The Heaviest, Lightest Thing

To undocumented people like me, a few pieces of paper are the difference between stability and crisis.

A photograph of immigration papers
Photographs by Shane Rocheleau

About the author: Jesús Rodríguez is a writer in Washington, D.C., a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, and a third-year law student at Georgetown University Law Center.

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET on July 6, 2021

The last time a Democrat lived in the White House, I was nearly detained outside of its gates. It should have been obvious to me, an undocumented immigrant, that giving my blank passport to a Secret Service agent could get me in trouble.

But I, along with a classmate, had been asked to be there for a meeting about college access hosted by first lady Michelle Obama’s higher-education initiative, and my security form had cleared the night before. And this was America, where immigrants supposedly could do such things as become senators and secretaries of state, and get invited to meetings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, within the White House complex.

Predictably, the Secret Service agent told me that I was not on the list and that I should reach out to my “point of contact” inside. “I’ll catch up with you,” I told my friend, knowing that I wouldn’t. After about an hour of waiting, one of the hosts appeared, and told me that he was so sorry and that he would call me later. “You didn’t tell me you were undocumented!” he said, stunned, over the phone.

I took my burgundy Venezuelan passport and walked away, breathing in the peculiar blend of hope for Hillary Clinton and trepidation about Donald Trump that already filled the D.C. air in March 2016. The Secret Service that protected the man who lived in the White House—who often used his ancestors’ immigrant stories to wax poetic about this country—could have just as easily sent me to detention that day.

The current White House occupant also claims to be on immigrants’ side, decrying in his inaugural address the “racism, nativism, fear, and demonization” that have “long torn us apart.” The presidency of Joe Biden has brought, as promised, a clean break from some of Trump’s pernicious policies, such as the travel ban and the assault on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. On his first day in office, Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress that expanded temporary status protections and provided a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The House of Representatives subsequently passed a pair of narrower bills that would protect about 2.5 million Dreamers, as well as farmworkers.

The real bargaining over our lives, in the Senate, is yet to come. As groundbreaking as Biden’s sweeping immigration-reform proposal looks, I have seen bills like it get killed in the Senate, revived as amendments to some military-spending bill, then killed again, more times than I can count. Even if immigration relief efforts are broken up piece by piece, which some have suggested Biden is open to doing, each morsel that does get through Congress will likely come with the bitter pill of increased deportations or border militarization. And, in the meantime, the Biden administration continues housing unaccompanied migrant children in border facilities and deporting individuals under Title 42, a public-health law.

The end of the Trump presidency may create the impression that America’s immigration cruelty is a thing of the past. In truth, those of us who were undocumented before Trump know the inhumanity of that precarious normalcy.

To immigrants, papers are everything. They can also mean nothing.

For how often my community gets called “undocumented,” perhaps no one in this country possesses more documents, or clings to them more fiercely to prove their existence, than we do. Practically every immigrant family in this country has a thick folder padded with their most valued documents—some put them in a safe box; others make virtual copies that they upload to encrypted cloud servers. Even vaccination charts or a spelling-bee certificate can prove something. I keep my papers in a yellow manila envelope.

For most of the pandemic, the folded-up piece of paper that allows me to board a plane and travel domestically resided in the inside pocket of a green coat I bought in college. That paper is a press release from the State Department, on which I conveniently highlighted the sentence that keeps an immigration agent at an airport from whisking me away: “Venezuelan passport holders who have been issued a passport extension will have the validity period extended by five years from the expiration date.”

Most Venezuelans who live in the United States have not been able to get a new passport since the Maduro regime stopped issuing them to those living abroad in 2017 (though extensions were possible), and this press release was, until recently, the only thing that kept undocumented Venezuelans from being rendered functional exiles without a country.

When I fly to see family, I tuck this press release, along with my boarding pass, into my passport, as if to say, “I know it’s expired. It’s all I have.” I hand this apology to the TSA agent, who decides whether to ask about my immigration status, or, as usually happens, wave me through.

