the challenges of 'Getting Legal'

I am undocumented. I am America. Trump doesn’t change that.

Jorge Corona

I was floored when my first DACA card arrived. It came to the mailbox of my college apartment in Texas. My friend Rene, who was with me at the time, recalls it clearly:

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I opened the envelope in disbelief and took out a thick plastic card with my picture on it. It was my license to live and work legally in this country for two years.

President Obama had created DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, by executive order earlier that year. It was in response to Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. DACA is a provision that provides temporary deportation relief and work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Hello! That’s me.

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I applied for DACA on my own, spending long nights in the basement of our college newspaper going through the dense application line by line. I was essentially playing the role of my own lawyer, carefully checking and double checking everything, then writing the hefty checks required—close to $500 per application—all in hopes of one day finding a job somewhere other than the kitchen of a family-run restaurant that pays cash under the table.

Going to the DACA appointment and getting fingerprinted and photographed by immigration officials felt surreal, unsure. It was another part of a juggling act of status that I had been putting on out of necessity every day until then. Tearing open the envelope’s flap and finally pulling out that laminated card was a euphoric moment. It was permission for me to find a job related to my interests and skills. It was permission to travel by plane without fear of being stopped or questioned. It was permission to get a driver’s license in Texas. It was legal permission to be okay.

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Then Donald Trump happened. He’s promised that one of his first acts as president will be to repeal executive orders like DACA, and take away my card and the cards of thousands of other young people like me. With a single pen stroke, Trump could undo everything I’ve worked for—everything we’ve worked for—to build a life in this country. He could take away my permission to live, work and contribute to the United States. He could undo my life. And I’ve never even met the guy!

I can understand the point of view of those who want to crack down on unauthorized immigration. Though I don’t agree that we should be called “illegals,” entering a the country without permission—or in my case overstaying a travel visa when I was 11 years-old—is a violation of the law. But the law leaves no room for the gray areas. My family wanted to start a business in the U.S. We intended to only explore the possibility, until a business partner left my parents high and dry after selling all our stuff back in Mexico. So we stayed.

Me in high school, reading how to be America

Me in high school, reading how to be America

Other immigrants come and stay to escape violence back home. Or they come and stay because there are fewer jobs in their country. Or they come to provide a better future for themselves and their families. But when you break the law, the law doesn’t care about any of that. I get it.

But just imagine if all the people who saw the United States as a beacon of hope COULD come here legally to live and work and give back to the country they so clearly believe in. If people could enter the U.S. legally, they would. But the system is far too complex, too unfair, and it doesn’t allow the people we need to welcome in to come here legally.

If you find yourself shaking your head when you read those words, it’s probably because you haven’t gone through it yourself. And I don’t blame you! If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t either.

Legalese sucks, man. The visas that are given out are too costly and restrictive for the immigrant workers this country needs. The system was most recently revised more than 50 years ago. It’s terribly outdated. And if you don’t fit within that system, you’re out of luck. If you are one of the numerous people who argue that the undocumented people should just “get legal,” or just “be legal,” I recommend that you fight with us to reform the system so that we can “get legal.” Because that’s what we want, too.

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The uncertainty that undocumented immigrants live with today is great. It’s a heavy add-on to the uncertainty of life. It affects those with and without DACA.

Now, even the temporary security I had from DACA feels more temporary than I would like. If Trump follows through on his promise to eliminate it—and there’s little reason to think he won’t, given that it is one of the easiest of his promises to fulfill—people in my situation will return to square one. The original stage of our constant uncertainty.

DACA was never a long-term solution. But it was a stopgap measure that helped to reduce the instability of being an undocumented immigrant in this country. It was a small clearing in the woods, where we could pretend for just a little while that we are like everyone else in this country. That we had the same rights and privileges as everyone else who works here and pays taxes and aspires to bigger and better things in life. That we had the same rights as everyone else to dream and plan for and reach the future.

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In the four years since that joyous mail day, I’ve been busy trying to develop my skills as a filmmaker, a writer, a person. I’ve renewed my DACA card every two years, as required by law.

The first year I renewed DACA I had just moved to New York on my own savings. I worked as (possibly the worst-ever) administrative assistant at a small private school, and I freelanced in film and media, until I was able to move into a full-time position at Fusion.

Not everyone I work with knows about my immigration status. I don’t wear it on my sleeve. I don’t talk about it ad nauseum. But it’s always on my mind; I can rarely forget it.

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The second time I renewed DACA was this year. Due to the lag in the system, perhaps due to a pre-election rush on renewals, I was forced to take unpaid time off from work until I got my renewed card in the mail to work legally again. Despite working for a news site that has a progressive editorial stance, I was almost terminated. I eventually got my card in the mail three hours before I was set to be fired. Others in my position were not so lucky.

I don’t pretend to speak for everyone who is living in this country without proper immigration documents— all 11 million of us. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone who is marginalized in this country. But I do suspect that I speak for many of us when I say that the ifs of being undocumented are nothing new. And if anything, these ifs are what strengthens our hope.

Our hope is raw. Our hope is beaten. Our hope is bruised. But our hope is there. Our hope is there when we wake up every morning, and it’s with us when we go to bed at night. And in the morning, we still have hope. And no law, policy, or mean talk can take our hope away.

I urge those in power to work with that hope, to work with us, to bring us into the fold. Because we are America. And if America allows it, we have a lot of hope to give.