I am a proud “anchor baby,” a U.S. citizen born to undocumented parents from Mexico. Anchor babies are often perceived as children whose only purpose is to provide an undocumented parent with a “fast track” to citizenship: thus, it is often seen as a stigma. But I embrace the label as a way of showing that I am not ashamed of my parents’ undocumented status, their journey, or the life choices I had to make because of my family’s circumstances. I witnessed the immigration process as my parents went through it for decades, and I will never forget it.
Being an anchor baby has been a burden and a gift. There were moments when I resented my parents’ immigration status, and questioned why they could not have entered the country “the legal way.” But while my life was hindered because of their inability to live a conventional American Dream, I also had breakthrough moments when I learned from the contrast between my own privilege and my parents’ disadvantages. By living and working within immigrant communities, I also understood first hand the complexities of immigrant lives, and was influenced by all of them, not just those endured by my own family. Ultimately, I was fortunate to be able to help my parents become American citizens. And I have seen how immigrant communities grow stronger, even in the face of uncertainty and hostility.
When I was little, my parents shared the story of their journey to New York from Oaxaca, Mexico. My mother was pregnant with me as they crossed the desert. Growing up, once a week, I would go with my mom to wire money to Mexico to my abuelitos (grandparents). We lived in Port Richmond, Staten Island, where our school demographic consisted of mostly Latinx and African American children. Most of the Latinx children were of Mexican (or Mexican-American) backgrounds and also came from Oaxaca. In class, we spoke in Spanish, English, or Spanglish about our family phone calls, and our dreams of visiting Mexico one day to see our abuelitos.
As a family, we would buy a $5 calling card, dial all the numbers — and the chatter began. I would get on the phone and talk to my grandparents with standard replies, such as “sí” (yes), and “muchos abrazos” (many hugs). When I returned the phone to my parents, my grandparents would ask my parents, “¿Cuando?” (When will you visit?). I could see my parents’ silent grief as they responded, “pronto, no se preocupen,” (soon, do not worry). I remember moments when my parents would discuss whether it would be better to return to Mexico, but each time they came to the same conclusion: it would be better to wait until they had a green card. I did not understand what this meant, but the buzz in the neighborhood assured me that everyone needed this thing.
My parents tried to “get in line,” as undocumented people are told they must do. Unfortunately they were scammed by fraudulent notarios (lawyers), paying thousands of dollars in the hope of becoming legal residents. My dad tried to get an employer-based green card through his job, but the employer withdrew his support when a final signature was required. By then, their hopes were pinned on federal immigration reform.
However, I did not truly understand the role immigration would play in shaping my life until I traveled to Mexico. Every summer, I went to Mexico alone. I would walk through my parents’ hometown and hear the abuelitos worry that they would never see their children again, or meet their grandchildren, because the younger generation lived en el norte and could not travel. There was also little chance the elderly could get a tourist visa to the U.S. due to their children’s lack of legal status there.
I came to understand that my parents could not travel as I could because they did not have a green card. A green card allows an immigrant to not only have legal economic status, but also the freedom to travel outside of the country and have the right of reentry. Thus, the lack of a green card cut my parents off, not just from legal work, but also from their families.
Travel was a privilege of my citizenship. Unlike my parents and those in my neighborhood, I could cross borders. I realized that other privileges awaited me: a social security number, a driver’s license, and job security. Even if my mom or dad were extremely ill, they feared ever missing work, or losing a job, because we had bills to pay. Because they could not drive, if we did grocery shopping, we had to be selective about what we could buy, since we had to carry everything home on a bus.
Occasionally there would be a buzz in the community and in the Spanish news media of a possible immigration reform bill. When I was thirteen, my parents met with yet another immigration attorney and learned that they had only four options, none of which were possible: employer based sponsorship (not possible); marry a U.S. citizen (fraudulent marriage); have a relative sponsor them (this entailed a waiting period of twenty years); or have a child over 21 who could petition on their behalf. When they came home, in a joking manner they said to me: “¡esperamos hasta que cumplas 21 años, haber si tenemos papeles!” (Let us wait until you are 21, maybe we will have papers then!)
As the years passed, there was still no comprehensive immigration reform. I entered high school and dreamed of going away to have a true American college experience. I was ecstatic about the future as I filled out my applications. But I soon realized that even though I was a citizen, my dreams would not be possible. A form called a FAFSA, which is the path to financial aid, was a stumbling bloc, as it is for so many children of undocumented immigrants, because it required that my parents supply tax returns. At the time, my parents did not pay taxes, due to their fear that immigration agents would use tax information to deport them. I could not file the form, and thus, financial aid my educational opportunities were limited. My college advisor did not know how to advise me as scholarship opportunities kept evaporating. I learned that my only option was to live at home and work to pay for my education at CUNY’s Hunter College.
