Sometimes I fall into the why me and for how much longer mind-warp. Then I’m reminded of the opportunities I’ve been given to raise awareness on the plight of a generation of young American immigrants to audiences previously untouched by our struggles. In 2014 and for the first time in its history, the World Economic Forum invited an undocumented immigrant to serve on its Migration Council and help shape their work around the transnational phenomenon that is international migration. On that Council, I helped launch and co-chair an innovative approach that allows for the free movement of talent, even while progress on migration policies and procedures are stalled globally - because migration in the 21st century must include the movement of minds not just bodies.
Beyond the recognition given to my work on global migration, a year ago today, the World Economic Forum published my piece directed at our need for continued engagement on an issue that speaks volumes about whom we want to be as a people and as a nation, and what values we cherish and choose to preserve. I seem to often find myself being “the first,” and not always boldly going where no one has gone before but instead pushing aside the fear to do what needs to be done.
Last night, as I was looking through old files, I stumbled on a piece I’d written about the first time I ever shared my story publicly. It was at the World Bank and it was not only a first for me but also a first for them.
Below is an excerpt-
“I began working on the DREAM Act in 2008 and for nearly 2 years I worked diligently as an advocate and rarely as one directly affected. I worked closely with Hill offices, press and other advocates in promoting the stories of undocumented youth. I spoke at several conferences and even trained DREAMers on how to share their stories. Somehow I’d convinced myself that working as a full-time volunteer on the DREAM Act absolved me of my responsibility to share my story. I saw my role as one of an advocate and often the overprotective big sister - always cautioning other DREAMers about sharing too many details publicly and taking too many risks.
I was very comfortable with speaking on behalf of others while never involving my private battles in the conversation. But, more and more I saw the need to add my unique voice and perspective to the debate. Ultimately, it was a desire to stand in solidarity with some of the bravest young people I’ve ever met that led to me speaking publicly for the first time about being undocumented.
In June 2010, Anne Galisky, the producer of “Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth” asked if I’d share my story at the World Bank’s screening of her movie. I was honored by the invitation; after all, it’s the World Bank! But, I was also terrified of what going public could mean. There was no doubt in my mind that this was an amazing opportunity and no doubt that it would be one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do.
Quite frankly I didn’t see it beyond the realm of possibility that I could, someday, be invited to speak at the World Bank, but that I would do so as an undocumented individual, sharing my deepest and secret was unfathomable. Nevertheless, I accepted the invitation, but accepting the invitation was only the first of many uphill battles to come.
When the printed invitation was released, it included my first and last names along with the words “without status.” I’d never seen the truth of my status in print before, let alone spread across the internet. I was gripped by too many fears to count – Who would see this and what would they think of me? Could I be deported? Would I have to stop working on the DREAM Act? Will I now only be known for being undocumented?
After I spoke, several people came up to me with heavy hearts and words of encouragement. They told me they couldn’t imagine that “someone like me” would be in this situation and wanted to know how they could help ... I left the World Bank with a sense of accomplishment and relief - I’d faced my fears and lived to tell about it. I’d also opened more hearts and minds to the untenable situation faced by too many young immigrants.
The reaction to sharing my immigration status is always the same – shock and awe. Whether at the World Bank, a national press conference or one-on-one with legislators, the look of surprise is always the same. I’m African, a chemical engineer, and a strong advocate for civil and human rights; the unfortunate stereotypes forced on undocumented immigrants simply don’t work for me. And that is why I share my story. I still find it uncomfortable and difficult to talk about my experience, but voices like mine are too important in this debate to stay silent."