‘I Grew Up Afraid and Guilty Over My Immigration Status’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader sketches out the basics of his immigration story:

My family and I came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico City when I was three years old. My parents divorced a few years later and my father later married a U.S. citizen. My father, my two siblings, and I became legal residents when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Chicago. I became a naturalized citizen at the age of 21 during my last year of college.

I am now 25 years old and living in Los Angeles. My mother is still undocumented with no path to citizenship. I’m visiting Mexico again in two weeks and it’ll be my first time back in the country since I was 12 years old.

When I asked him what it was like to spend a large part of his childhood in the U.S. illegally, he replied at length:

It was terrifying. The fear of anyone finding out I was undocumented loomed over my entire childhood. It still does, to some extent.

I grew up afraid and guilty over my immigration status. It was a permanent topic of conversation in my home, and it was made very clear to me as a child that I had to keep our family’s secret. My parents couldn’t take the chance that my younger brother or I might accidentally reveal the truth. So, I started lying to try to protect my family.

I lied about where I was born. I never spoke Spanish. I created a whole alternate timeline for my family in an attempt to cover up any trace of where I was from. I would even lie about what neighborhood I lived in. To live in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood was too risky, in my book.

To this day, none of my friends know I was undocumented. Only a handful know I was even born in Mexico. The fear and guilt I grew up with runs deep. It’s a hard childhood to explain mostly because all my rationale came from a place of overwhelming fear. I grew up knowing I was as a second-class citizen, and trauma like that doesn't just go away.

When I finally became a citizen, it felt like a cruel joke. It’s a strange process to become an official, verifiable American. After years of lawyers, interviews, appointments, and quite a bit of money, I finally made it to my naturalization ceremony, where I pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag—the same flag I had pledged my allegiance to since I was five years old, and the flag of a nation whose language, history and customs I knew better than the country I was born in.

I left the ceremony without much sense of accomplishment. I did not feel the same joyfulness and celebration as the crowd around me. I told no one outside my family about the ceremony and I tucked away my naturalization certificate. I was still trapped underneath the guilt and shame of having been undocumented. My citizenship could not erase my past. The lies I had told. All the years of anguish I suffered in silence.

Anyone looking at me wouldn’t question my legal status in this country. At the very least, people would guess I was a first generation Mexican-American. This is all to say that I don’t look like the stereotypical, undocumented immigrant.

So I felt very much like a paradox growing up. I had always felt like an American, but I also knew my history. It was difficult to try to reconcile my identity and my citizenship, but I’ve slowly started to mend the two. A legal status helps solidify my sense of identity, but I was never really looking for approval—just to relinquish some of the fear.

Just this year, I’ve slowly started to disclose to new people that I am a Mexican immigrant, despite my old paranoia that they’d immediately begin to question my legal status. I’m beginning to heal old wounds and develop a small appreciation for my journey.

But I still haven’t been able to disclose my previous undocumented status to my closest friends. Believe it or not, it is hard to convey the overwhelming fear, guilt, and shame of being undocumented to the average American. How can they understand the struggle I’ve endured while attempting to achieve a status they were born with? Especially when they don’t even realize the enormous gift bestowed upon them. A birthright people have fought and died for. Something millions of people struggle for in the U.S. today. How can I begin to express my pain, let alone theirs?