This article originally ran in the printed edition of WUSSY vol.04.
You can still order your copy here.
I was twenty-four when I was first able to get a driver’s license and legally work in the United States. That’s when Obama passed the DREAM act, an act that gave a chance to live a semi-normal life to the children of undocumented immigrants. The path wasn’t easy, cheap or quick but it was the first time we had a real opportunity to live here legally. My brother and I both qualified because met the requirements; arrived when under the age of sixteen, before 2007, had no criminal record and were between the ages of 15-31. The entire process took months of gathering up documents, meetings with our lawyer to make sure we met all the requirements and money, lots of money. While it was not required to have a lawyer, the application still costs several hundred dollars. Most undocumented immigrants are fairly poor so I can’t begin to imagine how many of us could see the opportunity in front of them without having the means to obtain it. Those who could put together the money and were approved got minimal rights with conditions attached. We didn’t get the right to vote, we had to keep our clean criminal record and would have to re-apply every two years in order to keep our employment authorization and not be deported. We got nothing beyond being able to legally get a job, driver’s license and the ability to apply for a credit card. For many, this was the first taste of the American dream.
Even though DREAMers do not quality for any type of financial aid or government aid, for many it was finally a way to attend university, a way to finally start working towards a future. For me, it was the first time since arriving to this country that I felt hope. When you grow up not being able to be open about your life for fear of your family being deported, it’s hard to say I ever felt like I had a chance to succeed. My entire childhood and teen years were spent dealing with the extreme anxiety of knowing that any day I could come home from school and my parents might not be there.
I still remember my first panic attack in school -- I was in 3rd grade. I kept imagining an ICE raid happening at my parent’s place of employment and that they were now being taken somewhere for deportation. What would I do? When would I see my mom again? How would I get to my brother who was not in school yet, how would I get us back to our parents? This is something that is happening to children all around the country right now. Children are coming home to an empty place because their caretaker has been detained and is facing deportation.
I was twenty-four when, for the first time, I didn’t have to actively avoid making eye contact with a police officer for fear of them somehow knowing our secret. When I could finally have a different future then the one I thought I’d have or rather that I could actually even have a future.
“The American dream is sold to the millions of immigrants who migrate to the United States in search of a better way of life; but most of them will never get to enjoy the fruit of their labor.”
In all of this DREAMer talk, an often ignored topic is our parents. Our parents who left everything behind, who mostly work in very manual labor intensive jobs for much less money than their American peers. Our parents who gave up their dreams for us to have one. Our parents who will never get to know what true retirement is like. Our parents who risk everything just to get to work. Our parents who are often mistreated and abused by their bosses because they know that due to their situation, they will not complain or even think they have laws that protect them at work. Mine were only twenty-six when they left their home and their family for a chance to get just a piece of that American Dream. People on the right paint them as criminals, drug smugglers, “bad hombres” but truth is that most of our parents are just hardworking people who live lonely lives of slaving away for very little return. Our parents who get treated poorly in public because of their thick accent or not being able to speak English. Many of our parents do not speak English --not because they don’t want to, but because they didn’t have the option to be in school for years to learn the language. Many of them even come here alone without their families and send most of their money back to them in their homelands. Making for a way of life that is just about survival with very little leisure or ability to thrive.
Our parents have worked for the American Dream that they were sold before coming here. A dream where hard work paired with determination is supposed to allow you the ability to meet your own goals. Unfortunately, this is a country that doesn’t apply equality to all of their own people. The American dream is sold to the millions of immigrants who migrate to the United States in search of a better way of life; but most of them will never get to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Our parents are just as American as we are. My browner and shorter father with his thick accent is just as American as I am as a “passing” American. My ability to speak English with little to no accent doesn’t make me more than my mother because of her limited English skills. They have given up their culture, their family, their physical and mental health. They gave up everything just to give their children a chance for a life out of poverty, violence and corruption that poison our countries of origin. Our parents are the real DREAMers -- they gave everything up for a dream.
Now this dream hangs by a string as the political climate becomes more and more anti immigrant, anti brown, anti diversity. We live in a time where the elected official literally bans people based on their countries of origin and refuses to condemn Nazis. A time where over 800 thousand young people who finally had the opportunity to be a part of the American society are now having to wait and see what happens. As threats of taking the only option many of us ever had away become a common thing, all while our parents didn’t even get that. Immigrants have built and maintained this country, Americans consume every aspect of who we are; our culture, our food, our traditions even our holidays but do not want us. I always knew people hated us but this huge shift politically has shown us just how many of Americans don’t see us as people who deserve the chance to thrive. I didn’t write this as a way change your mind about the politics or to defend illegal immigration. I did it to humanize us -- to finally give you the face of one of us. Unlike most DREAMers, I have the privilege of a voice and I’m choosing to use it. As we continue towards a time of uncertainty and hate, I hope that you’re able to look around and see that we (not just the DREAMers, but all of us) deserve the chance to achieve our dreams too.
Luis Aceves is a published freelance photographer, artist and writer using his queer identity and Mexican heritage to fuel his creativity.