Today is Citizenship Day! In honor of the courageous journey millions of Americans take to become citizens, I’d like to share a guest post by LIRS Policy Advocate, Alaide Vilchis Ibarra. Alaide shares her story– from living as an undocumented migrant to, just last week, being formally recognized as an American citizen.
Last week, I took my Oath of Citizenship to the United States. The journey that brought me to that moment in the courtroom, standing alongside 119 other future Americans, had been full of moments of powerlessness. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, I learned to be nonexistent, in fear that the sacrifices my family and I had made to give me a better life would be taken away.
The first few weeks after moving to Kansas are probably some of the most painful to remember. My family slept in the living room at an uncle’s house and in a hotel even after I started attending school. I can still see myself sitting at my uncle’s kitchen table translating my homework word by word. The only place that felt safe in my school was the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, where I knew I wouldn’t be judged for mispronouncing a word or misunderstanding directions. I sat quietly in all other classes hoping classmates wouldn’t talk to me so I didn’t have to think of the words to respond.
I learned English so quickly that my ESL teacher thought that I might have faked my level of understanding in my initial English evaluation. In my junior year, I started to find my voice by joining school clubs, playing sports, and finding friends. The ESL classroom with my teacher, Mrs. Barney, remained a place where I could feel comfortable, where I could find other teenagers who understood what it was like to leave your life behind.
The first time I told anyone that I was undocumented was my senior year of high school. My parents and I were looking for any possibilities for me to go to college. We met with a caseworker at an organization that helps migrants in Kansas. We told her that I was in the honor roll of my high school, earned numerous academic awards, became the president of a few clubs, and volunteered. We asked for any options for me to continue my education. There weren’t any. Even after receiving a private scholarship from a university, my family still couldn’t afford it.
We didn’t know the system and were afraid to tell anyone new about my status. Fear prevented us from reaching out to our neighbors. I now know that there were other DREAMers – a term that didn’t exist back then – who were speaking out and fighting to have a chance to continue their education. That day, the caseworker told me that she and other advocates were working on passing a bill that might allow me to attend college.
That bill, the Kansas in-state tuition law, went into effect July 1st, 2004, a few months after I had graduated high school. I began attending classes at the University of Kansas that August. At the university, I finally felt like I had found a home. The university molded me into a citizen and completely changed my life. I met my husband there, found my political voice, and began understanding my role as a member of a community.
I started the process of becoming a U.S. resident right after my husband and I got married. The moment I received my residency card was the first time I was acknowledged as a member of a community that I had belonged to for 10 years.
Shortly after, I was asked to testify in the Kansas legislature to protect the in-state tuition bill against efforts to repeal it. Standing in front of the legislators telling my story and how the work of advocates, the faith community, neighbors, and other undocumented students had impacted me, I finally felt like all the hard work and the painful moments had paid off. I had the honor to represent students who, like me, were supposed to be only shadows.
The day of my citizenship ceremony, I thought about my ESL teacher and the caseworker, who I am now in regular contact with. I felt grateful and humbled to have so many people advocating for my dreams, even before meeting me. When I had no voice, they spoke out for policies that protected and uplifted me. The most meaningful thing about my U.S. citizenship to me is having the ability to speak out for policies that will protect the dreams of other migrants.
Citizenship is a privilege I will never take for granted. Although change is slow, I know my voice is strong and will not waver. Continue going to LIRS’s Action Center, voting, and contacting your local, state, and federal authorities. Join me in speaking for compassionate immigration policies.