Recently, I arrived at Reagan National Airport for my first flight since the pandemic began. I began to worry as soon as I turned a corner and saw that the TSA line was empty; behind plexiglass was a woman who had the power to decide whether I would get to see my family. Noticing that my passport had expired, she asked whether I had an extension. I awkwardly unfolded the press release, my voice shaking as I tried to explain State Department policy over her evident frustration. She seemed to study every comma. Finally she said, “Let me see your face.” My two masks chafed my ears as I pulled them down. She slid the paper and the passport back to me in silence, and I somehow got out a relieved “Have a good one,” before rushing to the conveyor belts.

Most of my other papers—bank statements, school transcripts, a copy of my birth certificate—are in the manila envelope. Even papers with no legal value at all are beloved, such as the birthday card I got from a scholarship foundation years ago, or the expired Capitol Hill press pass from my days as a news intern.

But for all the papers I could produce to show my contributions, none of them could secure a stable life. As anyone who has tried to come to the United States knows, its immigration system is arbitrary and often contradictory; being “legal” or “documented” depends not on the number of papers you possess, but on which ones you have. The Obama administration, when creating DACA, required applicants to have lived in the United States since June 15, 2007, to qualify; I arrived from Venezuela in 2011, so DACA did nothing for me. I could not be employed; could not legally drive in Florida, where I lived; and could not apply for federal or state financial aid to attend college. There’s no apparent justification for this date. I remember watching President Barack Obama announce on television in November 2014, around the time that I was applying to college, that he would expand DACA—and that immigrants could apply if they had lived here since January 1, 2010. I had missed that cutoff, again, by a little over a year. I cried.

With DACA out of reach, I believed that I had three options to obtain legal status, none of them viable. If I were to be the victim of certain crimes, such as sexual assault or human trafficking, I could opt for a U visa. (Quite obviously, I did not want to be the victim of such a crime, nor was it up to me anyway.) Alternatively, if the U.S. government deemed the crisis in Venezuela “bad enough,” I could qualify for temporary forms of relief such as Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure. Or there was always the possibility of marrying a U.S. citizen. This is doubtless the most pragmatic approach, and one that many immigrants successfully take. As the child of separated parents, though, I was wary—terrified, honestly—of hinging my future on the unpredictable whims of a partner.

I suppose that waiting for a government response that may never come is choosing a more perverse kind of ghosting. Every visa program forces immigrants to fit into arbitrary but neatly delineated categories. Years of bipartisan collaboration have spawned a byzantine system that assigns such great weight to something so weightless as paper, betraying any understanding of the reasons people migrate or become undocumented. Inaction had already begotten this structure before Trump came to power.

I landed in Miami on July 3, 2011, when I was 14 years old, without knowing that I would stay. That was the summer when Mitt Romney launched his presidential run, Casey Anthony was acquitted of murder, and Janet Napolitano, then Obama’s secretary of homeland security, announced that the administration would shift its deportation priorities to target criminals and people who otherwise posed a threat to national security or public safety. The journalist Jose Antonio Vargas had just come out as undocumented in a New York Times Magazine feature two Wednesdays before I arrived.

My father had moved to Orlando, Florida, with his wife and their two children two years earlier, fleeing death threats and crime in Venezuela. He had been able to secure legal status through a business visa. I saw no future for myself in Venezuela, where I’d been living with my mother, so, during my visit, I told my father that I wanted to go to college in the United States. He took me to meet a family friend whose son was a student at Florida State University at the time, and I remember his exact advice: “Now would be the best time to stay.” I was about to start my freshman year of high school. I asked my father to call my mother—I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her son was not coming back home. Because of a 1982 Supreme Court decision that guarantees access to public education to all children, regardless of immigrant status, I started high school in Florida that August, gaining legal status under my father’s visa as a family member.

