With high hopes and the doors to adulthood at the reach of my hand, ten years ago I was 18, in 12th grade and preparing to face the world.
I learned about my undocumented status when I was entering the 8th grade. My oldest sister, Erika, was denied access to Miami Dade College, then Miami Dade Community College, because she was undocumented. That day, she came home with my mom with a hopeless expression and it broke my heart. Knowing that she couldn't go to college made me extremely nervous about my own fate and I thought, "What would become of me after my high school graduation?"
Under different circumstances, I would have probably quit school, found a job, and moved on with my life. However, I was stubborn and as a solutions-oriented person, I decided to stay in school and figure out a way to go to college. My logic was simple; I knew I couldn't be the only undocumented person in school. I began sharing my story with others because I thought maybe someone could help me.
My second oldest sister, Mari, graduated as I was entering the 9th grade and when she tried to join the Air Force, recruiters tried to find a way to enlist her, but they eventually came to the same conclusion as Miami Dade College had for Erika, you can't join because you are undocumented.
With the odds stacked against me, I enjoyed every single minute of my time in high school -- I joined every club and organization possible. I stayed after school helping my teachers. I was in ROTC and was the only ranked 9th grader in the entire school. I took honors classes and forced myself to take AP courses. I joined sports team and played in the orchestra. I helped my friends during lunch with their homework and in the evenings I took night classes for fun -- I lived in school.
Teachers and counselors warned me not to be so vocal about my undocumented status. One day, my high school college counselor, told me I should never send in an application to any college or university because I could end up hurting my family and put them "in a bad situation." She was practically telling me to stay quiet or risk getting my parents deported. This made me sad but it didn't deter me from my dream of going to college.
During a college fair, a Miami Dade College recruiter told me "I want to help you go to college." Her name was Sue Giorgi and she did everything possible to help me, eventually connecting me to the people at Miami Dade College that helped me through a long and arduous process that resulted in me starting college in the fall. In Sept. 2003, I received my first class schedule.
I was elated! I couldn't believe my eyes, there, in front of me, was a crazy class schedule. I had classes in the morning and in the night. I had classes from Monday to Friday, and although it was probably the worst class schedule imaginable, I didn't care because I was finally in college!
As I sat with my schedule in my hands, I began to cry. As I touched it I made a promise. I promised to fight so that others including my sisters and friends if they desired, could also go to college. During the school day, many of my friends would approach me with fear in their faces, they use to take me to a corner, and after making me swear on my life that I wouldn't share what they were about to tell me, they proceeded to tell me that they too were undocumented. Life had given me a challenge and this is how my journey to activism started.
A part of my story that I usually leave out is the fact that I was able to go to college because I miraculously renewed my 7-year expired student visa. This means that the entire time that I was in college, I had a legal status. I was an international student. However, I never felt like an international student, so whenever I told my story I would identify as an undocumented person. Inspired by Maria Rodriguez, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, I and other young people started an organization that eventually went on to become SWER (Students Working for Equal Rights).
SWER quickly became a powerful group in the State of Florida and throughout the nation. I remember traveling through Florida organizing small towns in the Central Florida area. I along with other SWER members made it a point to attend national conferences and youth submits. I would use whatever local or regional platforms I had available to share my story, and as the student government president of the community college system in Florida I spoke numerous times in different colleges and universities and also in Tallahassee about the urgent need for in-state tuition for undocumented students. I made myself available for interviews and offered opinions to help shape the dialogue on immigration related bills.
However, one dark day all of this caught up with me and on July 26, 2006, Immigration Customs and Enforcement came to my home looking for me. Unfortunately, they didn't just find me, but they found my entire undocumented family. Because I was the only one with a legal status, I was able to stay behind and not be detained. I had to see my parents and sisters be taken away to be processed. This experience, which I will one day share in full detail, ended up being the most horrific day in my life. I learned my actions had consequences and even though I was doing something good and positive, my actions, my activism, had caused my family to be put in deportation proceedings.
With the help of many members of the community, including attorneys, elected officials, the media, and friends, we were able to stop their deportation for years -- in time my sister Erika was able to get her green card, my sister Mari, my mom and dad obtained prosecutorial discretion, and only a few days ago, on my brother's birthday, he finally received his deferred action through DACA.
For many years I didn't understand why all of this had to happen. I felt extremely guilty and at times I felt so disheartened.
In 2009, I decided to give up my student visa to be part of the Trail of Dreams. I knew I would have to give up a little of what I had so that others could have a little bit of what we all wanted. I knew that I had to fight for my family and I had to sacrifice the comfort of having a job as the student government advisor, having a driver's license, and the safety of knowing I couldn't be deported.
As I walked on the Trail of Dreams along with Juan, Felipe and Carlos, we knew that all that we were sacrificing was nothing more than what it took for something to finally happen -- we had to be bold and courageous to get results.
Today, I am the only undocumented person in my family and although I have never feared being deported, the fear that I had always had of being separated from my family is no longer there. Yes, these measures are temporary but at least I know that my brother can now get a driver's license, buy a car and drive safely. I know that he can either expand his car washing business or get a second job. I know that he can start to live his life and that those obstacles that prevented him from moving on with his life have partly been abolished.
I am blessed to be a leader within this movement. I know my work is not done, and I am doing everything I can to help immigration reform happen. I am doing it not for me, but because I want to make sure other families don't go through what my family went through. I want to abolish the fear and despair young immigrants experience when they graduate from high school with no chances to go to college, or when a mother can't go on a field trip with their child because she doesn't have an ID, or when a man doesn't get paid what he fairly earned because their employer decided they did not want to pay him.
As congress gets ready to introduce a bill, I pray our leaders both elected officials and those who are part of immigrant rights organizations, do the right thing.