I Work Alongside You Every Day —But Depending On Who Wins The Election, I Could Be Forced To Leave

Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Marlie Rezei.
Editor's note: The writer's name has been changed at her request because of the immigration status of her family members. The views expressed are her own.

Working in media in New York City, I've heard plenty of my liberal coworkers and friends joke about how they plan to leave the United States if Donald Trump wins the election. But it’s no laughing matter to me. In my case, a win for Donald Trump could mean leaving my immediate family, my friends, and my job to return to a country I haven't seen since I was 10 years old.

The fear of losing the life I have built for myself over the past 15 years crystalized when I turned in my final college assignment almost three years ago. I should have been ecstatic, relieved, and happy; excited for what the future would hold like my other cap-and-gown-donning classmates. Like them, I was feeling the stress of finding a job after graduation and paying off my student loans. Like them, the prospect of beginning my career and building a life seemed daunting.

But I had something even bigger to worry about: whether I would be legally allowed to stay in the country at all.

Along with my mother and two sisters, I boarded a plane and transported my entire life to the other side of the planet. Several days later, my father joined us with $500 in his pocket.

Advertisement
I am a DREAMer — one of more than 700,000 young people given temporary legal status under a program unveiled by the Obama administration in 2012. Because I came here with my family before my 16th birthday, I qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. (While the federal DREAM Act did not pass, many young immigrants like me who are living in the United States under DACA also call ourselves DREAMers). And while Hillary Clinton has pledged to uphold DACA if she wins, Trump openly opposes the program.

The future of my job, my friends, my family, and my relationship with my partner all rest on who wins on November 8.

Moving here from the Philippines in 2001 was not an easy decision for my family, but we could not have known just how hard it would be. My oldest brother and sister were going to college in Massachusetts, and it made sense to be under one roof. More than anything else, our parents wanted us to get a good education, and they found that in a little town outside of Boston, fairly close to my siblings’ new college.

So, along with my mother and two sisters, I boarded a plane and transported my entire life to the other side of the planet. Several days later, my father joined us with $500 in his pocket. I was 10 years old, and I was set to start at a new school in a new country just a few days later.
Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Marlie Rezei.
We were scrappy. Our new apartment in Massachusetts was two-and-a-half bedrooms for all seven of us. My three sisters shared a bedroom, and my brother had his own. I slept in my parents’ bed. My college-bound siblings lived with us, too. There were one-and-a-half bathrooms for the seven of us.

When I started school, I felt immediately isolated. My mom had to force me to speak English when I refused to do so at school. I dressed differently and brought hot dogs and rice for lunch while my classmates ate sandwiches. During recess, I sat on the tire swing alone with a lunchbox full of doughnuts, cookies, and crackers, because my mom didn’t know how many snacks were appropriate to pack.

Luckily, with my fourth grade teacher’s help, I made a friend. I learned what games to play at recess and started speaking English, and after the first couple of days at school, I finally told my mom that a bag of pretzels sufficed.

When I started school, I felt immediately isolated…I dressed differently and brought hot dogs and rice for lunch while my classmates ate sandwiches.

As I went through elementary and middle school, my friends would always be surprised when they found out that I wasn’t a citizen and that I was from the Philippines. They’d ask, “Did you live in a hut there? Did you have TV? Or running water? Are you allowed to be here? What if you get deported?”

We came into the country as B-1 and B-2 business visa holders and eventually switched to L-1 and L-2 visas for business expansion, which we could renew up to three times. With countless lawyers and thousands of dollars wasted, we tried applying for permanent residency. We were denied, and soon, uncertainty became a pervasive presence in our lives.

When I was accepted into a private college, I was still on an L-2 visa. But by the time senior year rolled around, my visa had run out. As a young, undocumented college student, I was terrified.
Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Marlie Rezei.
What was the point of getting a degree if I couldn’t (legally) land a job? Was I going to have to move back to the Philippines after living here for more than a decade? My immediate family, friends, and even my significant other at the time all lived in the U.S., and I had no desire to go back.

Then, in the fall of 2013, my father began urging my siblings and me to apply for DACA. The program allowed immigrants who met certain requirements to receive a renewable two-year work permit, and prevented their deportation. The program is only open to applicants who were under 31 at the time it was enacted in 2012. Applicants had to have come to the United States before their 16th birthdays and have lived here since at least 2007.

I applied to it in November of 2013. But when it came time to graduate a month later, I hadn’t yet received a response. So I moved to New York to stay with my sister, and waited for that fateful email from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that would decide my future. In the meantime, I worked as a nanny under the table for a family in the city.
Advertisement

By the time senior year rolled around, my visa had run out. As a young, undocumented, college student, I was terrified.

While my peers were off accepting job offers, internships, or traveling, I was sitting on my sister’s Ikea pullout couch, not knowing if I could even remain in the country. I felt humiliated. The thought of having to abandon my career goals was devastating.

Finally, in the first week of March of 2014, the email came. I cried. After years of uncertainty, I was officially a DREAMer.

I landed my first job at a magazine that June. I was thrilled. My visa allowed me to work for whichever company I chose, as opposed to a regular work visa, which requires that a company sponsor you. I moved on to my second job in media, and then recently on to a third. The fact that I can choose my own path is because of DACA.

I moved to New York to stay with my sister, and waited for that fateful email…that would decide my future. In the meantime, I worked as a nanny under the table for a family in the city.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel thankful that I qualified for DACA. But the program also has its downsides: It only lasts for two years. And, since renewing is a long process, it’s wise to start it three to six months in advance. That means the “safe” zone in which I can go about my life without worrying about my immigration status is really more like a year and a half. And once the two years are over, you’re never guaranteed that you will qualify again.

Also under DACA, you can leave the country but may not be allowed back in. The travel restrictions mean I have missed every Christmas with my relatives since I moved here 15 years ago. In the Philippines, we were surrounded by family. I saw my cousins nearly every day in Manila, and we often spent our weekends in my grandparents’ house in Angeles City, about two hours away. It has been eight years since I last saw them.

When my extended family takes an international trip, I have to sit it out. I even missed my brother’s wedding in Greece in 2012. My sister, a green card holder, was able to see my brother walk down the aisle with his wife. The rest of us had to FaceTime the first dance.

My sister, a green card holder, was able to see my brother walk down the aisle with his wife. The rest of us had to FaceTime the first dance.

My immigration status doesn't just affect my relationships with my family. Marriage is the most viable option for gaining permanent residency. That puts a lot of pressure on my relationship with my partner. Though I love him and can see a future with him, we’ve only been dating for two years. If it weren't for my immigration status, I might not have had to bring up the subject of marriage so soon.

I try to stay positive, telling myself that legal status will come someday. But as I watch my aunts and uncles grow older, I think of the time we’ve spent apart and how I’ll never get those days back.

The irony is, I can’t vote for my future. What I can do is talk about my experience and how being a DREAMer has changed my life. DACA has given me so many opportunities, even as it has taken others away. I am thankful every day that I got into the program — so many immigrants have it much harder than I have — but as a productive member of society, and one who has grown up here, the line separating me from those who are citizens by birth seems thin.

I’m telling my story now because of those other immigrants in a much more precarious situation than me, and for the tens of thousands of young people living in this country who were denied DREAMer status. As the election draws closer, it’s more important than ever that those who can vote do.

So I'm asking you, as a U.S. citizen: Do it for me. Do it for your friend, or your family member. Do it for everyone who doesn’t have the right to. We matter, too, and our future is in your hands.


Advertisement