Otherwise, this country’s laws soon dashed our hopes. When my father tried to apply for green cards, the Department of Homeland Security determined that his role as the owner of his cellphone business was too “operational” and not sufficiently “managerial.” The application was denied. He grew desperate to deliver on a promise he had made to himself when he left Venezuela: that he would make sure we had a future.

Later that year, my father met a DHS agent. She spoke Spanish, worked for our gated community’s property-management company, and had attended Mass at the same Orlando church we went to. She said she could help us appeal our denied green cards. The lawyer had made some obvious mistakes, and with just a few tweaks, our immigration case would be open and shut.

Because we had had the privilege of immigrating legally, in the eyes of the law we were “good” immigrants. That year, the government reached a record number of deportations, having removed almost 400,000 people who presumably weren’t.

I still remember the muggy summer night in 2012 when, as a high-school sophomore, I held a letter with the official DHS seal saying that our appeal had been approved and our green cards would arrive within 45 to 120 days. “The evidence submitted with your Application on December 29, 2011 is been audited to establish your eligibility for the benefits sought,” it read, awkwardly. I did not yet know enough English to recognize that the sentence’s grammar was wrong.

The summer days went by, and the agent stopped returning our calls. The last we heard from her, in 2013, she was going on an emergency trip to New York to take care of her sick daughter. It became obvious that the letter I translated in my parents’ minivan that night was fake, and that the person who gave it to us was not an immigration agent. Our visas had already expired. We were left undocumented.

We later learned that this person had stolen tens of thousands of dollars from at least 10 different families in the Orlando area. We met some of them and, one day, my father said we had to go to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to file a report. Because we had lost approximately $6,000 in this scheme, and the agent had often asked us to pay up or we’d be deported, we argued that our case qualified as extortion, one of the crimes covered under the U-visa category.

I wrote pages and pages of a witness statement at the police station, until we needed scrap paper and my wrist was sore. It was my first argument for freedom.

To be able to submit our application for approval, we needed a law-enforcement official to sign a form attesting that we had been helpful in the investigation of the case. At the station, my father feared that our information would be used to deport, not help, us. “We came to the wolf’s mouth,” I recall him saying. In a letter from May 2014, the sheriff’s office wrote that although we had cooperated with the investigation, “the crime committed is not a qualifying offense.” No police officer ended up signing the application.

A signature—a mere scribble—is what has kept us from our peace. We had no other redress.

By the end of the Obama administration—the old normal—the 44th president had deported more than 3 million immigrants. Holding facilities for unaccompanied children dotted the border. Blimps and drones patrolled the skies in search of crossers.

Then Trump came, exposing our immigration system’s capacity for evil when used with intention. The prohibition of travel from Muslim-majority countries; the raids at workplaces such as 7-Elevens and poultry-processing plants; the wanton separation of families; the termination of Temporary Protected Status for countries mired in humanitarian crises; the delegitimization of birthright citizenship; the extreme reduction of refugee intake numbers; the since-defeated rule that an immigrant could be denied a visa based on the likelihood that they would become a “public charge” to the government; the attempted rescission of DACA; and the alleged coercion of detained women into receiving hysterectomies all forced activists, scholars, and even elected officials to confront the possibility that Immigration and Customs Enforcement may need to be outright abolished. Then-Senator Kamala Harris cautiously urged her colleagues to “think about starting from scratch” on immigration enforcement the summer before entering the Democratic presidential primary.

The bedlam of 2016 led me to become a journalist. The act of writing required no papers. If the odds that I would obtain status had become even slimmer, my bylines at least could prove that I was here. I worked internship after unpaid internship, applying to as many scholarships as I could so that I could afford to get by. I opted out of tours of the White House press room, recalling that March morning.

Like many other journalists of color, I have straddled the line of wanting to give better representation to my community but being deemed too close to the facts to be “unbiased.” One newsroom explicitly told me that allowing me to intern with them would “pose the threat of compromising us legally and journalistically.” Papers are somehow also a talisman of neutrality.

