Illustrations by: Tyler Earles
This story was told via telephone interview to Debra Dylan of KnoxZine. Some details have been changed to protect the speaker’s identity.
When I was small my mother and I left my birthplace, hoping for more opportunities in another country.
For a while, things were good in our new location. My mother had a good job in the fashion industry. But then inflation skyrocketed and there were huge riots. People could not afford to buy food.
We had some relatives in the United States. My mother moved to Florida on a tourist visa and took a job as a maid.
On September 11, 2001, she called me and said the United States will begin cracking down on immigrants. “You need to get here as soon as you can.”
I arrived on Christmas Day. Three days later I turned sixteen.
I experienced massive culture shock. I began attending school. The only English words I knew were the names of a few colors.
We did not like Florida, so my mother moved to Knoxville to see what it was like, and she stayed with her missionary cousins. By the time I arrived, our cousins had left. We knew no one.
I attended school but still could not understand or speak English very well. My mother was a night-shift factory worker so, for a long time, I spoke to no one during the day or night. It was like having my tongue cut out. I became very depressed.
My mother and I were not getting along. I moved to a local runaway shelter. Most kids stay for one or two weeks, until they can be placed with other family members. I had no family. I lived at the shelter for a year, and it was the best thing that happened to me.
People were interested in talking to me. I learned to sing in English. I made friends, and I had my art. The shelter obtained health services for my mother.
When I returned home, I realized I still was not ready to be there. One day, my alarm went off for school. I turned it off and did not get out of bed. I never returned to school. I didn’t even go back to pick up my stuff. I went through another long bout with depression.
We did not consider returning to our former country. It would mean starting over again, and if we changed our minds, we would not be able to come back. There was still poverty and misery there.
Four years later I completed my G.E.D. Ironically, English was my best subject. When you are an undocumented immigrant, you cannot attend college. You cannot have a driver’s license, a job, or a bank account. The only identification I have is my passport.
When we first came here, getting a job was not easy, but it is much harder now. I worked in restaurants for a while.
I became a self-employed artist and I employ others. The government gave me a tax identification number. I pay taxes but cannot receive benefits. (No welfare or food stamps). When I get paid I have to find rides to cash my checks. Some undocumented immigrants who find a job are subject to labor abuses-but they cannot complain.
When I applied to become a documented resident, I had to prove I had been in the country for 5 continuous years. This was hard because we were always trying to hide. The legal process is hard and slow, and there is no guarantee you will be accepted as a legal resident.
Catholic Charities has provided me with a lawyer. I qualified for the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a special but limited reform signed by President Obama. A few weeks ago I received my work permit through DACA, but it is very limited.
People ask, “Why don’t they go the legal way?” It took my family 15 years to get where we are today.
Many immigrants are escaping violence, poverty, and misery. Coming here is a struggle but we are not getting shot or starving to death. Why else would we do such a big thing? Immigrants come here because they are desperate. The United States is a Christian society. If immigrants need help that badly, why not give them a hand?
I am grateful for help form Akin (Allies for Knoxville Immigrant Neighbors) and Comite Popular, and other local groups who help with immigration reform. These groups also help to combat the stereotype of the undocumented immigrant.
I look forward to the day when I can finally be free to tell my story. I look forward to being free to travel to another country to see my grandmother, knowing I can come back to the United States. Meanwhile, friends have given me rides to Nashville and Atlanta to continue the steps I need to take to become a legal resident.
© Tyler Earles, 2013, for illustrations.
© Knoxzine, 2013.