“I am from there. I am from here.
I am not there and I am not here.
I have two names, which meet and part,
and I have two languages.
I forget which of them I dream in.”
There are moments in life that shape you. Others that change you to the core. If there is something consistent for many immigrant families, it is the turning point moments that changed us. Moments that test us in so many ways. I was nineteen years old when I had to face what seemed like an inevitable moment for millions of immigrants.
I was driving home; I knew it was going to happen as soon as our eyes met. A police officer who was parked on the side of the road followed me until we reached a nearby store. His sirens turned on. I still remember that day as if it was yesterday. Up to that point I had never gotten in trouble. I was afraid to rock the boat as many immigrants are. I had kept my head down, worked, obeyed, and kept to myself. That day, as the officer stopped me for a broken tail light, I wasn’t afraid. Then as he asked me for my papers, I felt my heart sink. I was honest because up to that point I was convinced officers were there to protect those who followed the rules. Then he arrested me, my heart was pure in knowing I had done nothing wrong. That was until I got to the jail and I stood in front of an interrogating officer who began to ask very abruptly about drug deals, crossing the border, and drug locations. That’s when I got a mixture of anger and crippling fear. What were they talking about?!I knew in that moment that what lied ahead for me would not be easy. I was stopped for a tail light, but ended up being accused of things I would never do.
That moment, when my eyes met with the police officer’s eyes, changed my life. I went on to fight the accusations being made, but after those were cleared, I spent nine more years fighting my deportation and fighting for a legal status in this country. In that time, I learned a lot about the system, the naturalization process, and about myself. This is our reality, our stories. It’s what immigrants face on a daily basis. However, they do not have to end in tragedy.
Below are 20 things that I’ve learned from this process during those nine years. Things that I wish I knew when I was nineteen and going through the process alone. Things I know can help you if you find yourself in a similar similar situation or going through a difficult time.
Remind yourself that you are stronger than your current circumstances
It’s not easy to get up and leave behind a country you fell in love with. A home and the relationships you’ve built. As immigrants, we have to live through this difficult moment multiple times in our lifetime. Not to mention the strength it takes to walk into a courtroom alone, waiting for a stranger to decide your future. The whole process can be very taxing mentally, emotionally, and even physically. It is important you acknowledge that and remind yourself that you are stronger than all of it.
Murphy’s law: Prepare, prepare, prepare
If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Immigrants know very well that tomorrow is not promised in this country. However, we cannot live just waiting for the other shoe to fall from the sky. We have to learn to be proactive because whether the system wants us to think so or not, this is home! We must be ready to protect that if anything happens. I am a strong believer that there are two plans we must all have: they are the prep plan and the action plan.
Plan 1: Prep plan
There are certain things that we should have regardless of whether we think we have a case or not. They are a small savings, a lawyer, and logistics of things. I know it’s difficult to tell you to have a savings when many immigrant families struggle to make ends meet. However, it is crucial for you to have some sort of emergency fund because being in the midst of a difficult moment and having to dig for funds, asking family members, and struggling to pull money together, is hard when time is ticking. Living while not knowing if tomorrow we will remain in this country is torturing. Having a small savings will allow you to have options for the type of actions you can take. Had I not had a small savings and family members who were willing to lend me money to make bail, I would not be here today. See image below:
Find a Lawyer
When we are in state of emergency or in survival mode, many times we lack the ability to stay centered. We are constantly in pain, worry, shock, sadness, and anger. It’s so much to endure. For that reason, the more prepared you are the better chances you will have. Take the time now to look up immigration lawyers or organizations that can help you in a case of an emergency. Many lawyers give free consultations and it’s definitely something you should take advantage of. Look up their rating, credentials, and how they work. Carry that number in your wallet and phone. In addition, give it to your family members, everyone should be informed. It’s always better to have someone in your corner ready to go.
Plan 2: Action Plan
Now if you get approached by ICE officers it’s very important to know your rights. Understand they are not there to listen, understand, or make compromises. They have one goal and that is to meet a number of people they detain and deport. Knowledge is power. See image below:
Food for vultures
One of the things that surprised me as a young nineteen-year-old is that tragedy vultures exist. Those that profit from innocent immigrant families and their difficult moments, from the officers to the system, to people who say they can help to take your money. I unfortunately had to learn this the hard way. In the middle of my process my first lawyer tuned out to be a fraud. He would take cases of innocent people very well knowing he was not credited to practice law in that specific state. I lost thousands of dollars, time, and had to go on a separate case for that. It is added stress, time, and money. Which is why the next few points are crucial.
- Know who can represent you
There are plenty of amazing organizations who can assist you in these hard times. There are workshops that help you fill out forms. While all these are great resources it is important to clarify the limitations for non-certified assistance.
- They may help you fill out forms but are not considered your legal counsel in front of a judge
- You may take a family member, friend, or community member to assist you with translation in non-court instances if USCIS can’t provide a translator. However, they cannot speak on your behalf beside direct translation.
It is very important to know this because many opt for workshops. Which are a great source for information, and many times led by legal counsels. The problem lies when people walk out thinking they have legal representation. In any instance forms can have errors or if there are any questions, those holding the workshops are not liable. The truth is that inside the doors of the court room only certified legal counsel, who you have hired to represent you, have a voice in front of the judge.
Some amazing organizations that assist the immigrant community are:
- AILA ( American Immigration Lawyers Association): Is in association of immigration lawyers. They assist in the process of finding good, credible immigration lawyers.
- The New Americans Campaign: A website dedicated to help you find assistance to fill out your citizenship forms.
- Centro Legal de la Raza: A legal service for low income immigrant families.
