The Road Home – Prerna Lal
The Story of an Undocumented Resident of the United States
“Dad, why are we going to America? I don’t want to go. This is my home.”
“You don’t get to have a say in the matter. Go pack your bags.”
I was merely 14 when my father decided to pack up and move me to the San Francisco Bay Area, California all the way from the islands of Fiji. That’s a 12-hour flight away from everything I knew, including my mother, whom he was leaving behind. He was running away and could not articulate to me why, besides the fact that he wanted out and it didn’t matter if anyone else, let alone the newspapers, understood.
I briefly considered running away but had nowhere to go. I remember packing my favorite pair of red Nike shorts, a worn-down pillow and my pink childhood blanket that had been washed so thoroughly over the years that it could pass for white. He wouldn’t let me take anything he deemed as junk: sea-shells, a priceless collection of Nancy Drew novels, love letters from my childhood sweetheart. I never got to say goodbye to her. It broke my heart.
Cold dreary weather and allergies gave me a warm welcome to the United States. We came to live with one of my uncles in Hayward, California. They enrolled me in high school and I was expected to pick up right where I had left off, as if nothing had changed.
The abuse started soon after we arrived. Sometimes, he would whip out his belt and pelt me till he got tired. Other times, he would grab me and smash my head against the floor or wall. On some occasions, he’d take a knife and lash me with the blunt edge.
My aunt heard him bellowing anti-gay slurs while hitting me and rather than do something to stop it, she had to know if there was any truth behind his allegations.
“Are you a lesbian?” She asked me the next day when she picked me up from school.
I didn’t know how to answer the question. I didn’t really identify as a lesbian at that point. I just knew that I loved women exclusively but I didn’t know what that meant.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“Figure it out. But remember, I don’t want any lesbians near my young daughters.”
That’s the last time my aunt spoke to me or gave me a ride anywhere.
Despite the physical violence at home, I was a good student. High school was a breeze for me. I scored in the Top 1% of the State of the California Star 9 exams. I wondered if the other good students in my class were treated similarly at home. One day, my Dad came to school, dragged me out of class, took me to a therapist and told her that I was not normal.
“What do you mean she is not normal?” I remember the therapist looking at him questioningly.
“She doesn’t like boys,” he replied, looking down at the floor in shame.
“That doesn’t mean she isn’t normal.” She chided him and sent him out of the room before turning to me with a barrage of questions that I wasn’t comfortable answering.
“He would probably still hit me even if I liked boys.”
I don’t know what compelled me to say that. I didn’t even know that his abuse was a crime. I was brought up to believe that a parent beating her or his child was just another form of discipline. But she was adamant about calling the cops. I was even more afraid – who would take care of me if my father was taken away?
The cops came to my school and called me to the principal’s office, where they proceeded to interrogate me about my father. I lied to protect him. I had no other choice. Unfortunately, he did not see it that way. I had shamed the entire family.
“From now on, you are not my daughter. If you continue to like girls, you mean nothing to me.” I was 16 when my father disowned me.
Despite all my heroics, my mother is the real hero of this story. She had followed us to the United States shortly after a U.S. supported military coup ripped through Fiji. She knew there was no going back and that she had to create a life for us here, if only for my sake. Fortunately for us, her mother was a U.S. citizen and her entire family was based in the United States.
After my Dad had disowned me, she took me aside and told me, “Don’t worry. Your mother is still alive. I will take care of you. We’ll both get our papers soon and things will be better. In this country, you can be whoever you want to be.”
Her mom sponsored her for a green card in 2000 and I was named as a derivative beneficiary of the petition since I was still a minor at the time. The lawyer who handled our case told us that everything should be a slam-dunk.
“When do I get my green-card, Mom?”
“Don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about anything. Just go to college. By the time you get out of college, we should get it.” She was my savior and I had no reason to doubt her.
With the little money she had saved up from cleaning hotel rooms and working a fast-food job, she bought a small cleaning business. She enrolled me in a local community college. I had graduated at the top of my class in high school. They were more than happy to take me even without the proper immigration paperwork. I would go to school in the day and work for the cleaning business till the wee hours of the morning.
But I graduated too soon. Mom encouraged me to continue going to school, so I enrolled at San Francisco State University, for a Masters in International Relations. At 22, equipped with an advanced degree, I once again asked my mother about my papers. This time we had enough money to go see a better lawyer for a consultation.
“What do you mean, she aged-out?” my mom asked him, perplexed.
“She is too old now to qualify for a green card with you. You would need to file for her again separately, after getting your green card. She will have to wait in line again.”
“How many more years does she have to wait? She has already waited 8 years for her green card.”
“7-8 more years. There is no way to tell. Maybe she should consider getting married.”
“I keep telling her to find a boy,” my mother said, agreeing with the lawyer.
“She has plenty of time. Just make sure he is a U.S. citizen.”
It hurt. I kept quiet about my homosexuality. I didn’t want to shame her or my family in front of a stranger. I tried a different tact.
“I thought the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) protected me. Doesn’t INA 203(h)(3) let even aged out derivative beneficiaries the right to keep the original priority date from the original petition and reapply it to a new petition? So I should be able to get a green card immediately if my mom filed for me right now using the date assigned to us from my grandmother’s petition.”
He seemed a little surprised. I had done my research. “You are right. But that’s not how the agency is interpreting the law. It is too risky to apply under that right now, with litigation pending. You will likely be denied and placed in deportation proceedings. Your only hope is the DREAM Act [a legislation intended to grant a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented students] or getting married to a U.S. citizen.”
