Caritas Doha, a staff member at Sakhi for South Asian Women—a non-profit organization committed to eliminating violence against women—shares her story of being an undocumented immigrant in the United States in a five-part series for the organization, “Documenting Dreams.” The first two parts are reposted below.
Like most issues in my family, there was no conversation that accompanied it.
They weren’t even there when I found out for sure. I was in my high school guidance counselor’s office, having a preliminary conversation about the college process. Initially this involved routine questions I could readily answer like what I wanted to study, or where I saw myself in five years. But as we started talking about how I planned to finance my higher education, the conversation turned to a series of questions--"Do you have a visa? How about a Social Security number? Are your parents citizens, at least?"--for which I had to consistently answer "no." And like that, I came face to face with the hard-truth that continues to affect me to this day – I, Caritas Doha, am undocumented.
There had been whispers throughout my life that something was amiss about my immigration standing: Unlike my cousins, I never spent summers in Bangladesh. When the rest of my friends were studying for their learner’s permits, I defended myself by saying a true New Yorker only needs a metrocard. I didn’t have time for a job because I was focused on studying during the academic year and during summer vacation I was taking care of my little brothers. Years worth of clues that finally had a term to bind them all together: undocumented.
During all those years and for quite some time after that day in high school, I never asked my parents to explain to me the specifics of my status. Partly because I assumed it was something that they were working on and would be resolved by the time it mattered most. But also partly because I was afraid that asking would sound like an indictment.
Ultimately that is what happens when there is only silence surrounding an issue, isn’t it? Breaking the silence, however unintentionally or haphazardly, is an act of disruption. In my eyes, then, it was an act of disobedience. I was afraid that an enquiry as simple as, “what is our immigration status?” would sound like “are you doing what you are supposed to be doing?” I had equated being a good daughter with not questioning anything, not stirring up trouble with my concerns.
So, as a girl who respected her parents fiercely, for years I stayed silent about my suspicions. I understand the instinct toward silence and the respect remains – but I no longer see the truth about my experience as something I need to hide.
I’d like to be able to say that once I found out that I am undocumented immigrant, I channeled that shock into positivity. I’d like to be able to say that I became determined to succeed despite such startling news. But that’s not what happened next.
I remember sitting in front of my computer spending hours trying to understand what the label “undocumented” meant for my life. I had practical questions. I wanted to know how it would impact my ability to go to school, get a job, a bank account, or a driver’s license. I didn’t find specific or actionable answers, and whatever little information I found was not uplifting. The DREAM Act was going through some of its first iterations. It had been included in Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills, and failed along with them. There was talk of making the passage of the DREAM Act a legislative priority, but this was hardly encouraging when compared to the amount of vitriol directed toward any support for the bill. Frankly, it was scary, and certainly didn’t help my uncertainty about whose guidance to seek.
Perhaps I should have been heartened to know that there were others like me. Enough of us, in fact, to warrant congressional attention and a special designation: DREAMer. But as politicians held up profiles of these students and how deserving they were because of their 4.0s, extracurriculars, and laundry lists of accomplishments, I felt increasingly alienated. If this was the DREAMer narrative, then I couldn’t have been one.
It mirrored the alienation I had already felt at Stuyvesant High School. In a school known for its overachieving, Ivy League-bound, student body, I was skipping class, failing anything that wasn’t a standardized test, and completing only a small fraction of my assignments. I knew I was capable of performing better, but in a perfect storm of teenage recalcitrance and an increasingly emotionally abusive home-life, I couldn’t motivate myself. And at Stuy, for people with an academic record like mine, it was easy to fall by the wayside.
My undocumented status added to that a new dimension of hopelessness. So much that was necessary to be successful, in such a competitive atmosphere, was off-limits to me: scholarships, internships, travel opportunities, most colleges and all financial aid. My parents, like many other South Asian parents, had no context or nuance for how they measured success. Mine had a delusional mantra of “Harvard, Oxford”. I faced incredible amounts of pressure from them, without any guidance or support for navigating the college process. Terms like Common App, or FAFSA had no meaning to them. And after I learned about my status, they had no meaning to me either. When my high school peers were applying to carefully selected colleges, I applied to a grand total of: zero.
The overriding thought was, “what’s the point?” Even if I had been performing well, opportunities didn’t exist for kids like me. I was far too overwhelmed and lacked the resources and support to get me back on track. My status, my grades, and abuse at home contributed to a feeling of powerlessness that pervaded my entire day, and eventually precipitated my first major spiral into depression. I wasn’t the model DREAMer as we have come to know them, but I still needed help.
Caritas Doha is the DACA Services Coordinator at Sakhi for South Asian Women. Follow her on Twitter at @caritasdaca.