Rishi Singh

New York

Rishi Singh

1. How old were you when you came to the United States? Tell me a little about when you first realized that you were undocumented and what that meant for you.

I am ethnically Indian, but I was born in Trinidad and came to the U.S. when I was ten years old. My mother, brother and I came to the U.S. on tourist visas to meet my father, who arrived a few months earlier. Once in the U.S., my father tried to find work so that we could build a better life, but he was unable to find an employer who was willing to sponsor him for a visa. Throughout my childhood, both of my parents worked very hard and had no choice other than working in unacceptable situations because of their undocumented status. They were underpaid for their long hours, couldn’t take breaks or sick days, and were routinely disrespected because their employers knew they were vulnerable. My mother cleans houses and my father, who passed away a few years ago, worked at various odd jobs to make ends meet. While my parents withstood unbearable work conditions to provide for our family, I focused on my schoolwork and excelled in my classes, striving to make them proud.

As a senior in high school, I began the college application process, just like my classmates. Most applications, including scholarships, required a Social Security number. When I asked my mother what my Social Security number was, she told me that I did not have one. Even though I always knew that we struggled, I did not realize until then the full extent of our struggle or what it would mean for my future. I would not be able to apply for financial aid or other benefits. I would not be able to do so many of the things I had planned. College applications were just the first of many limitations that I would face because I was undocumented. I felt isolated, helpless, and depressed. I had worked so hard to do well in school; yet without knowing it, I had set myself up for disappointment. Without a green card or citizenship, I would only have access to certain colleges or universities, and even for those schools, I was not eligible for most financial assistance. Regardless of my academic excellence and drive, I faced barriers beyond my control that would not allow me to succeed in the ways I wanted.

2. What have been the biggest barriers for you in achieving your dreams because of your undocumented status? How has DACA changed that?

I always wanted to enter the medical field, but once I realized I was undocumented, I knew I could never pursue that dream. Beyond my big dreams, I have faced the daily barriers of finding employment that pays a livable wage. Because of my immigration status and vulnerable position, I was forced to take jobs in construction or catering, where I was paid under the table and often under-compensated for my work. It’s been difficult to be ineligible for certain benefits like health insurance or a driver’s license, which others sometimes take for granted. That being said, being undocumented led me to advocacy groups like DRUM-South Asian Organizing Center (DRUM), which has given me a place to find community, find my voice, and join in advocacy efforts for undocumented youth, including immigration reform.

Having DACA status has given me access to better jobs so that I can pay for school. It has also motivated me to be a more vocal activist for undocumented youth in this country and to educate others so that they can apply and get status. DRUM has connected me to other South Asian youth and empowered me to tell my story and highlight the plight of exploited immigrant workers, undocumented students, and families torn apart by the immigration system. Through this work, I was appointed as the New York City Coordinator for the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development, and Human Rights and continue my work at DRUM as their Operations Coordinator. Despite the adversity I have faced, I have had the opportunity to raise the issues undocumented youth face in America. I truly believe that people should not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing international borders and I continue to advocate to that end. I feel very fortunate to share my story and to be involved in this movement.

3. What is your happiest or most vivid childhood memory?

When I was growing up in Trinidad, all of our family would come together on holidays and special occasions to exchange gifts, celebrate, and have a big meal together. I was always surrounded by all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles. I miss having the support of a large extended family.

4. Where do you see yourself in ten years? How would that change if you had status or citizenship?

I am working towards a career in accounting and finance. In ten years, I hope to have my Certified Public Accounting (CPA) license and a thriving career in accounting. I also hope to continue organizing in my community and to remain affiliated with DRUM. With DACA, my status and employment authorization have to be renewed every two years. So, even if I get a really good job, I remain anxious about explaining to my employer that my status will need to be renewed every two years. If I had citizenship, I would have more employment opportunities, be able to travel outside of the country, and not have a two-year timeline hanging over my head.

5. What is one thing that no one knows about you or your most marked characteristic?

One thing that others may not know about me is that I am very musical. I love singing and playing the harmonium, which is an Indian instrument reminiscent of an organ. I am learning to play the guitar and drums as well.

I also love to help people. People in our community feel comfortable coming to me with their problems and I always make time to assist them. I like having the chance to support others in our South Asian community. I know first-hand what a difference community support can make, and I want to provide that to others.

6. If you could ask one question of President Obama, what would it be?

You were able to pass DACA, which has helped many undocumented youth in this country, but it leaves out our families. How will you keep families together? How can you ensure that more parents and children aren’t deported so that families aren’t torn apart? What will you to do to address the plight of the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. today?

7. What is your favorite quote?

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur

8. Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your experience in the United States?

I grew up in a working class family in New York City. I never thought I would have an impact on government policies. Through my struggles, however, I have found other avenues to express myself. I feel I have a voice in how society operates and that I can make change happen. I, along with many others directly affected by our failed immigration system, have met with members of Congress both locally and nationally to push for fair and just immigration policies. I firmly believe that one person can make a difference, no matter their background.