Ambassadors for Each Other
Commencement, UC Irvine, June 15, 2012. I stepped up to the podium to deliver a student speech. I had done this before – as the valedictorian of my high school – but this was different. Despite the risk and contrary advice, I was coming out as a formerly undocumented immigrant in a conservative setting. Orange County. One of the last “red” safe-havens in otherwise liberal California. I was one of the lucky few. In the nick of time, my petition for legal residency had been granted. But while I had shed the status of being undocumented, I did not shed the experience. I looked out at the largely white audience and took a breath. I told my story. I may have been born in Mexico, but I was every bit as American as my peers. The lesson I learned was that it didn’t matter whether my parents were refugees or Ph.D’s. We can join together to better this world.
The sea of white faces erupted in applause. But they didn’t just embrace me. They embraced my family. As I make my way through the crowd to my mother, she tells me that a white woman moments before shook her hand and asked: “Is that your daughter? You must be so proud.” In her sweet Spanish, she adds, “thank you.” My heart melted. Those few words validated every immigrant living in America wanting nothing more than to further that American dream. That one mattered. Of all the accolades along the way, hearing of my mother being treated with dignity was a moment I will never forget.
I’ve lived in America since I was four. But as I entered college, I was handicapped by an undocumented experience. Before, it was extremely difficult to envision how any degree mattered if I was prohibited from legally working in the United States. But Americans persevere. And for many, hope turned into reality. On June 15, 2012 – the same day I gave my commencement speech at UC Irvine -- President Obama stepped up to his own podium. In the Rose Garden, he announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), changing lives of “dreamers” forever. #HereToStay.
I am now a citizen, a lawyer, and I work on Capitol Hill. Yes, The Hill. I’m a fellow at the United States Senate. As part of this experience, this former undocumented student shook the hand of Barack Obama, an American president that looked more like me. That made it real. Like everyone else, people of color have a place to lead the world.
It was always important to me that my sponsors knew I didn’t want to just fight for undocumented immigrants. Doing intake work at a social justice clinic humbled me. I had to check my biases at the door. The variety of immigrant clients I counseled didn’t live my experience nor did I live theirs. While we all may think we’re the most disenfranchised minority, there are others that suffer even greater indignations.
We must all be ambassadors for each other’s causes. It’s like that famous poem, “First They Came,” by Martin Niemoller. If we don’t stand up for others, one day there will be no one to stand up for us. Let’s never forget where we came from. That is the impetus that unites and drives us to protect that quintessential American value of equality for all.
Editor’s Note: A link to #HereToStay has been added to our “Other Resources” page. You can also find more information relating to DACA.