POLITICS

My Parents Were Undocumented Immigrants. But You Haven't Heard Their Story.

My parents were pursuing the American dream, even though it seemed to evade them at every turn.

I come from a family of survivors.

My ancestors survived the Armenian genocide, watching as their family was torn apart in a wave of ethnic cleansing in 1915. My mother jumped out of a crumbling building during the Armenian earthquake of 1988 and lived in a tent during the cold winter as the city rebuilt its infrastructure. As the Soviet regime began to decline, my parents endured food shortages and power outages. Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war, adding to the region’s instability.

Then, in 1992, my parents boarded a plane and came to the United States. As she had once jumped from that building, my mother — this time with my father by her side — took a blind leap into the future, not quite sure where she would land.

Initially, my parents came on a visitor visa. After learning that my mother was pregnant with me, they legally extended their visa. However, they ended up staying past the return date. They applied for political asylum, which led to a series of court date extensions, rejections and appeals. In 2004, they were ordered deported. Their lawyer advised them to stay in the country and wait until I turned 21 to apply for sponsorship. In the meantime, they became undocumented immigrants.

With the election of Donald Trump, there are now millions of people who fear they will be deported. Whatever their views on immigration policy, most Americans probably assume this is an issue that will affect only certain communities — namely, Latinos. Indeed, for years, our immigration debate has had an extremely narrow narrative, nearly always referring to undocumented immigrants from Mexico or Central America. Occasionally, the broader discussion of who we should welcome into this country turns to the question of Syrian refugees. But regardless of whether we are talking about building a wall, “bad hombres,” ISIS fears or refugee vetting, people like my parents — who came from other parts of the world — are usually left out.

Although the majority of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or Central America, the population of undocumented immigrants is, in fact, very diverse. As of 2012, there were hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from India, Korea and China living in the United States. Since 2000, unauthorized immigration from Asia has tripled, while the amount from Africa has doubled. And between 2009 and 2014, though the number of undocumented immigrants from Central America increased, the number from Mexico actually declined.

As I grew up, my parents were barred from privileges that were readily available to citizens. They were unable to start a business or purchase a home. They couldn’t go to college to help them obtain better jobs with stability and benefits. Voting was not a method they could use to voice their concerns. They were unable to travel abroad or visit their family, despite the births and deaths of their loved ones.

Yet they paid federal taxes each year. They worked hard at the jobs that were open to them — cashier, customer service representative, receptionist, driver and insulation installer, among others. They were not “lazy,” “drug lords” or “stealing anyone’s jobs.” They were people pursuing the American dream, despite the way it seemed to evade them at every turn.

As my sister and I grew up, we worried about the uncertain legal status of our parents. We strived to have the typical American childhood, but there were aspects that we could not share with others. We watched CNN nightly, tuning in to pundits like Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer, holding our breath as they spoke about the border, the likelihood of amnesty and the never-ending debate in Congress. We watched C-SPAN during congressional hearings, hoping that these politicians would properly represent us. Every church candle I lit and every birthday candle I blew out was a wish for a green card for my parents. I constantly pictured the terrorizing knock on the door that would signal immigration authorities coming to take my parents away.

Despite these struggles, my parents’ priority was to survive, and to ensure their children would have a better life — a chance that was not possible in Armenia. They emphasized the importance of education in a country where hard work opens doors and dreams are attainable. The idea of rising up the ladder was ingrained in me as a child, so I started the climb. In school, I won spelling bees and regional essay contests, joined student government and model U.N., took Advanced Placement classes and participated in as many leadership opportunities as possible.

I grew up with gratitude for the country I had the privilege to be born in. I graduated from Pace University with a major in political science and a minor in peace and justice studies. I am pursuing my Master of Public Administration at Baruch College. I’ve worked for elected officials and nonprofits, cementing my desire to have an impact on the world.

In 2013, I turned 21 and applied for sponsorship of my parents. Two and a half years later, our request was granted. My parents received their green card and became legalized permanent residents.

Our battle was finally over. But the war over immigration will continue with the start of the Trump administration. As Trump’s policies begin to unfold, politicians in Washington should remember that the immigration debate isn’t just about a few particular groups. The rhetoric of Donald Trump over the past year may have focused on Mexicans and Muslims, but my parents are Christian, and they are from a country that was devastated by a totalitarian left-wing ideology. Their story makes clear just how broad an impact the immigration decisions made in Washington will have on diverse communities nationwide. We are a nation built by immigrants — our politicians should work to represent them. All of them.

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