From Surviving to Thriving: Journey of a Dreamer

In honor of DREAM Act Week of Action, every day we’ll be sharing the personal stories of undocumented students who need us to pass that legislation and give them the opportunity to reach their dreams. This is Prerna’s story.

I was 14 years old when my Dad dragged me half-way across the world to the United States of America, leaving behind everything and everyone that I knew and loved. I didn’t know how I would survive.

I fall into categories such as a queer, immigrant, woman of color, but there is much more to me than my various social and political identities. Most people know me as a fierce, independent, outspoken, and strong leader. What they don’t know is that the simple question “Why did your parents come here?” brings tears to my eyes and leaves me speechless for a while. Someone once told me that real tears aren’t the ones that are shed; they are the ones held captive in your eyes. And my eyes are still waiting for the day it can put the pain and anguish of the tumultuous past behind.

I had dreams before even becoming a DREAMer. At 25, I wanted a small home with the pitter-patter of small feet in the house and a partner who held me accountable in a relationship of equals. I didn’t want to be a rich doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I never expected to be one of the movers and shakers of a national movement. And most of all, I never imagined being caught on the wrong side of the law not because I broke a law, but because USCIS and the Board of Immigration Appeals are actively working on separating parents from their children, especially in mixed-status immigration families.

For those who don’t know, maybe a recap of how I ended up being a “DREAM-eligible” student is in order. When I wanted to attend college in the United States as an international student and pay international student fees, the Department of Homeland Security sent a letter of rejection after 9-11 saying I couldn’t do so because my parents had filed a petition for legal residency with me as a beneficiary, somehow signaling my intent to stay. Really? That letter made be an undocumented immigrant, slapping me with a 10-year ban from ever re-entrying again, drawing a line between my family and me. But the local community college was happy to offer me AB-540: in-state tuition. My parents happily accepted the offer. Round 1: Prerna 1, USA 0.

After beating all odds and receiving my graduate degree at age 22, this country granted me another gift in the mail. This time, I was informed that since I was over 21, I had “aged-out” on my family petition. Remember that old family petition for which my student visa was initially rejected? We found out that even if my parents became legal permanent residents, I would have to wait in line ALL OVER AGAIN, for another 8-9 years. I had already waited in line for 9 years. We were appalled — and rightly so since there is a class action lawsuit against this illegal action that I know we will undoubtedly win. Round 2: Prerna 2, USA 0.

After I was questionably aged-out by this country, I finally started identifying as a “DREAM-eligible” student. I met up online with other students in my situation, and we decided to fight and build the foundation for a national movement of young undocumented immigrants. I don’t think anyone imagined how much success and acclamation we would get as a result, including the most recent New Organizing Institute’s “Most Valuable Organizer” finalist nomination. While the DREAM Act has not passed, undocumented students are gaining visibility and coming out of the closets to fight for their rights. Heck, they are running their own campaigns. Round 3: Prerna 3, USA 0.

Six months ago, I decided to step back from a leadership role and give the reins to younger people. The plan was to finally move on with life, go back to college to get my Juris Doctor and finish up my Doctorate work. I am happy to inform my readers that not only did I get into some really great schools in the United States and Canada, but I also received full-tuition offers for all three years for college. I paid down my deposit, filled out my housing application, and I am set to spend three years at a fantastic university in America. That one is a knockout.

Alas, my victories and ability to deal with my situation do not transcend to my family. My parents are hard-working, legal permanent residents of the United States. But a “green card” has not changed their life because the person that they sent off to college cannot legally hold down a full-time job without someone generous enough to offer her work sponsorship. My mom works as a janitor, and in her most ill and tired state, she often questions why she can’t just transfer her legal documents over to me. She can’t understand why she gets to call this her country, but her youngest daughter with the advanced graduate degree has to live like a refugee. Actually, I don’t understand it either. But what doesn’t kill you, just makes you stronger.

On panels, at conferences and teach-ins, people often ask me whether I fear for my life, fear a raid on my home, fear being locked up in detention, raped, tortured, and fed maggots in my food. The simple answer is yes, I do fear, but only for my aging mother whom I want to put through college before anything happens to me. Fighting for our dreams takes courage. But courage is not about being fearless. It is about searching out, confronting, and defeating your deepest fears. The oppressive system is nowhere on my list of fears. It is on my list of discontents. I worry only about things I can control and leave the rest of it up to a saying often uttered by my mother that “good things happen to good people.” Besides, if I ever get detained by TSA or ICE, everyone should pray for them instead of me.

Living and growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area as a queer youth saved my life. Sexual and gender minorities are four times more likely to try to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers — and the figures are probably higher for undocumented LGBTQ youth. I am part of that appalling statistic, but I am thriving. If it wasn’t for our diversity, our acceptance of different sexualities, and our generally progressive politics, I can’t imagine surviving here. I am and I will always be a San Franciscan. But discriminatory nature of our broken immigration system, which refuses to recognize “permanent partners,” also means that my sexuality bars me from adjusting my status through marriage to someone I love.

Help pass the DREAM Act this year. Don’t do it for me. Do it because it is the right thing to do for countless other undocumented students who love this country and want to see it prosper.

Photo Credit: No Borders and Binaries

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