Life Without DAPA: One Woman's Story

African American female teen head to head with mom
African American female teen head to head with mom

The funny thing about public policy is how detached we make the arguments, votes, and application thereof, yet how significant of an impact it has on the lives of everyday people. Abstract conversations about abortion, gay marriage, and immigrant rights are carried through the halls of the Supreme Court, oftentimes lacking the context that these nuanced decisions bring to the realities of those most affected by them. Perfect example: DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). DAPA is a proposed immigration policy that would grant deferred action, protection from deportation, and a work permit to undocumented immigrants who have children that are American citizens. On April 18th, DAPAs potential may be put into jeopardy. If DAPA were enacted twenty years ago, it would have had a transformative effect on how I grew up, ensuring that I would carry a fraction of the stress that has served to color my adolescence and adulthood today.

Nowadays my life looks like the following: my fingers gently tapping the screen of my iPhone 6 as the no.5 subway train sways back and forth, careening towards my new job in Manhattan. My duffel bag sits in my lap, the embroidered logo of my former company turned towards me, intentionally hidden from the view of other passengers. That logo, like my past, stands in stark contrast to where my life is today. "I'm a different woman," I think to myself serenely. "I work for a company in one of the most innovative industries in the market to date. I use my time at and away from work to fight in solidarity with marginalized peoples. I live in one of the greatest cities in the world, and I can support my family. I'm a different woman."

That woman, in fact, has undergone constant evolution through her near-24 years of life. Born as a Floridian but raised in the heart of Texas, her girlhood was spent on a myriad of activities: standing in the kitchen of her family's 1 bedroom apartment over a hot stove, boiling some hot dog mac-n-cheese and corn so her 3 siblings could have a nice dinner, sending the kids outside to play so she could get the apartment clean and uniforms ready before mom came home from a 16-hr, multi-job workday, or cutting straws into small pieces so they could serve as sticks in ice-cube tray juice popsicles. When mom lost one of her 3 jobs, as she inevitably would, that girl would take on the added task of managing mom's sadness about the way life was turning out for her in a country that she chose over everything she knew in order to provide her kids, and herself, with a better chance of survival. In the few moments of solitude, that girl would write poetry, study, or wait by the front door for the arrival of a father who only existed in occasional static-laced transatlantic phone calls, brought to life via calling cards purchased with her spare change. That father was the pretext of her mother's emigration, the cornerstone of her mother's dreams for a better future. Yet, his presence was as guaranteed as the dial tone of an international phone call in the '90s. As she grew, her responsibilities shifted to driving her $800 '98 Dodge Intrepid from extracurriculars to closing shifts at Target so she could ensure that something -- whether scholarship or savings -- would get her through college, always fearing the inevitable moment when her savings would get obliterated to help her mom cover the bills for that month.

Though my yesterdays stand in stark contrast to my tomorrows, back then things didn't seem so... abnormal. I grew up in community with other immigrants, with Nigerian aunties at church and Latina friends on the playground. It was normal to hear stories of dinners cooked in bulk and frozen so that leftovers could be thawed out and eaten while parents were at work. It was common to be the eldest child turned pseudo-parent to their siblings, assigned the role of rearing because a free sibling-babysitter was exponentially cheaper - and safer - than a real one. There were plenty of unspoken commonalities as well: nights without electricity, heat, or running water, clothes and food magically appearing because some nice person or organization decided to donate, days without seeing your parent because your school schedule and their work schedule never, ever overlapped. Ask any child who has watched their parents struggle and they'll likely tell you of a moment similar to mine: coming home one day to find a parent sobbing alone, overwhelmed by their struggles. That young child (I was 8, in my case) was afraid, realizing things weren't as normal as they once imagined. Despite everything, that child - in some feat of naiveté or blind hope - makes a promise to do everything in their power to ensure their parent won't cry anymore.  

These difficult commonalities were never shared openly because we all feared that someone would find out our parents were here illegally and next thing you know, our worlds would fall apart. The few times I witnessed friends lose their parents to deportation taught me that regardless of how things were, as long as I acted as though my life were normal, it would stay that way.

It helps that my work affords me the ability to live comfortably, as it has made it much easier to support the family financially. There was a three-year period in college when my mother was unable to find work. I spent the majority of that time budgeting my Questbridge scholarship and work study pay to ensure I had enough to keep myself fed, keep my family's lights on, and buy my siblings school supplies. If there is any opportunity I missed out on the most, it was the opportunity to be a "regular" kid, which had a definite influence on how I grew up, the stressors I carried, and the things I was able to participate in. Those experiences, however, have given me the skills and ability to do incredible work.

Fast forward to today, sitting in my office in Manhattan, 15 floors above the rest of New York City. There are a number of projects that I've been given the opportunity to lead on, and I throw myself in with reckless abandon. This is my dream job: I have always been passionate about using my life's work to help others, and was incredibly moved to find a job where my efforts could make a significant impact both in business and in social justice.

The fact that I am who I am today defies statistics in so many ways. Because of that, I am driven to challenge the cycle of fear and poverty that the current path to citizenship yields to the millions of immigrants and first-generation kids in the U.S. today. Knowing my family members won't get torn from me because of policies like DAPA is motivation to ensure that others can have what I believe is truly the American dream: living safe, healthy, and happy in the country that you love and call home.

I live by the promise I made my mom so long ago: I will make sure she's safe, and do whatever I can to keep her from crying. That promise is why I work so hard, and have tried to find avenues to ensure her safety. DAPA would do the one thing that I've never been able to do on my own: guarantee that my mother can safely remain in the United States. It would help my mom get deferred action, allowing her to not only legitimately work, but also fully live in the country that she's called home for half of her life...and all of mine. It would allow her to come and visit me with ease and without fear. It would allow her to travel with her children and support us in ways she has been incapable of doing thus far. She would have steady employment, she would go back to school and become an RN, she would get internet for the house, she would start her dream business... Essentially, she would be able to do all of the things that I, in my adult life, have every right and liberty to pursue.

The picture of me finding out my mom had gotten deferred action is easy to imagine: I'd be sobbing, overjoyed. I would be a woman full of joy because I no longer have to fear that one day she'll just disappear from our lives. I would be a woman moved to tears because of the fact that I could finally let go of the role of caretaker for my family, both then and in the future. I would be a woman full of pride because my mother could finally live fully, freely, and happily.

But today, sitting on the no.5 train headed home, I am a different woman.