One notable advance in immigrant rights during the Trump years was the passage of state laws and local policies allowing some undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses, shielding them from traffic violations that sent many to ICE detention. In 2018, fearing I might not be able to replace my passport as Venezuela slipped further into mayhem, I tried to get a D.C. ID card. In doing so, I nearly lost everything.

I have a habit of losing things: an umbrella in an Uber, my cellphone on a ride at Universal Studios, my computer and camera at a Miami mall (almost). I’ve always comforted myself with the convenient truth that material possessions are, at the end of the day, always replaceable. But not all papers are.

After my third failed attempt (the D.C. DMV kept insisting that my time living on campus could not fulfill the six-month residency requirement), I went into a Peet’s Coffee to call the university’s undocumented-student-services director, who’d been helping me with the process. Two days later, after likely hundreds of customers had passed through the shop, I jolted awake, realizing that I hadn’t brought my envelope back to my dorm with me. Gone with it would be dozens of pages of documents, the only government documents I had to show that I was here, in this country, at this moment. We tend to forget that even our birth has to be certified, and I was facing the possibility that I might never be able to see that piece of paper again.

I ran back. By some miracle, somebody had returned the lost papers to the cashier, who had put them in the coffee shop’s basement for safekeeping. Handing the folder back to me, the manager said, “You should be careful with those.” I felt, for the first time, the terror of a reality that had haunted me for years—that one small misstep could thrust my life into chaos.

Over the following months, I resolved to study law because the law had failed me. Without a work authorization, I could not be hired full-time anywhere, and law school gave me a much-needed safety net while also allowing me to confront the ancient doctrines that deemed me “alien.”

I came across the case of Fong Yue Ting, a Chinese immigrant who was arrested and deported because he did not have a certificate of residence, as the Geary Act (an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act) required. With its decision in this case, the Supreme Court in 1893 cemented the government’s “plenary power” to expel immigrants. Deportation, the Court said, was “not a punishment for crime,” but merely a way of enforcing the power of Congress and the president to place conditions on immigrants’ continued residence here. “He has not, therefore, been deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” Justice Horace Gray wrote. Equal rights, the law says, do not belong equally to us. And yet here I was, proof of the law’s obsolescence.

Unbeknownst to me, a momentary reprieve was coming.

On the last full day of Trump’s presidency, with less than 24 hours of his term left, Trump decided to grant Venezuelans work permits and protection from deportation through Deferred Enforced Departure, citing the “deteriorative condition” of Venezuela caused by “the autocratic government of Nicolas Maduro.” That the most virulently anti-immigrant administration in recent memory would be the one to release me from the constant anxiety of being alien in the eyes of the law tasted of a bittersweet irony immigrants know well, in our worlds of contradiction.

I knew that reality would change little. For days before the memorandum came out, my corner of D.C. had been overrun by armored vehicles, soldiers, local cops, and even Border Patrol agents, following the insurrection at the Capitol. Crossing the street meant having to decide whether acknowledging or ignoring the officers would raise fewer questions. I stopped walking the dog alone.

I’d learned to temper any high hopes I had for the government. Despite whatever mercy Trump may have thought he was showing at the eleventh hour, my rights were still subject to the whims of any federal agent until I had the proper papers in my hand. Trump’s DHS never published any guidance on how to apply for this temporary status, so it helped nobody.

But on March 8, Biden actually delivered a long-awaited reprieve to undocumented Venezuelans. Fresh off the Senate’s approval of the stimulus bill, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that he would be extending Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who already lived here “while their home country seeks to right itself out of the current crises.” The formal guidance came out the next day. For Haitians, who have also been battling a humanitarian crisis and this administration’s own deportations, TPS relief did not come until May 22, after months of advocacy.

That Monday, the happy result of Washington’s political game was another press release that granted me rights slightly more permanently, until September 2022 for now.

In a few months, I’ll have status. But who won’t? And why me?


Due to an editing error, this article previously misstated that an immigrant must be married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years before receiving permanent residency. In fact, this is the length of time generally required to apply for citizenship after receiving legal permanent residence through marriage.