Confessions of An Undocumented African Immigrant

I was barely an adult when I first legally arrived over a decade ago—what seems like a lifetime now. Over the years, I have learned not to think too much about that girl who arrived wide-eyed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. How the bright lights had blinded her; how lost she felt in that cavernous airport; how lonely she knew she would be from that day on; how little she understood of the secrets she would have to hold onto and the lies she would have to tell to keep herself firmly planted on this treasured American soil. Sometimes, I wonder about what kind of life she would have had if she never left her home country. What dreams she lost along the way and how this land shaped her into new forms she could never have imagined.

But the game of what-ifs is a dangerous one and some things are better dealt with when they are accepted rather than questioned. The woman I am now tries not to count the gains and losses over that decade. The woman I am now wants to accept that everything that happened was out of necessity. The woman I am now wants, more than anything, to be free in her body. She doesn’t want to be an immigrant any more—legal or illegal—because it has been a bittersweet decade.

There are an estimated 2.1 million African immigrants currently living in the US. A figure that is likely higher when one factors in the number of undocumented African immigrants who such studies are often unable to capture. I am one of those, as are some of my friends. We are a secret society functioning within the fabric of America who speak a different language and live differently, though at surface level we appear the same. For us, neighborhoods and cities are more than just landscapes to traipse in; they are minefields to be maneuvered bearing in mind, always, that your ‘papers’ are not what they should be and deportation, or worse, lengthy detentions in immigration centers, loom overhead always.

Feature illustration by Jazzmyn Coker

This affects everything: from where you live to where you work to how you practice your activism. Do I go to the protest I feel strongly about and risk arrest? Do I call the cops when I have been a victim of assault? How much louder do I get when my friends and I get into an altercation in public? Do I fly instead of drive to Florida for my friend’s wedding and risk airport officials who may want to question me because my Drivers License clearly states, “Status Check 1/30/2010” and it is now 2017?

How did I become an undocumented immigrant? The short answer is, I was poor. The long answer is far more complicated. As complicated as the folders upon folders of documents that trace my flirtations with the gatekeepers of America’s wealth and resources; its immigration agents. For most of my immigrant life in America, I have been statistically poor or low income. Only in the last few years, when I took myself out of the formal job market, have I been able to make the sort of income that offers glimpses into the American Dream I first arrived in search of. My first entry into the US was as a tourist. After a few months on a tourist visa, I left for my home country to gain an F1 Student Visa.

My goal was to earn a degree that could be useful to that place I called home and return to make it “better.” The student visa issued to me by the American embassy was valid for two years, with the idea that after that period, you would return to have your immigrant status reviewed by consulate officials who would then (hopefully) renew it for another two years; the duration of an undergraduate degree. This all seemed reasonable at the time and two years was after all, a long way off.

When my F1 visa expired in 2008, I was a sophomore in a medium-sized college town with a student visa status that limited me to working (at most) 20 hours a week on-campus. Wages hovered around $7.50 per hour and I was taking home roughly $600 a month. I would have needed, at minimum, $2,500 (four months income) to pay for my travel and the application fees for my visa renewal. That and my family and I were also paying out of pocket for my tuition only added to the financial stress (most international students in American colleges and universities cannot access federal loans and grants, nor do they have the credit history to access commercial student loans). To say that I had underestimated the hardship of living and studying independently in the US would be a gross misstatement; I had been blindsided. I couldn’t afford to go home, but it was common knowledge among the many international students that, technically, one could remain in the country beyond the visa validity period as long as you were still enrolled in school. So I did.

When graduation rolled around, I had the option to a) return home immediately, b) legally apply to work in the US for a full year under an Optional Training Program (OPT) before leaving the country or c) have an employer sponsor a H1-B Work Visa that would allow me to remain in the US for the foreseeable future. I was 23 at the time, discovering I might be queer (or at least most definitely not straight), the majority of my nuclear family had (legally) migrated to the US and were steadily building parallel lives in this new country that was quickly becoming our second home. Who or what I was even going home to?

I had changed tremendously, and like many people who spend extended periods of time living in foreign countries, feared that ‘home’ would no longer understand me. That I would no longer fit in. That there were parts of my identity I could only safely unravel in America.

To top it off, I was graduating during America’s worst economic crises since the Great Depression, when even regular Americans couldn’t get decent jobs, let alone immigrants with more stringent work restrictions. A work-sponsored visa was not an option. H1-B visas are the unicorns of immigrant visas. Unless you possess highly specialized skills, usually in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math, employers are generally unwilling to take on the costs and paperwork of sponsoring your visa. There was nothing special about my degree from the school of Social Sciences — a degree that in my junior year I already knew I would never use because my passions lay elsewhere.

Despite what many people think, there is no path to permanent residency or citizenship in America for most immigrants unless you are exceptionally talented, a refugee or asylum seeker, or you marry an American citizen. And for immigrants from the developing world, the number of visas available for them to work and travel to the US are far fewer than those awarded to our Western counterparts.

A thing that no one tells you when you are applying for immigrant status in the US is that your potential will be stifled. You will never be given the same opportunities at success despite the fact that you are there for a slice of that very same pie. It is a cruel truth that most immigrants never admit to the ones they leave behind.

Weighing my options, I opted against the OPT (which came with the inevitability of going back home) and decided to enter the job market with the full rights to work. I made a risky bet and lied on the application form for the first job I ever got out of college, claiming that I was a permanent resident and eligible to work in the US. The hiring company was a small family business, and I hoped they wouldn’t ask to see my Social Security Card, which reads, “Not Valid for Work Unless Authorized.” I smiled my way through the hiring process, holding my breath for that inevitable moment, like others before, when they would discover I was a fraud. When no one asked to see my Social Security Card, I celebrated quietly and went to work at a job that did what any American needed in 2010; it paid the bills.

