On January 21, 1970, I woke up in America for the first time. I was two years old. My parents, my younger brother, and I woke up in an apartment in North Philadelphia. I didn’t speak a word of English. At two years old I barely spoke a word of any language, but at that moment in time I spoke exactly the same amount of English as my parents did. That would change.
I grew up in America. Not in that same apartment, because we moved a lot. Sometimes because we needed a cheaper place, sometimes because we could afford a better place, sometimes because a second brother was born, sometimes because the neighborhood was getting too scary. (Immigrants are not immune to racism. On either end.) I grew up watching Brady Bunch reruns, watching baseball, and trying to convince my mother to pack peanut butter sandwiches for my lunch instead of sardines. I had a Farrah poster over my bed. I read comics. I got a new pair of glasses at the Sears’ Optical Department on Roosevelt Boulevard once a year. I had Pac Man fever! I knew I hadn’t been born here, but here was all I really knew.
“Mom, do I have a social security number?”
My first day of school I knew enough English to realize I didn’t know any English. Yes, it’s my second language. We spoke Portuguese at home. Eventually I knew enough English that I served as my parents’ interpreter whenever they had dealings with the city, or utility companies. (My parents paid all their bills, it was just a matter of which ones could be paid when.) Like many first-born immigrant kids, I became an expert at dealing with petty bureaucracy at a very young age. And my success or failure at getting an extension on an electric bill was the difference between getting a smack when we got inside the car or a Chunky when we stopped for gas.
I had no vote in coming here. I was two. That said, I liked it here. I mean, I guess I liked it. I had nothing to compare it too. It’s like asking someone if they enjoy breathing oxygen. Like millions of other immigrant kids in America, we woke up here and this was the only home we really knew. We had nothing to compare it to.
I studied hard. And thanks to Pell Grants and student loans I was able to go to college. Another American dream fulfilled. After graduation I got a job. Paid my taxes. Got a better job. Paid more taxes. Eventually managed to start squirrelling a little bit away once in a while, until some crisis where I’d have to withdraw it all. Not unlike the majority of people who also wake up in America every morning.
I even met a woman and made an anchor baby! He’s twenty now.
And yet, I’ll never forget the day I was filling out a form for school. I don’t remember what the form was. But it was the first time I’d been asked for a social security number. Mom, do I have a social security number?
Yes. Do you need it? And she walked into her bedroom. Into a drawer that had all the important documents and came out with a crisp never-before-used social security card. She waited for me to write down the number, took it back, and carefully put it back in the drawer.
At the time, I didn’t think much of what had happened. But that moment could have changed my life. And for tens of thousands of immigrant kids who grew up just like me, that same situation goes the other way. The social security card doesn’t exist. Because, while they woke up in America one day, just like me, they weren’t supposed to. For every family that did the paperwork and got the visas, there are families that didn’t. I’m not here to judge them today, as I’m sure the descendents of those that came here on the Mayflower aren’t here to judge them either. (Can’t.)
These were people who came here to avoid persecution. These are people who ran away from hostility. These are people who came here because America lit a torch. These are people who wanted a better life for their children. These are people who looked at America and saw a place where anyone had a chance to succeed if they just worked hard enough. And you cannot blame these people for wanting a better life for their children. You would’ve done the same. I hope you would’ve.
These are the children who woke up in America one day. Same as I did. Same as you do every day. This is the only land they know. And they are working the system. They are going to school. They are getting jobs. They are creating jobs. They are serving their communities. They are paramedics. And they are doctors. And they are teachers. And they are cabinet makers, and chefs, and tailors, and accountants. And tomorrow they will wake up in America. The same as you and I. And the day after that?
Regardless of how you feel about immigration, you have to admit that in America we don’t punish descendents for the transgressions of their ancestors. That is law. These kids didn’t break the law. They woke up one day in a country that was supposed to give them a chance. And they took it. For most of them this is the only country they have ever really known. We are condemning these kids to statelessness. We are undermining every promise that we made about what America was supposed to be about.
We need to save DACA. It’s the only humane choice. If we consider ourselves Americans this is the only choice open to us. Otherwise we have to admit that none of us is waking up in America anymore. We’re stuck in a nightmare.
Call your reps. Light up their phones. Make your voices heard. Please.