From the day I first stepped foot on American soil, it took 27 years before I was eligible to apply for citizenship. I am embarking on a new journey which is the culmination of everything that I have endured and the beginning of all that I have imagined. As I break through my former identity of illegal alien, like caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, I must reflect on this mask that I donned for a significant part of my life. What did it mean to be an illegal alien?
The label took on a dark and foreboding nature particularly after 9/11, which was when the weight of the label felt heaviest. The Twin Towers had collapsed no more than two months prior and in the wake of everyone’s devastation the finger was pointed at aliens. Mainstream America created factions to distinguish good immigrants–those who came to American to pursue the American dream—from the aliens who came to America to wreak havoc and to terrorize the nation.
As an illegal alien, I too carried my scarlet letter “A” everywhere I went as a mark of my shame. With no trace of an African accent and my private school pedigree, I could conceal the real me when absolutely necessary.
Depending on how one looks at it, I had an epistemic privilege of looking and sounding American enough that people would confess to me their honest contempt for illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, I lived with the constant burden of being caught. My fate depended on my remaining obsolete, non-existent and invisible.
Any trace of even my shadow, could lead to deportation. What would that stark body, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), do to me if they found out that I was illegal? Surely no body as cold as ICE would take pity on the fact that my lack of status was through no fault of my own. Because I didn’t fit within their laws and guidelines—refugee, asylum seeker—I would remain in limbo for the rest of my life.
I maintained superficial friendships because I could not trust anyone. What if they turned me in to immigration services? A select few had the honor of being provided with just enough detail to quench their curiosity. It was the only way to keep them off my back. My friends watched with bated breath as the script
of my pathetic life unfolded. They tried to remain empathetic but my circumstances were beyond their realm of comprehension. It was only a matter of time when someone would make some asinine remark about aliens deserving what was coming to them.
As an alien, I was told that my life would amount to nothing but menial “under the table” labor. Perhaps it was my resolve to people telling me “no” which forced me to keep on going. After many tears were shed it finally occurred to me that I was deserving of a robust and fulfilling life. Instead of living in accordance to what I was not (I did not feel like an alien), I chose to define myself by who I was. I was part of the human race just like everyone else. I was culturally American and I had a story to share. Just as I had defied the limitations that were associated with all of my other identifiers—poor, black, orphan—I would also challenge the notion of being an illegal alien.