And every day, I live in fear of deportation.
The Department of Homeland Security sent me a letter in 2010, when I was a college junior, demanding that I appear in immigration court. Before then, I had no idea I was one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. My family moved here from Canada legally when I was 6.
On Thursday, President Obama announced executive action that offers a temporary shield from deportation to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants. My family isn’t among them. Obama’s order allows the immigrant parents of U.S.-born and permanent resident children to apply for work permits. But it overlooks many parents who came to the U.S. legally with their young children and have been struggling to become permanent residents for years.
I’m not the kind of person most people think of when they discuss immigration policy – but I’m just as affected. My parents moved our family from Canada to the United States in 1996 with a visa. Within a year, we received an investor visa, issued for at least two years to entrepreneurs who want to purchase and operate a small business. In Alberta, my parents struggled to keep food on the table. In the United States, it would be easier for them to start a business and build a stable life for their children. We settled in San Antonio and my father opened several small businesses. My mother became a PTA parent.
Within a year of arriving, my parents began their effort to become permanent U.S. residents, an effort that has cost them nearly $100,000. They hired an immigration attorney, filed the paperwork, paid application fees and have waited nearly two decades for an approval that has never come.
Obama’s executive action should favor undocumented immigrants who came here legally and have worked proactively – though unsuccessfully – to earn residency through the existing system. It should prioritize those who have been pouring taxes into federal services that they will never be able to benefit from. Every year, millions of undocumented immigrants pay individual income, sales and property taxes, which fund public programs like Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid. Undocumented workers make an annual net contribution of $12 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund. But without comprehensive legislative action from Congress, many of these honest families will never achieve legal residency.
Many families overstay their visas not because they are dishonest people, but because the immigration process is broken. In applying for permanent residency, families face backlogs and processing delays. For example, an unmarried adult child from Mexico of a U.S. citizen had to wait for about 20.5 years to get their green card applications approved. A sibling from the Philippines of a U.S. citizen had to wait for about 23.5 years.
When my parents first sought permanent residency, an employer refused to sign a document in the final stages of the years-long application process. On the second try, another employer ended up selling his business, which invalidated our application. Another attempt was thwarted when our attorney filed our application late. For 18 years, my parents have tried to become legal residents by going through the proper channels. Instead, we’ve found ourselves tangled in a frustrating bureaucratic mess that has caused 4 million people to overstay their visas. We are trying to do the right thing, but the system is failing us.
In May, I was at a technology conference when I got the harrowing text from my mother: “Call. ICE took dad.” My heart sank to my knees and the floor crumbled beneath my feet. My father—known among neighbors as a hard worker and a genuinely nice guy— was suddenly handcuffed and sent to the type of prison where you’re put behind a barbed-wire fence, given a dirty white jumpsuit and known by a serial number. I had to rip up my student loan check and rewrite it to the Department of Homeland Security so my father could be released.
My family has been trying to become legal residents of most of my life. Instead, we’ve found ourselves criminalized in a society that once welcomed us. We serve our country by paying taxes, but we cannot vote. My parents made sure their children became well-educated residents, but even after graduating from high school with summa cum laude honors, I could not receive federal financial aid.
What I’ve learned over the past 18 years is that being undocumented is not a value judgment—it’s a circumstance. While earning citizenship should not be easy, it also should not be impossible, and certainly not for college-educated, tax-paying, white-collar workers who have tried for decades to pursue permanent resident status. I am one of a group of 1.4 million DREAMers who call the United States “home.” I am the product of an American upbringing and a positive contributor to our society because of my parents’ hard work in raising me.
President Obama, as you move forward with executive action to benefit undocumented immigrants, remember one thing: DREAMers owe our success to the sacrifices of our well-intentioned parents. Please don’t leave them behind.