main navigation
my pace
Office of Multicultural Affairs—NYC

My Life as an Undocumented Student

Many people come to the United States seeking a better future and trying to pursue their dreams. During that time many become strong while others become weak. Some fulfill their dreams and many others don't. Being an immigrant is tough, but being an undocumented immigrant can be worse. After arriving in the United States at the age of ten it didn't take me long to figure that out. The experience, in many ways, has shaped who I am today. The absence of a paternal figure and the lack of help changed my personality almost completely.

Like every child, playing around and being happy was at the top of my "to do" list. At ten I was brought to the United States by my mother. In the process I lost my family, my happy and almost perfect life and my friends back in my country. When I left the Dominican Republic I lost the only paternal figure I had, my grandfather. Once I lost him I became little aggressive because I didn’t feel the protection that he always provided to me. The change of countries was a big emotional shock that changed my personality almost 100%.

While in the Dominican Republic I was a straight “A” student; in the United States it took me a while to become one again. The change of language kept me isolated for a while. Once I learned English, however, other obstacles came up to interrupt my childhood happiness.

The struggle to adapt to a different culture was a painful war. In my country I was an athletic and very active girl, but once I stepped off the plane in New York, all of that changed. The new food and the lack activities drove me to become an overweight child. The extra weight brought a different kind of war upon me. It became harder to have any friends because I didn't look and/or feel right, not to mention the language difference.

I found children to be cruel in this new country compared to the ones in the Dominican Republic. The aggressiveness I had acquired was most of the time misinterpreted and many accused me of being “boy like” or a lesbian. This added to the list of reasons why I didn’t have many friends. The cruelty in this country was so intense that even at the age of ten, children will discriminate against another child because of their sexual orientation that hasn’t been developed yet. Since friends were out of the question—so were playing, running outside, homework buddies and/or any social activities altogether.

Back in my country no matter how old you were, once homework was completed, you were allowed to go out and play. While here in the United States, since my mother worked, I faced many long days and lonely nights in front of a television or a video game.

Many things were either hard to obtain or completely denied to my family because of the lack of a green card. Ever since my mother came to the United States, she's been working two or three jobs at a time in order to care for her three children. As a strong undocumented woman, my mother dealt with her responsibilities but hardly earned enough because she didn't have a green card. Seeing my mother struggle to give us everything we both needed and wanted, has only made me work harder for what I want and deserve.

Ten years later I am a college student and still don't have a green card. As an immigrant without a green card, I cannot receive financial aid for my education. My brother and I both have two jobs to help my mother pay for our education and other expenses. Although we researched different scholarship options, one of the criteria was that we needed to be a U.S. citizen.

Before I started college, I didn’t have a social security card made which made it hard to find a job. Ironically, the only reason why my family and I are still in this country without fear of being deported is that I became a crime victim. It was only then, that my family and I were granted social security cards, a visa and work permits to stay in the U.S. and testify in the trial.

When I was sixteen years old, I arrived at home like any other day from school, but this day I didn’t have the key to my apartment. Once I had gotten into my building and knocked on my door I had noticed that my brothers weren’t home yet. I decided to wait for them in the lobby of the building, when a man took me to the roof at knife point. There, I was sexually molested and many of the dreams I had were temporarily lost. Others were lost completely. Even though what I went through was and still remains very painful it came with its negative and its positive outcomes.

Psychologically, I will always be in pain but it also helped my family to obtain a better immigration status. While I still don’t have a green card or citizenship, my family and I are considered to be somewhere in between being illegal and being legal. We have our visas; we have social security cards; and most importantly, the ability to work legally. All of this has helped my mother obtain better employment to support our family. It also helped me to shift my attitude a little about this country—it was like a little light in the darkness. It made me believe that one day things will change and my family and I will be able to do better.

However, my life in this foreign country has also brought up weaknesses that I didn't know existed inside me. I was raised in a very close-knit family. Everyone helped each other including the neighbors; they too, were treated like family. So, my strongest weakness is fear. Fear of not seeing my family and people I love back in my country. I also fear that I will lose part of my culture and end up living the way people live here in the United States. Here, it’s hard to enjoy life because one has to work most of the time. In the Dominican Republic people live a little more freely, they take more advantage of time and spend it with their family.

Another fear is looking like an immigrant and its relationship to racism. About two months ago, my mother organized a party for a high school in our home. Two white police officers came to our door and asked me to lower the music; they also threatened to come back for me. I lowered the music and they returned after forty-five minutes or so. The first thing I got after opening the door was a punch to the stomach and hand cuffs on my wrist. My mother whom hadn’t said a word because she didn’t see when I got hit and hand cuffed was also taken in by the officers.

We spent a full day in jail and weren’t allowed to make a call. To me, it became apparent we were being treated with less respect by the cops because we were Dominican. This experience has led me to finally open my eyes to what the legal system in the United States is really all about. It is not about equal rights for everyone, the rules are manipulated depending on whose liberty or life is on the line.

My journey in the United States has been shaped by my immigrant experience as an undocumented child who is now a woman. I have become a strong person. I learned to fight for the things that I desire which include my educational goals, my family and the culture I inherited from them. Rather than waste my time in front of a television or playing video games, I spend my time reading books and educating myself. I learned to be independent and not to trust anybody.

The traumatic experiences I have been through in this country left a scar in my heart but I remain moving forward.

Karen M.
February 2010