My mother seemed confused. “Why doesn’t the government just follow the law? I have my green card. Why can’t you have your green card?”
“Mom, they have their own interpretation of what the law says.”
“So what do we do now?”
“There is no way I want to spend my 20s without the ability to work legally, drive, travel and become a productive citizen. I can take voluntary departure and leave the country.”
“And go where? Your whole family is here. What am I supposed to do without you?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t know how to respond.
Having given up on the process, both my mother and older sister (a U.S. citizen via a bona-fide marriage to another U.S. citizen) started asking around for various suitors for me. I faced intense pressure at home to get married to a guy for papers. The only way to put an end to it was to be as out as possible. The best way to protect myself was to break through the barrier of invisibility. And that was the undoing of my chains.
In October 2007–after Congressional failure to pass the DREAM Act—I met other undocumented youth like me on an online portal, who were willing to do more than just sit around in fear and live in the shadows. We started organizing in several states for the DREAM Act and against the criminalization of immigrant communities. It didn’t matter if anyone supported us or not. I realized that working within our communities was empowering and “if we build it, they would come.” And there was no looking back when we started conducting civil disobedience actions all over the country. It only took a few dozen dedicated individuals to create and fuel a movement that could move politicians to reconsider a dead piecemeal legislation time and time again. At some point, it didn’t matter to me whether we ultimately failed or succeeded – the fact that we could lead such public lives without fear was victory enough.
At 25, I had a quarter-life crisis. I had an advanced degree, and still did not have the right to work legally in my own home, drive, travel abroad, or obtain loans to further my education. While I continued working for the cleaning business, my mother did not have the financial support she needed and our home was getting foreclosed by the bank. I felt helpless and felt the walls closing in on us. The last ten years of limbo seemed like one long day that never ended. Fed up with the system, the situation at home and seeking a final resolution, I decided to attend law school and pursue litigation regarding my own immigration case since no lawyer was willing to take it on.
I applied to and received admission to some of the best law schools in the country, and settled on attending The George Washington University in Washington D.C., a couple thousand miles away from home in California. I didn’t know how I would get through it but once again, my mother was by my side. She emptied out her retirement savings accounts and took another job to pay for my tuition since I didn’t receive any federal loans or grants like most of my peers.
During my first year of law school, I resumed adjustment of status based on the Child Status Protection Act, knowing that a rejection would place me in deportation proceedings. And USCIS did precisely that – they denied my adjustment of status and placed me in deportation proceedings, during my final semester exams, much to the devastation of my friends, family members and my girlfriend at the time.
“You are getting deported? I’ll marry you, you know,” she said to me one night as we lay in bed together.
“That’s not going to help even if we could get married legally in some state. Besides, you know that I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. It’s heteronormative, not queer.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I will fight this like I’ve fought everything else. I may be a Dreamer but they are the ones who are really disillusioned if they think they can separate me from my loved ones.”
Few people understand that the irony of deportation proceedings meant that I could finally work legally, obtain a social security number, a driver’s license and state identification. And I only needed to drag the case for five years to get a green card through my mother’s second category petition for me. That seems plausible given the current immigration court backlogs.
I took a legal fellowship in San Francisco for the summer and came back home to spend time with my mother. She seemed to have aged more in the 10 months that I was away from home than the last 10 years we had spent struggling to make a living here. Due to the stress of my impending deportation and our financially dire situation, she was hospitalized in July with high blood pressure and hypertension.
“There is something I need to tell you. I don’t want you to hate me after I die.”
“You aren’t dying. Quit being so dramatic.”
“Your father was always bad at taking care of us. But he made a lot of sacrifices for his family.”
“He cheated on you right after you gave birth to my sister,” I retorted. “I don’t even know why you took him back or put up with him.”
“You know your grandmother,” she looked at me, exasperated. “No one supported me at the time. I was ready to raise your sister on my own. I moved to another city. And then he came back begging. He resigned from work on a Friday, ready to go with him to New Zealand and took back his resignation on a Monday.”
“Wait. He had an affair with a man?” I don’t even know why I asked that question. Maybe I was confused by the pronouns. Maybe in my subconscious mind, everything finally made sense.
“Yes. Your father is gay. Well, he says he is bi-sexual.” I tuned her out. It made no sense at first. But then it did. The repressed anger that came out of nowhere; the posters of male soccer players on bathroom walls; his love for Will & Grace; his support of gay marriage but persistent hatred of my woman-loving ways.
“That is why he hates me,” I whispered to no one in particular.
“Yes. I keep telling him how proud I am of you.”
That certainly didn’t help the situation. I had so many questions for my mom. But only one made its way to my lips.
“How come you like me so much?” I asked, swallowing back the lump in my throat.
“I love you. You are the best child I could have. And it’s not your fault that you have someone else’s defective genes.”
It stung. The part of me that she considers defective is also the part of me that knows how to love without fear and restraint. But I was too stunned to argue with her at the moment. Besides, she had her own question for me.
“What are we going to do now?” she asked, referring to my gigantic law school tuition and immigration court hearing on November 10.
“Don’t worry, Mom. You’ve taken care of me for so long. Now it is my turn to take care of you.” I smiled and continued. “Besides, this is my home now. And no one is going to send me anywhere I don’t want to go.”