1. How old were you when you came to the United States? Tell us a little about when you first realized that you were undocumented and what that meant for you.
I was a year and a half old when I came to the U.S. in 1994. I remember that throughout my childhood, my parents were fighting our asylum case. So, unlike a lot of other immigrant families who are “undocumented,” my parents were allowed to work because they had applied for asylum. At least they were until 2006, when our asylum case was denied.
Growing up, I always thought I was American. My parents always told me, “Before you go to bed, pray to God that we get a green card,” but I didn’t know what that meant. Then, I remember walking into my house one beautiful day after school and seeing the look on my parents’ faces. They looked dejected. They said, “Our case is denied, look what came in the mail.” Even then, I didn’t really get it, until my parents had to give up their jobs. My mother could no longer be a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and work on her Ph.D. in Computer Science. She had to quit her job, stay home and volunteer. My dad could no longer be a server at the Hilton Crowne Plaza in D.C.; he had no choice but to work under the table in order for us to survive. I even remember one time that my dad asked my little brother if he could borrow money from his piggy bank. It was really hard for all of us.
Unfortunately, things did not get easier. In 2008, my father was stopped by the police on his way home from work because he had a blown tail light. After running his information through the system, they learned that he was undocumented. Though my father came home that night, a week later he was torn from us. August 9, 2008 was the last time I saw my father. ICE officers raided my family’s home in Maryland and took my father to a detention center. He was deported back to Bangladesh that year. With the help of an attorney, my mother was allowed to stay another year to settle her affairs before she was also deported. However, she was required to wear a tracking device around her ankle as a condition of being allowed to remain in the U.S.
It was so upsetting to see my mother being treated like an animal with this device attached to her. When my mother was deported back to India in 2009, I felt a true sense of loss, knowing both my parents were gone. My brother and I could not even be comforted knowing that our parents were together because they were not. My family had been torn apart across three separate countries, with my mother in India, my father in Bangladesh and me and my brother in the U.S.
2. What have been the biggest barriers for you in achieving your dreams because of your undocumented status? How has DACA changed that?
Despite the immeasurable pain of having my parents taken away from me, I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a supportive and nurturing community in Maryland. After my parents’ deportation, everyone rallied around me. My lawyer was very skilled; with affidavits, testimony and letters of support from my teachers, community organizations, family, friends and church leaders, she argued that given my extraordinary circumstances, I should be allowed to stay in the U.S. temporarily while I completed my studies. As a result, I was given a temporary status that allowed me to work and pursue my academic endeavors for two years while I remained in the U.S. In June 2012, when DACA went into effect, I was overjoyed to know that there was now a defined, albeit temporary, path for kids like me who had been brought to the U.S. as children and for whom the U.S. is the only home we have ever known. The DACA program made me realize how lucky I had been to receive temporary status in 2010 when most youth like me did not have the resources to hire attorneys and fight their cases to stay in the U.S.
I’ve faced many educational barriers because applications and scholarships require that I be a citizen or permanent resident. I think the most challenging time period for me thus far has been the college application process. When I was in high school, there was a program called the Maryland Distinguished Scholars Program: the top five percent of graduating classes were eligible to apply. A lot of my friends applied for the program, but I couldn’t because you must be a U.S. citizen or have a green card. There was no box to check for those of us who had lived in the U.S. since we were children, but were undocumented or had temporary status. Even once I was accepted to certain schools, I was unable to attend because of financial constraints, as I was not eligible for tuition assistance or in-state tuition benefits due to my status. I had worked so hard to achieve my dream of being accepted to college, and then had to turn it down for conditions I couldn’t control or change—it was really hard.
3. What is your happiest or most vivid childhood memory?
For me, it is really the little things. Growing up, we lived in the basement of my great uncle’s house. I remember just being surrounded by family, cousins and relatives and watching the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Full House, and singing Mariah Carey and Boyz to Men with everyone. I have many memories of my family being together and feeling supported.
4. Where do you see yourself in ten years? How would that change if you had status or citizenship?
I am currently a semester away from graduating from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. I am pursuing two options because I don’t know how my status will impact my future. I will either go into medical research or become a pharmacist. Yet with both options, I am nervous about how my status will affect my chance of success. If I remain undocumented, will I be able to get federal funding to pursue my medical research? If I complete my studies in pharmacology, will I be able to get a professional license even though I am undocumented? I always have to keep my options open because I don’t know what my future holds.
Long term, I would love to reinvest in my local community here in Maryland and help undocumented South Asian students. Though my educational options were limited by my status, I am still very fortunate to have the financial stability that many others in our community do not.
5. What is one thing that no one knows about you or your most marked characteristic?
I would say my most marked characteristic is that I am very easy going and kind of a clown. I have always had a good sense of humor and I like joking around with people. I think it helps me make the best of things.
6. If you could ask one question to President Obama, what would it be?
Mr. President, how would you feel if you came home tonight and your daughters and your wife were not there? How would you feel if you could not be there to tuck your kids into bed at night?
7. What is your favorite quote?
“Life is what you make it, I’ma make it
No matter what it takes, we gonna take it” – Nas
8. Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your experience in the United States?
The immigration system in America is seriously flawed and offers limited viable solutions for families who want to stay together. We must learn to trust each other and share our stories, rather than living in fear of speaking up and drawing attention to ourselves. I just look at the example of my own parents. They didn’t want to talk openly or share their story because they were afraid of being deported and that is exactly what happened. They were no better off for remaining in the shadows. If we shed light on our stories and draw attention to the struggles and barriers faced by South Asian immigrants in the U.S., there is some hope for change in the future. Collectively, we can make a difference.