My journey as a college student was both challenging and disappointing. During my first semester at Hunter, not only did I have to work, but it also looked like I would have to work even more. I was consulting with an attorney about another way to sponsor my parents: their adjustment of status would only be possible as long as I could prove that I was able to support them. Sponsor income requirements are 125% of the federal income poverty level. To petition for one parent, my income had to be above $19,000; for both of them, above $24,000; and the application had to reflect a minimum three years of taxes.
As an 18-year-old and a full-time student, this was a crushing burden. Yet petitioning for my parents was their only path to legal status. It was a real chance to get green cards for my parents, and to help my younger siblings pursue their own American Dreams. I left Hunter halfway through the semester, and it broke my parents’ hearts. I realized that the anchor baby narrative was false: the “fast track” to citizenship was only possible for children who had the financial means to sponsor their parents.
But my experiences also made me more determined. When I left Hunter I began working at Project Hospitality, a non-profit social service organization in Staten Island that serves those at risk of homelessness. I also began volunteering through Project Hospitality’s sister organization, El Centro del Immigrante, a non-profit grassroots based organization that works with day laborers and their families in the Port Richmond neighborhood.
I realized that I loved working at a grassroots level and being an immigrant rights activist. I had found my identity and an issue that I cared about, and I yearned to learn as much as possible. I also became involved in the DREAM Act movement between 2009 until 2012. The experience led to Advocacy Day participation, assisting in civil disobedience actions: my activism deepened my understanding of how punitive current American immigration laws are. The DREAM Act would not benefit my parents but it was a start, part of a broader immigration reform push for our community.
As I became more involved in activism, my parents feared for my safety. But while I understood their concern, my family’s struggle had radicalized me. In May 2010, I participated in the DREAM Act hunger strike in front of New York Senator Charles Schumer’s office by overseeing the well being of hunger strikers. I was amazed by the amount of press coverage, supporters encouraging our action and flooding Congress with calls in support of the DREAM Act.
As I kept participating in immigrant rights, my parents and I made use of existing laws, working to meet all the criteria for me to sponsor them. With our attorney’s help, we filed for my mom’s adjustment of status. I assembled folders of letters, over 20 years of bill payments, school records, photo albums with chronological dates, and religious letters to prove our continuous presence in the U.S. in preparation for her immigration interview. On the interview date, we went to the Jacob K. Javitz Federal Building and waited to be called.
I sat in on the interview and witnessed the questions the officer asked my mother. I thought my role was to observe, but the agent directed several questions to me, and asked for my social security number at least 5 times. I had to verify my date of birth, country of birth, my passport, and my work experience and salary. I was completely fine until the officer asked me if I was my mother’s daughter. I firmly answered yes that she was my mother. Yet the questions kept coming, as if our application must be a lie.
Our entire family life was being dissected into smaller and smaller pieces. I felt rage because it was only the two of us, facing down an entire system that would decide my family’s fate. I felt alone and wished our attorney were present to stop the questions about my own legal status.
After what felt like an eternity, the officer took my mom’s passport, stamped it and said, “Welcome to the U.S.” The stamp was a temporary green card by which my mom’s existence was validated. She could travel, get a social security card and a driver’s license, and begin a new way of living. After several months, my dad and I went through the same process. As soon as they had their official green cards, my parents booked a trip to Mexico to visit my relatives.
I was thrilled, but it was a bittersweet moment, as immigration reform itself was proceeding slowly. During the 2010 lame duck session, I observed as the Senate reached a compromise on the DREAM Act to secure its passage, but it stalled: I was in the room as the legislation failed. After intense advocacy, two years later, I was with a group of undocumented youth when Deferred Action, or DACA, was announced. I wanted more. Yet, these experiences also showed me the value of making small strides forward, as individuals and as a collective. After 2012, I returned to school, graduating with an undergraduate degree from The New School. Afterwards, I became a paralegal at a non-profit law and policy organization that advocates on behalf of people with criminal records, addiction, or living with HIV/AIDS. This fall, I have enrolled in law school at Rutgers University.
It was not until I witnessed my parents take their oaths as American citizens, after five years with green cards, and gaining the right to vote, that I realized I wanted and needed to go to law school. I realized the difference I had made in their lives, and I wanted to keep moving the work forward and in the best interest of the public. I now think of the real threats all immigrant communities now face: everything from fraud by individuals passing as attorneys to the current threat to DACA and sanctuary cities.
I think about individuals going through the criminal justice system, particularly those that may speak Spanish, and the fear they face due to language barriers. I hear the stories of the discrimination that even citizens face due to their criminal records. Citizens and non-citizens alike are disillusioned that the laws, even though they may protect individuals, do not protect them. I know what it is like to be afraid and unsure of the future. But even now, as the government and country is divided, I believe in the possibility of common ground, compromise, and in equal justice under the law. I see myself as an advocate for the greater good and I am ready for the journey ahead.
Norma Juarez is a graduate of the Bachelor’s Program for Adult and Transfer Students at The New School, and a first year law student at Rutgers University.