By: Benita Veliz
Recently, I heard the song “Music Box” by Regina Spektor. The first few lines of the song say, “Life inside the music box ain’t easy. The mallets hit, the gears are always turning. And everyone inside the mechanism is yearning to get out”.
I thought about how those lines describe my life and the life of so many undocumented young people across the United States. When I was eight years old, I was brought to the United States on a tourist visa. After the visa expired, I remained in the United States. Unknowing to me, I had become an undocumented immigrant. I have spent the past sixteen years of my life living undocumented in the United States.
Being undocumented has many implications. I have never been able to work legally, or get a driver’s license. Since arriving as a child, I have never left the country. When I graduated from high school I did not qualify for federal financial aid of any form. In a sense, I feel like I’ve lived inside a beautiful music box, knowing full well that I have the potential to create beautiful music…I’ve just never had a way to lift the top off.
I experienced the most devastating consequence of being undocumented on the afternoon of January 21, 2009: the possibility of deportation. I close my eyes and can still feel my hands gripping the steering wheel as I observed, through the rearview mirror, the police officer step out of his vehicle. I can still smell the aroma of my soup and sandwich lunch permeating through my car. I can still taste the dryness in my mouth. I can still hear the song that was playing on the radio.
On that fateful day, I was pulled over for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. When the officer asked why I, who looked like I had been eligible for several years to apply for a license (I’m 23 years old), didn’t have one, I told him the truth. I told him about being undocumented. He responded by informing me that I was under arrest and would soon be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, under the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
No one had ever even hinted to me that they might have thought I was undocumented. As a matter of fact, everyone who found out about my status after my arrest was genuinely surprised. At the same time, they were able to understand why, after graduating valedictorian of my high school at age 16 and obtaining a double major with Honors from St. Mary’s University at the age of 20, I worked as a secretary. I have never been able to get a real job, though I have always been able to, just like any other American, pay into the tax system as an independent contractor using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.
There is a subgroup of undocumented immigrants, all across the United States, who, like me, have grown up American in every sense of the word, and have thrived academically, athletically, in community service and through so many other means.
This subgroup of immigrants has come to be known as the DREAMers, in reference to the DREAM, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, Act. This bill was first introduced in Congress in 2003. Since its first introduction, it has failed to be voted into law a total of three times. The DREAM Act would allow young people, who were brought to the United States before they turned 16, have lived in the States for at least 5 years and have graduated from High School, to obtain a conditional permanent residency. This conditional residency would grant them two years to either attend college or enlist in the military. Once the latter requirements are fulfilled, the DREAMers would be allowed to receive a permanent residency card.
Why is the DREAM Act necessary? Most people don’t realize that immigrating to the United States, for most people, is extremely difficult. If you don’t have an immediate relative (father, mother, husband, child over 21 years old, brother or sister) who is an American citizen and you can’t prove that you are internationally famous, or from a country where your life is immediately threatened, your options for immigrating are next to non-existent. I myself have never had the opportunity to immigrate. There is simply no form, no application process, for which I qualify. I consulted various legal professionals on several occasions. They all told me the same thing: I’m sorry, but there is nothing you can do, as of now, to adjust your status.
Opponents contend that the DREAM Act gives undocumented students an advantage over “American” students. The reality is, however, that the DREAM Act only allows for undocumented students to have an equal, not greater, opportunity to attend college and become productive citizens. Furthermore, I submit to you that what makes a person American is not where they were born, but where their heart and loyalty is. Were it not for a nine digit number, I would be just as American as any person born on American soil.
What choice did I have as an 8 year old in coming to the United States? When I turned 18, as an adult, could I feasibly have abandoned my home for a foreign land? I know no one in Mexico. I have no home there. And had I left, I would have been unable to, for an indefinite period of time, visit my family and friends. Ironically, my best shot at immigrating was remaining in the country and waiting for a change in the law.
While devastating, my experience has given me the freedom to do something I could never have done before: put a face on what would otherwise be just several pages of legislation, be a voice for so many young people across the nation who are not at fault for their legal status.
Regina Spektor’s song goes on to say, “[Everyone is yearning to] sing another melody completely, so different from the one they’re always singing. And everyone inside the mechanism is yearning to get out”. The DREAM Act is the key to open up the music box. It’s a music box unlike any other. More than just music, it’s filled with potential and opportunity. It’s filled with people willing to become educated and help fill the deficit in social security because of baby boomer retirees. It’s filled with future nurses who can meet the demand of hospitals and healthcare facilities. It’s filled with teachers, doctors, lawyers…all who love America and want only to become productive citizens. Everyone inside the mechanism is yearning to get out.
Benita Veliz, a columnist for Red Brown and Blue, has become one of the most vocal advocates for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act). Though undocumented, Benita has lived the American Dream, becoming valedictorian of her high school and double majoring in Biology and Sociology at St. Mary’s University, where she graduated with honors. Benita’s story has been at the center of national media attention, including the New York Times, San Antonio Express-News, Texas Monthly, and the national Univision network. The above column was originally published on Red Brown and Blue’s website. We thank Ms. Veliz for giving us the privilege to post her column.