My Secret Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

I lived quietly, I prayed for our accents to disappear, and I faked it.

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(Image credit: Courtesy of the author)

I was speaking to my mom the other day when she said, "Maybe this place isn't safe for us anymore." We were pushing my baby in his stroller down a sunny sidewalk in Brooklyn, enjoying unseasonably warm weather. It was a street I loved before I lived in the neighborhood, with giant old trees and stately Victorian homes. The birds were chirping, confused by the February balminess, and I had no idea what she was talking about.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"America," she said.

"But we're citizens now, we don't have to worry," I said.

"But to them we'll always be immigrants," she replied.

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The author and her cousins celebrating her fourth birthday in the Philippines

(Image credit: Archives)

My pregnant mother, my then three-year-old brother, and I came to this country from the Philippines in 1986 when I was almost 5 years old. I have vague memories of the day we left. We were late to catch our flight, so we had to run through the brightly lit airport in a frenzy. My father had come to the airport to see off his two small children and pregnant wife. He wouldn't see us again until four years had passed. We flew to America on a tourist visa that allowed us to come and go, for six months at a time, for a span of 10 years.

I don't remember much about arriving in California, except that everything seemed much larger than what I was used to. The streets were wide and open, the mountains surrounding the valley taller than any land mass I had ever seen. My aunt and uncle's one-story house, with its three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, felt palatial. They even had a fireplace. I'd never seen one before.

The three of us shared a room in this house, sleeping on a full-size daybed with a trundle. My grandpa lived there too, along with my teenage cousin. I remember being surrounded by adults most of the time. In the Philippines, we lived close to cousins around my age. In California, the only other kid I had to play with was my brother.

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The author with her mother, brother, and American-born youngest sister

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In addition to visiting my aunt and uncle, my mom wanted to help my grandfather acquire his citizenship. Like many other Filipino men, he had fought on behalf of the U.S. during World War II in the Philippines and had been promised citizenship and veteran benefits as a result. He had moved to California in 1982, expecting the process to be swift and easy and telling my mother, when he left, "Don't worry, things will be better for us soon." But when we arrived in California in 1986, 42 years after his service, the promise of citizenship was still unfulfilled. My mother thought that she could help him navigate the court system more easily in person. Meanwhile, her kids would go to Disneyland, meet their cousins in America, and see a new part of the world.

Our six months came and went, yet we stayed. My sister was born, and my mother began attending night school to get her nursing certificate. We were enrolled in a public school that, while never considered one of the "good schools," was significantly better than anything publicly available in the Philippines.

The reasons we stayed are various and complicated, but the central one is as old as our country itself. This land holds opportunity. The average household income in the Philippines is Php 267,000 or $5,322, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. According to the United States Census Bureau, the median household income in America is $56,515.

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First day of school

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My father remained in the Philippines until I was 9 years old. We wrote letters, and tried to speak on the phone at least once or twice a month, though the cost was prohibitive. In the beginning I cried about missing him, but as time wore on, I remembered his physical presence less and less. (I recalled the Philippines less and less, too. I remember looking for it on a globe once, to reassure myself it was a real country that existed and not one I had merely dreamt up.) As time wore on, my father started to feel like a pen pal—a person you know exists, but who you'll probably never meet. My dad will sometimes reference this time while playing with his grandson. He'll stare at my son and say, "Now you understand, right? You understand how hard it was?"

When my father finally joined us in California, I found myself wondering who this stranger of a man was. The first time my sister met her father she was 4, the same age I was when we left.

In staying longer than we were allowed, we didn't intend to take anything away from anyone. We never took for granted the immense privilege it is to live here, nor did we forget the immense risk and fear that comes with living as undocumented immigrants. My mother shouldered most of this burden during my childhood, but I realized it more and more as I grew up. We lived our lives quietly and respectfully to not attract too much attention.

I remember desperately wanting to blend in. Praying that one day my mom and grandpa's accents would just disappear, so we could look and sound like any other American family. My family spoke only Tagalog to me at home, but I would respond to them in English, for practice, and to hone my American accent. Still, I would sometimes mix up idioms or confuse words: to this day I call a widow's peak a wizard's peak.

I faked it, too. The first time I ate Hamburger Helper at a friend's house, I didn't ask where the rice was or why we were eating with forks (instead of spoons, like most Filipinos do). I just pretended that it was something I ate all the time. Once, in elementary school, a friend from down the street came over to my house early so we could wait for the bus together and she noticed my grandpa frying fish for breakfast. "Who eats fried fish for breakfast?" she asked. "He's making that for his lunch," I lied, and hurried her out of the house.

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When it came to protecting ourselves, the basic message was that we could trust no one outside the family. If the doorbell rang and my parents weren't home, we didn't answer. When we picked up the phone, we never said, "Hi, you've reached the Roxas household"—why give someone identifying information like that? Our phone number was unlisted. My friends and teachers knew I had been born in the Philippines, but our immigration status was a secret. A lot of my friends even knew that my father had been separated from us, but I never told them exactly why.

My biggest fear was that my little sister, a citizen, would grow up alone—that one day she would wake up alone because deportation agents had taken us in the middle of the night. I had heard stories of it happening to others around me. If a classmate stopped coming to school, rumors would swirl around. La migra. We could always be next.

My biggest fear was that my little sister, a citizen, would grow up alone.

As I grew into my teenage years, I learned that I could not afford to make mistakes. I could not fail at school (not that I intended to). My (and my brother's and sister's) future success was the reason we were taking such a risk by remaining in the country. We had to be twice as good to get to the level that other Americans—especially many white Americans—assumed at birth. I could not question authority or rebel against my family (we were all we had) or do anything "normal" teenagers do that would cause scrutiny. When I wanted to attend a protest that my church youth group was holding, my dad refused to let me. "They could be arresting people," he said, "and that can't happen to you."

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My family and I tried to be good citizens and contribute to this country during the years we lived here illegally. We paid taxes (the government assigns individual taxpayer ID numbers that function like a social security number, but do not confer any of the benefits). I volunteered at a children's hospital for the mentally disabled; my mother cared for senior citizens and those in hospice. Apart from my relentless good behavior, I was like any other teenager in the '90s: I hung out after school with my friends, went shopping at the mall, ate junk food, and pretty much looked like any other mallrat except I tanned really really easily.

My brother, mom, and I were deported on paper in the early '90s. This didn't actually mean that we left the country, but it did mean that we spent decades in and out of immigration courts going through an "Adjustment of Status," procedure—getting fingerprinted, having out backgrounds checked, scrutinized, and reviewed. This is permitted under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which "provides an individual two primary paths to permanent resident status," as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site explains it. "Adjustment of status is the process by which an eligible individual already in the United States can get permanent resident status (a green card) without having to return to their home country to complete visa processing."

Practically speaking, this meant that we had to deal with condescending judges and opportunistic lawyers who overcharged my family. One lawyer charged us $21,000. Imagine how long that takes to pay off when you're working as a nurse and raising three children. I had to ask my favorite teachers, my school counselor, and some of my friends to write letters telling the government I was a good person. I was embarrassed to make the requests and worried that they would say no, or, worse, have nothing stellar to say.

When I finally became a U.S. citizen at age 28 in 2009, it was momentous. I studied hard for my citizenship test. I could leave nothing to chance. I cried when I was sworn in and the judge said, "Welcome to the United States of America," as if I hadn't been calling this country home since I was 4. I could finally assert my voice; it was finally okay to be heard. I could vote and stand up for my beliefs without worrying about being asked to leave the country that I called home. I could finally feel safe.

But now I'm not so sure. We'll always be immigrants, as my mom said.

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