I immigrated with my mother and two sisters to the United States in the fall of 1985 from Ecuador, two years after my father became one of the thousands of Ecuadorians who migrated because of the oil price crash of the early 1980s.
Then On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, enabling 2.7 million undocumented immigrants to become Legal Permanent Residents, otherwise known as green card holders.
Sporting a drab dark brown suit with a row of white men behind him, a flurry of cameras captured President Ronald Reagan signing IRCA into existence, immortalizing the moment one of the most significant immigration laws excluded my family.
IRCA reserved eligibility to undocumented immigrants living in the United States before January 1st, 1982. We were the new arrivals and found ourselves excluded under a grand bargain to provide protection for some in exchange for major increases in border enforcement.
Ten years old at its signing, 20 years passed before I became a Legal Permanent Resident in 2006.
“WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” read the heading of the green card approval letter I received 21 years after arriving in the United States. “It is with great pleasure that we welcome you,” the letter said.
Standing in my kitchen, I stared at the torch of Lady Liberty printed on the letter’s background. The soft yellow walls, mint green cabinets, and abundant sunlight that normally filled my kitchen with light and airiness darkened, and the air vacated through my nostrils.
After 21 years as the excluded undocumented immigrant, I never imagined inclusion would feel like a clenched jaw and pounding chest. The welcoming tone of the notification of the approval letter and the warmth of the torch of Lady was jolting. Lady Liberty, what changed? Why am I just now being welcomed?
When I left Ecuador, I longed to be welcomed in the United States—to feel safe again. A few months after my father immigrated, I witnessed my older sister’s hit-and-run car accident. I sat next to my sister’s unconscious limp body, blood dripping from her forehead, and her ankle turned a full 90 degrees from her leg.
Through the many months of recovery after her accident—requiring all my mother’s attention—I found myself alone with the unnamed demons penetrating my childhood. My sister eventually physically recovered. Her broken leg and arm healed. Her hair, shaved to replace the broken skull bone with a metal plate, grew back. But my shattered sense of safety never fully recovered.
Rather than finding safety in the United States, I discovered my humanity and worthiness would be endlessly debated. For twenty-one years, I was the demonized immigrant who did not belong, whose mere presence was contentious, and who was excluded by IRCA.
Since IRCA, the United States’ exclusion arsenal has magnified, with border enforcement spending increasing from $263 million in 1990 to $4.9 billion in 2021. In the meantime, Congress has failed to pass legalization reform and recent negotiations between the White House and Senate negotiators appear headed to impose further border restrictions and expand the government’s ability to exclude new arrivals.
The anger I hold surprises me. I am in, after all.
In her 2021 book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief, author Victoria Chang grapples with the unanswerable questions she carries about her family’s history and immigration story from China. “I wonder why any of this matters,” she writes. “Lucky people are supposed to live in the future.”
I lucked out. After three failed petitions to become a Legal Permanent Resident, the first in 1990, the second in 1997, and the third in 2002, my fourth petition—based on marriage to a U.S. citizen—was approved. If I had never married a U.S. citizen, affording me the privilege to petition and the financial means to cover the many filing fees and years of attorney costs, I may not have been granted citizenship.
The grief my anger hides craves acknowledgment of the harms of exclusion: feeling unsafe, unworthy, and invisible as a full human but hyper-visible as the unwanted alien. My grief craves meaning beyond luck. My grief struggles with the fact that my humanity never mattered to politicians negotiating immigration law.
In 2021, I attended my sister’s naturalization ceremony holding hands with my anger. When I realized the ceremony would be held outside because of the COVID pandemic, anger squeezed my hand. It was a windy Chicago morning failing to reach 50 degrees and my jacket was in the car.
My sister was ushered to plastic chairs spread six feet apart. There were no chairs for the guests. Some leaned against the fence surrounding the courtyard of the Dirksen Federal Building. With the cutting look I perfected during my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago— arms crossed, slight head tilt, unflinching eyes, and smirk—I sat on the corner of a long gray bench and waited for the judge’s remarks.
From where I sat the judge appeared to be a young white woman about 5 feet tall. She walked to the podium in black heels at least three inches tall and a long black robe, her long blond ponytail swooshing. Her remarks were brief.
She welcomed the new Americans by thanking them for the sacrifices they made to be in the United States. “It was a long and difficult process,” she acknowledged. She then quoted something she read about how immigrants make the United States a more just, good, kind, and welcoming place. “I hope this country lives up to the hopes that you had when you came,” she concluded.
For a moment, anger let go of me. Maybe it was the full blue sky or the sun shining directly on my body, making the cool morning bearable and warming me up in between the gusts of winds, or the sounds of the birds and the city waking up. Maybe it was because it was the welcome I had been waiting for.
Today the White House appears ready to trade asylum seekers for aid to Ukraine and Israel. Texas recently passed a law, SB4, making crossing into the state illegal. In Chicago, where many new arrivals are being bused, some City Council aldermen want the city’s sanctuary status repealed.
The conditions new arrivals are facing are dehumanizing. They are being used as chess pieces by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who started busing migrants to cities such as Chicago and New York.
My journey feels far from the experiences of recent arrivals and the scale of the needs of current migrants is much larger. Yet, the experience of being dehumanized and used as a chess piece, while politicians develop new forms of exclusion, stretches across time.
As I witness politicians use new arrivals as bargaining chips and develop new ways to exclude people seeking safety and opportunity, the anger of feeling unwelcomed for 21 years resurfaces.
I wonder how it would feel if immigrants were welcomed instead.
It’s been a long and difficult journey. Immigrants make the United States better. I hope the United States lives up to the hopes and dreams you had when you came here. I know this is what I needed then and now.