- United We dream : An organization dedicated to protect immigrant communities across the country.
- Black Alliance for Just Immigration : An organization dedicated to migrant rights and racial justice for black immigrants.
- ACLU: A nonprofit dedicated to protect the rights of everyone living in this country.
Verify your lawyer
Your lawyer will become your slayer. The person who will fight beside you. Not only do you have to be able to trust them, you also have to make sure they can step into the arena with you. Intention means nothing if in the eye of the law they don’t qualify to represent you. Your lawyer must be a part of the American Bar Association in your state. Again, this is why we take the time now to get ahead of the game. You can go to americanbar.org and click on your state, or to aila.org to verify your lawyer.
Persistence is key
All this can get overwhelming. So much information and obstacles to navigate to become part of this country is a lot to take in. There will be many that will tell you to just pack your bags and “go home”. Many that will tell you, ”you have no case.” It is important to stay persistent. Don’t take the first answer and ask multiple sources. Don’t back down.
Stay informed and active in your case
Fighting is not just about staying persistent, it’s also about staying informed. Trusting your legal counsel is always crucial. Once you find one you trust, you don’t get to clock out though. I know the legal terms can get confusing but we must stay in the game. Know what forms your lawyer is filing on your behalf, why, how, and what to expect. Ask the questions, ask for updates, and ask for receipts. This is not just important for potential fraud, it’s important in case you get asked in an interview for information or proof. Or, like in my case, where ninety-five percent into my case, my second lawyer retired. Picking up where they left off will be easier if you know exactly where things are in your case.“Que no les den atole con el dedo” like my grandma always said.
Every case is different
Even though USCIS under this administration has focused on mass deportation, and their process is very numbers-based instead of justice-based, we must understand that every case is still different. The way your lawyer files can also mean the difference between your outcome and that of your neighbor. Stay informed and stay hopeful.
You are wanted!
Having to stand in front of judges, lawyers, and officers whose sole job is to remove you from your home can be trialing. The difficulty of constantly hearing “you don’t belong here” and that “you should go home” can definitely mess with your head. I want to remind you that you are wanted here. You are needed here. You are what makes this country great.
Make sure to take care of yourself
Stress of any kind can lead us to not taking care of ourselves the way we should. That is taken to another level when our future is in the hands of others. Make sure to eat well, move your body. Take time for yourself. The level of stress and trauma immigrants go through is so great, it can lead to other health issues. There won’t be anything to fight for if you are not here mentally and physically.
Adopt coping/de-stressing practices
I stood in front of judges too many times to count. Every time I walked into a courtroom my body would go cold and tense up. The trauma was so great that I would shiver for hours before and after my court appearances. I couldn’t speak because my shivering would cause me to bite my tongue. It is something that I now have to work on when I get very nervous. Which is why I always advocate and encourage my immigrant community to adopt coping and de-stressing practices. Now, I like to ground myself by taking deep breaths, and experiencing the moment to its entirety, among other practices. Do what works for you. Dancing, walks in nature, meditation, therapy, or limpias. Whatever it is that works for you, do that.
Don’t forget to live
Like I’ve said before, if there is anything immigrants know too well, it is that tomorrow is not promised. Don’t see it as a crippling thing but instead as a liberating one. Laugh, dance, enjoy the moments you can. Do your part to make sure you have a good case and then allow yourself to enjoy your home, and enjoy your family. I know situations like these can take away the color in life, don’t allow it to.
Have compassion for yourself
I think it is natural to think back at what caused you to end up in the hands of immigration. We replay that moment again and again. The moment I drove home that lead to my arrest haunted me for years. I replayed the scenarios that followed even more so. Looking back now I wish I had showed myself more compassion. Sure, if I had driven a different route, I could have avoided getting arrested. Understand that thinking about such nonexistent alternative scenarios won’t change anything. Have compassion for yourself, let go of the guilt, anger, and any sense of blame.
This whole process is a constant battle and its one that can be filled with obstacles and lead to exhaustion. It can also cause a bit of an identity crisis. Especially for young immigrants who know this country more than they know their birth country. To them this is the only home they know. The questions “who am I?” and “where do I fit in?” begin to emerge. While this life-changing situation makes you go through the trenches of your true identity, it opens you up for this beautiful journey of self-discovery. You can learn so much from this experience. It helped me realize the following.
You are not alone and you are seen
While there are racist people in this country, there are many that want to see you here. Now more than ever, people are standing in alliance with our immigrant community. Those of us who believe that in order for this country to truly have a positive future we should protect and elevate our immigrant members in society. We see you; I see you.
Lean on your family and friends
Immigrant communities naturally run very tight knit with their families. Our cultures are very family focused. Sometimes though, we do tend to shut them out for fear of involving them. We think they might not understand, or we simply want to protect them. We must however, allow our family to show up for us. Make sure you don’t shut them out. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, to express how you feel mentally and emotionally. Don’t carry the weight of this life altering process all on your own.
You are not your legal status
Let me say that again: you are not your legal status! It is important we say it, believe it, and realize it. Because when we do, we open ourselves to so much more. You are not a paper; you are a collection of sacrifices of many generations. You are powerful beyond measure. You are a voice waiting to be heard. You are what make this country great.
Your story matters!
We were born to connect through our stories, tell yours. Inspire people to stand with you, to stand for themselves as well. Never shy away from telling people your story of pain, of loss, or of survival. Your story is beautiful. I don’t want you to think of all the things you haven’t been able to do because of your status. I want you to look back at all the things you’ve overcome! You are more powerful than you realize. Write your story, tell it, live for it, fight for it.