On Being an Undocumented Immigrant

By Irla Belli (Harvard College Undergraduate)

During the college application process, a lot went into the personal essay. If my friends and I weren’t going over it in class as part of a lesson from the college office, we were discussing it during lunch. We all knew that it was a major part of the college’s decision so we put a lot of thought into what exactly we found special enough to intimately divulge to a select few admissions officers. My essay was strictly devoted to showing how I handled and am handling being an illegal, no, undocumented immigrant.

Sometimes I have the reflex of feeling as if I have to qualify myself for being an immigrant and qualify my parents for choosing to come to the United States in their circumstance. This automatic feeling that I should be ashamed of and hide my situation has consumed me for my entire life and is what led me to challenge my fear of telling this story. Whenever people refer to immigration, they don’t practice the same delicacy towards it that they would with other controversial topics. This is not to say that those topics are not deserving of the delicacy but it seems that immigration isn’t appropriately spoken about. However, all these topics can be and should be more openly and properly addressed. With this particular U.S. presidential election year, it becomes even more crucial as to how we address issues like immigration.

At three years of age, I left Albania with my parents. There are a multitude of motives for the decision my parents made and among them were my health issues, the horrid political situation in Albania, and an education system that wasn’t conducive to the exploration of knowledge. When we arrived to the United States, we attempted filing for political asylum but did not win the case. It was infuriating to grow up listening to others talk about the different places, whether inside or outside of the United States, they travelled to during breaks while I just nodded my head in agreement, making up stories about how I too got to take pictures with Mickey Mouse. As a child, it is something difficult to accept. In middle school, I would lie to my closest friends and teachers about my circumstances. When a “good friend” found out about this reality, she used it as ammunition against me. Since then, I have doubted telling others because I naïvely assumed it would elicit the same response. I experienced similar negative reactions throughout high school from people I knew personally but also from the media and how immigrants are portrayed by it. When a presidential candidate like Donald Trump is able to utter phrases like “they're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists” in reference to Mexican immigrants and then receive the nomination for a political party he does not represent accurately, it induces an understandable response of insecurity. Not only does he receive nomination, however, but he is elected. So that begs the inevitable question of “what now?”

For some time, I didn’t know how to answer that. I saw people on my campus and back home in New York distraught. Then again, I saw many other Americans thrilled by the outcome. They cheer on their president-elect and seal the deal with bumper stickers proclaiming their allegiance to Trump and Pence. So what can I, as an undocumented person hoping for support from my college, do in response? I didn’t feel empowered at first like many of my classmates did. They saw this as an opportunity to retaliate and have their voices heard. I, however, engrossed myself in indifference. I thought not thinking anything of it was better than getting involved where some people think I do not belong.

Then, with the help of Obama, I realized how immature and silly I seem. In his farewell address tonight, Obama graciously and realistically noted that “our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” And with that, I have decided to recognize that it is my democracy as well because I have grown up embracing the culture of my home in Brooklyn, New York. I have grown up a person of the United States even if I am not a citizen of it, yet. I have grown up loving all the opportunity and the fairness that this country can offer, along with the recognition of its flaws. More importantly, due to that recognition, I have decided to not take our democracy for granted.

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