BY CORY McCORMICK
Your sixteenth birthday is supposed to be a monumental milestone in your life: finally, you get to be in the driver’s seat of the car without your mom screaming at you from the passenger’s seat. However, what if, instead of waking up to your very own car in the driveway, you woke up to your parents telling you that you weren’t a citizen of the United States? Honestly, this probably happens way more than you would think, as there are an estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of 2014, which accounts for 3.5 percent of the total population, and of that number, about half of them are Mexicans (49 percent). These immigrants also make up about 5.1 percent of the labor force in the United States.
I recently sat down with a 26-year-old, undocumented Mexican immigrant currently living and working in St. Louis, who chose to remain anonymous. He has practically lived here in the United States his whole life, and we can see what kind of hardships he has encountered throughout his life as a result of his undocumented status.
He was about five years old when he and his two younger siblings came to the United States. He doesn’t remember much about living in Mexico though. “I do remember when we were small that my parents rented out a restaurant and ran it, but it wasn’t paying the bills,” he said. “So my dad started going back and forth to the U.S. for a couple years. He would work there in the summer and Mexico during the winter.”
According to him, however, the constant back and forth just got to be too hectic, and his parents decided to move to the United States for good, as his father simply saw more opportunity.
Crossing the border proved to be a challenge, but they got across with no issues. “The whole thing was pretty crazy,” he claims. “My dad was already there working for the summer, and my mom had to go in a separate way than me and my siblings. We were all separated at one point, and my mom had to hire these people called ‘Coyotes’ to get us across. It was pretty scary because there was a high chance we were going to be caught.”
Once the family got settled in, though, they didn’t run into too much difficulty. “We were able to enroll in school just fine,” he said, referring to his brother and himself. “Me and my brother were both really good in school and got good grades.” They didn’t even know any English when they came over, but the school they went to offered bilingual classes. “I never had much trouble learning English, probably because I was at such a young age when I started learning it,” he says. “The school we went to had bilingual classes, so they made the whole process extremely easy. We would get an English word of the day every day, and eventually it just became second nature.”
It wasn’t until he turned sixteen that he really began to run into difficulties because of his undocumented status. “When I tried to get a driver’s license, my parents basically told me I couldn’t get one,” he said. “I had no clue that I wasn’t a citizen until that point. It was a lot to take in because during my entire life I thought I was just like everybody else, but then suddenly I wasn’t.”
He wasn’t able to get a driver’s license until he turned 24, and that was only through the use of a work permit he obtained. The permit gives him his own social security number and the right to work in the United States, but it was a very time-consuming and costly process to get one. “I had to collect hard evidence to prove that I have been here all my life. Having to pay both the $400 fee for the permit and hiring a lawyer in order to provide legal documents left me broke!” he told me. “I was already having to pay for my own college, so it was stressful. But I had to get the permit; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to get a good job even with my college degree.”
Since he mentioned college, I asked him if he had any troubles getting accepted because of his status. Apparently getting accepted wasn’t the hard part. “Getting accepted was no problem but finding the money to pay for it was,” he said. “Since I’m not a citizen, I wasn’t eligible for any grants or financial aid from the government, so I had to apply for a ton of scholarships while I was in high school.”
After this, I asked him if he had ever considered trying to become a United States citizen. “Oh, of course,” he answered, “but the whole process is really expensive and risky.”
I researched the topic after speaking with him, and he was right: you have to first apply for a green card, but there’s not even a guarantee that you’ll get one by applying. Immigrants who have a spouse or family member who is a U.S. citizen are considered top priority, but even then, they might not get a green card. After receiving a green card, they have to pass many United States English and civic tests, tests that I’m sure many born citizens couldn’t even pass.
I walked away from this interview with a deeper understanding and greater sympathy for immigrants. For a country that’s supposed to be a “melting pot” of different races, we definitely do not make it easy for people to become citizens. This man was forced to come over here and doesn’t even know if he’ll have a job next year. One thing is for sure: the United States needs to start streamlining the process of becoming a citizen, especially for hardworking people like this man I spoke with who simply wants to live a normal life like the rest of us.