COMMENTARY: Living Without Fear

I once was an undocumented immigrant. My family brought me here when I was four. I had no choice and lived for 20 years in the shadows.  Growing up I did not realize I was any different than anyone else. I was a Girl Scout, went to church, and in high school, I was the homecoming queen and Valedictorian. The last year of high school I found out the real implications of my undocumented status. I began to feel that I did not belong but I also did not belong in Mexico, so I often wrestled with where did I belong? I was scared that one day I would come home and my family would be separated. 
I trusted that God would provide. Thankfully DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order] was introduced but during that same year. However, I married my boyfriend of four years who happened to be a U.S. Native American Citizen. Today, we have a home together and, because of that, I no longer worry every time an unannounced visitor comes calling.
Throughout the United States, there are 800,000 young people who are lucky to be in this country, but who are not as fortunate as I am. Though most U.S. leaders, including President Donald Trump, and eight in 10 Americans believe these individuals should be able to stay in this country, they don’t have permanent legal status.
To get it, Congress must act. 
Like me, these individuals, the Dreamers, were brought to this country when they were young through no fault of their own. They’ve enjoyed legal status for the last few years under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but the federal government is phasing out DACA starting next March.
The Dreamers at that point will have to drop out of school or leave their jobs. They’ll be back to fearing that knock at the door. Their situation is especially worrisome since they gave the federal government all sorts of information — including personal addresses and employers’ names — to be accepted into DACA. If law enforcement wanted to find them, they could.
Congress cannot let this happen. Lawmakers must pass a bill like the Senate’s bipartisan Dream Act or the House’s Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act.
These bills would allow the 800,000 Dreamers, 10,000 of whom live in Oklahoma, to apply for legal permanent residency if they’re willing to continue to work, go to school, or serve in the military. According to a nonpartisan analysis, giving the Dreamers this chance would boost our state economy by $575 million over ten years. It would create about 1,000 jobs. 
I know the Dreamers are willing to work hard because I was.
Despite the fear that I felt every day going to school, I went. I graduated from high school. Then, in 2012, I graduated from college. I also got married that year and once I received legal permanent residency, I pursued a master’s degree in counseling.  
Today I work in a psychiatric hospital for children. It isn’t easy work, but I’m blessed to be doing it. I hope, perhaps because of the anxiety I lived with as a child, that I can relate to these kids and help them.  
Because I now have legal status, my husband and I also are considering adoption. There are so many children in our community that just need the type of chance I had. Offering the opportunity for a better life for one child (or more!) is one way I can give back to this country.  
Service is everything to my husband and me. Several members of our family are in the U.S. military. They’re proud to wear the uniform, and I’m proud of them. They’re defending this nation of immigrants. My daughter always asks me why she can’t see her aunt and uncle and I have to explain that they are deployed protecting our country. I can’t fathom explaining what deportation means, if that were to happen to my sister. It makes no sense how our country could turn their backs on people willing to sacrifice their life for our country.
Together we’re trying to give my two siblings, who still are undocumented and are part of DACA, the chance to stay here. I’m lucky and have been given the opportunity to create a life here with my husband. Even though they’re working hard, and have been here just as long as I have, they’re still scared of that knock at the door.
I hope our members of Congress will release them from their fear.

NOTE: Jenifer Cortes Gray is a member of the Oklahoma coalition.