Tuesday, January 22, 2013


One fine November afternoon, I became legal. There were no celebrations, no congratulations, no proclamations. I did not shout to the world that I was once-and-for-all and forevermore a documented young man. There was only a blanched piece of paper, hastily ripped out of an elegantly stamped envelope, bearing the bold, bureaucratic inscriptions “The United States of America” and “Notice of Deferred Action”. I skimmed the letter’s contents, and then stuffed the paper back into its envelope. I smiled, but only a little. I neatly slipped the envelope into my backpack and then I went about my business. That’s how I became legal.

Years of uncertainty had not prepared me for that moment. I had been rejected from too many jobs, too many scholarships, too many opportunities to have been ready for the day when my legal status changed. It’s not that I was not happy or that I didn’t comprehend the significance of my deferred action letter. I was simply numb. For most of my short life, I had expected crumbs from the table of the American Dream. Yes, I worked hard to earn what I got, including admission to Yale, but I always seasoned my success with a dash of modesty, if not outright pessimism, because I knew that my effort would be worthless without papeles. Without papeles, I was just another “illegal”, another shadow that wasted space. Throughout my freshman year of college, the futility of my predicament weighed on me like a stone. And so when I finally did receive deferred action last November, I did not leap out of the shadows; I crept out.    

I admit that I have been more fortunate than other undocumented people. I was able to pay the deferred action fee because I worked the entire summer with a fake social security card, and I quickly cleared my (nonexistent) criminal background record. I had few doubts about getting approved. But other indocumentados have not been so fortunate. I have a friend who must wait to apply for deferred action until she can assess her foggy immigration record and raise enough money to pay for a lawyer. She still stands in the shadow of uncertainty, unable to step out. My brother also has a similar problem. And many other indocumentados simply do not qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) because they happened to be in the United States at the wrong time. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, my friends, my cousins, my parents…

Yes, I am quite lucky, I tell myself. Every so often I reach into my wallet and pull out my papeles. I look at them. My glossy red, white, and blue work permit glistens in my dorm’s pale yellow light. My social security card poses a grayish-blue text marked with my careful signature. “NOT VALID FOR REENTRY TO THE UNITED STATES”, they proclaim. I stare at them for a while. And I still wonder whether this is what it feels like to be out of the shadows.

Juan Carlos Cerda

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