A thing that no one tells you when you are applying for immigrant status in the US is that your potential will be stifled. You will never be given the same opportunities at success despite the fact that you are there for a slice of that very same pie. It is a cruel truth that most immigrants never admit to the ones they leave behind. Or else, perhaps, we wouldn’t be so eager to abandon our lot for the West. You will work more and be paid less. You will not be entitled to many resources though you duly pay your taxes with each paycheck (there is no safety net for immigrants, other than their family, friends and whatever meager savings they have managed to scrape together). You will never have the freedom to pick up and move as many of my American friends do; be it jobs, cities, or even states, because at the back of your mind hangs your immigration status and the hoops and jumps needed to prove that you are where you are supposed to be. As an undocumented immigrant, your lot is even worse.

I am solely to blame for the decisions I made as a youth. I made myself an undocumented immigrant, this I understand, but naïveté is a powerful thing. The full weight of what it meant to be illegal would only slowly settle in as the months and years went by. See, the very immigration system that Trump decries as being weak is on the contrary very strong, with a labyrinth of rules and procedures that vets out immigrants from citizens and awards privileges based off this on a day to day basis. Take for instance the simple act of renewing an Identification Card or retaining the right to drive under a state-issued driving license — valid documents needed to access everything from housing to employment to your local bar — in most states neither of these can be renewed or even obtained without valid immigration documents. Which means either acquiring fraudulent ones, made even tougher since the enactment of the Real ID Act, or going without.

Likewise, my employment opportunities have been greatly limited. What should have been an entry-level job to gain employment experience for a recent college graduate with an Honors degree and many starred academic papers would end up being the only career path viable to me. I was stuck at a job that made me miserable and greatly underutilized my talents for five years, unable to seek formal employment elsewhere because I did not have the right documentation. Yes, there are always low-paying jobs that pay ‘under the table’ available to us. The kind of jobs that most Americans are unwilling to work while the right wing condemns the immigrants taking them, but I am not made for these jobs. I was made to change the world (somehow). To inspire the communities I live in to think, act, and live differently.

American permanent residency and citizenship is a well guarded treasure, be assured.

This is to say nothing of the emotional or psychological toll of being an undocumented immigrant; of the many sleepless nights and anxiety ridden days of being on the wrong side of the law in a carceral state. Of the lack of civic agency over the things that impact your life the most, because at age 30, I am yet to ever participate in any election. Nor of the thousands of dollars poured into the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) coffers in attempts to right myself with the immigration system through various failed applications. It is impossible for me to paint wholly my immigrant experience in the US. Attempts over the years to explain to my close American friends (who all agree that I have earned the right to live amongst them) where I stand with the law, still leave them grasping to understand the intricacies and complexities of America’s vast and tightly controlled immigration system. American permanent residency and citizenship is a well guarded treasure, be assured.

I say all of this first to rid myself of the guilt and shame I have carried over the years as an illegal immigrant in this country. To bear the label illegal is to be debased many times in both public and private dialogues over your worth and your right to exist within a society. But second, to illuminate the various ways in which we, as migrants, arrive here and what our dreams and hopes are — or were. We are in the age of disillusionment, where many are now fleeing America’s violent rhetoric, rather than to it. There is a dire need to speak our stories despite a survival culture among many immigrant communities that asks us to be quiet in order to fit in. Of the thousands of people I have met in my decade here, very few know my real story, and even fewer know intimately my struggles to simply live the life I have imagined and created.

On my last attempt at legality in this country a few months ago, dozens upon dozens of us were shuttled around like cattle from room to room, each of us clutching documents as we prepared to supplicate ourselves to an immigration agent who with the stroke of a key held in their hands our futures. I sat anxiously in a room filled with countless dreams as I prepared to condense the last 10 years of decisions into the roughly five minutes I would have with this stranger. Practicing the words with precision and confidence to explain who I am and why I deserve a chance at the American dream, despite the fact that I had not been a “good” immigrant.

When my number was called, I remember looking into the face of the immigration agent, thinking to myself that he seemed ‘nice.’ He asked me two questions before informing me that my application for a new visa had been denied. I must have seemed surprised because he asked me, “Did you really think we would grant you another Visa?” I stuttered and stared at him in disbelief as he issued me a yellow slip that I have not been able to look at since it touched my hand. He called the next number as I picked up my documents and the pieces of my broken dreams.

I had reached the end of my rope. Home was calling. That place where I was no longer an alien.

I wept monsoons that day. Ten years worth of tears, fears and hopes. I wept not only because I had been rejected by America but because I also knew that my love affair with it had come to an end. I could no longer bear the abusive relationship I had been in it with. I had reached the end of my rope. Home was calling. That place where I was no longer an alien. Being in America had asked me to be invisible for a long time, to never fully tell the truth about who I was. And ultimately, it was this self erasure that had broken me over the years. I needed to be enough.

A few months ago, I packed my bags and quietly came home, escaping the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been given release under this new administration. I am home now, without the fear or anxiety of ICE sweeps, travel bans and all manner of crackdowns meant to intimidate immigrants — legal and illegal — into not belonging in America. I am sleeping better, laughing harder, dreaming bigger and acclimating to this country that has welcomed me back into its bosom with open arms. But moving back, is not without its sadness. I lost everything I had built for myself in that decade that couldn’t fit into two suitcases or find a place in the recesses of my memory. But the hardest pill to swallow is that for so long I tried to love a place that told me I didn’t belong.

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