging inside of me? Part of me desperately clinging on to hope that this was a nightmare, and I would soon wake up in my tia’s arms. The other, more realistic side of me was struggling to adapt to what I knew was my inescapable future.

For weeks, I cried myself to sleep and went on a hunger strike, refusing to eat until I was allowed to return to the safety and comfort of mi querida patria. Now, 16 years later, I can barely remember the land I used to love. Besides faint reminiscences of walks through el Parque Centenario feeding ducks with my dad, stealing glances at my school crush and driving away to the airport while my grandmother’s silhouette faded in the distance, all I have are snapshots of people and a city that, were I to return today, would be unrecognizable. Nothing is left except a longing for more memories and curiosity about a place that I wish I knew.

Once I realized there was no going back, I fought hard to love the United States. I learned to love the snow; something I had never seen in Argentina, something that seemed so beautiful and magical I thought it must come from God. I learned to love learning, to love struggle, to practice aguante (survival at all cost). 

Every evening without fail, my mom and I sat down at our kitchen counter with an English to Spanish dictionary to translate my homework assignments. It took twice as long, but I was determined to succeed in this new country. 

My dad assured me we came to the United States for a reason, a divine purpose, like the migration stories of Abraham and Moses in the Bible, and I believed him. I memorized the preamble to the Constitution, asserting my place within “We the People”; I recited the Pledge of Allegiance with conviction and pride; I became an adopted American who fervently believed in the ideals of equality and justice for all. I was so proud to be a part of this land -- that is, until I found out I was undocumented.

Like many other undocumented students, I discovered my legal status, or lack thereof, when I went to the DMV to get my provisional driver’s license. What I learned that day changed my life forever. After years of separating myself from other immigrants, defending myself and my family when discussions of immigration came up because we had done it the “right way” and didn’t cross the border like other people, I realized I was in the same boat as the people I’d tried so hard to distance myself from. I, too, was undocumented. I was invisible.

As hard as I fought to love this country, she refused to love me back. In the eyes of the government of the United States, I did not exist even though I’d won the spelling bee in the fifth grade and my letter-to-the-editor was published in my town’s newspaper. Even though I had straight As and volunteered at the local hospital every Thanksgiving, even though I was chosen to recite my poem titled “What Freedom Means to Me” at my sixth grade graduation, freedom as I imagined it, did not apply to me.

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Realizing I was undocumented took a serious toll on my mental health. Being undocumented meant I wasn’t real. I didn’t exist. In fact, I never had a chance to exist. People like me were never meant to exist in America. 

This led to a fatal sense of self-doubt and depression that caused me to hide away for most of my high school years. I didn’t make many friends, not because I didn’t have the chance to, but because I didn’t want to. What if they found out my secret? Would they still like me? 

So instead, I buried myself in books and strove to be the best student I could be, to prove myself as worthy of existing, of being accepted in the country I had learned to love. It was the most real form of unrequited love I’ve ever experienced, wanting to belong so desperately, seeking love and affirmation from a country that turned its back on me time and time again.

By some miracle, I was accepted to Salem College despite my legal status and welcomed to a community where being undocumented didn’t limit my potential and where I didn’t have to hide. I met people and created a chosen family, and while they didn’t replace those I lost in migrating to America, they made the loneliness sting less. 

During my collegiate experience, I matured and grew into a woman confident in herself, despite her legal status, or maybe because of it. I appreciated my time at Salem College so much more because I knew how lucky I was to be in that space, how blessed I was to have the opportunity to study that was denied to so many of my undocumented sisters and brothers.

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In the meantime, my family was able to apply for a visa and was one of the few that did gain a path to legalization. I am now pursuing a graduate degree at Yale, one of the nation’s most prestigious universities whose doors were opened to people who looked like me and had a last name like mine. 

It is my challenge, it is our collective challenge, to lift as we climb, to write our stories and construct new ways of seeing, doing, knowing. To never forget where we came from, how hard we fought for our humanity to be recognized, or how many battles we have left to fight before we truly achieve a more perfect union.

I still dream of Argentina. Even though I have legal status, I have not returned to my homeland. Part of me fears I won’t accepted if I go back. Another part of me worries I would return to a place that no longer exists, that survives only on life support in my dreams. 

Yet, no matter how faint of a memory Argentina is or how much I’ve grown to love my new home, handfuls of Argentine soil are caught in my roots. I cannot escape them. I carry them with me always.