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illustration by Alexandra Bowman

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In All Ways but One: An Undocumented Immigrant’s American Experience

When DACA changed my immigrant status, I was finally able to travel.

I stood in my Atlanta living room with the energetic two-year-old I was nannying the summer of 2012. He climbed on the couch and slid off, thumping to the carpeted floor, only to get up and do it again. I threw glances at him with every thud, my attention divided between him and the TV. President Obama was going to make an announcement about immigration and undocumented immigrants.

My parents, older sister, and I had arrived at JFK International Airport in 1997 with tourist visas. When they expired months later, we were officially undocumented immigrants. Our Brazilian passports, useless because they had no valid visas, became our only form of identification.

Surely, I thought, by the time I graduated high school in 10 years, I would have documents. I could live that decade without driving, working, or traveling. I wrapped myself up in that confidence, and it kept me secure. But five years after that dream’s expiration date, here Obama was on television speaking of immigration reform. Finally.

“They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” he said.

In the end, I wasn’t sure what Obama’s flowery speech had been about. He’d spoken in the language I’d gotten used to hearing from pro-immigrant politicians: beautiful and empty.

President Obama never said the words “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)” in his speech, because the goal of this latest press conference wasn’t to speak to undocumented immigrants. So there was no new and practical information for us. Instead, Obama had been speaking to concerned citizens, trying to convince them that he wasn’t allowing any more of us in; but we were already here. As he introduced DACA, he reassured his audience that he was passing an executive action, not a law. It wasn’t a path to citizenship. It wasn’t amnesty. But what was it?

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website said those who were 30 years old and under, had lived in the US since they were children, had no felony or significant misdemeanor, and had a high school diploma (or were working on one) could apply for temporary deportation relief. And many of us were encouraged to learn that, according to the USCIS, DACA recipients would not be a priority or target of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. This meant work permits, social security numbers, and driver’s licenses. I was dizzy with disbelief.

Surely, I thought, by the time I graduated high school in 10 years, I would have documents.

DACA recipients are commonly known as “Dreamers” and were now able to live their lives out of the shadows of being undocumented. I looked at the list of requirements over and over. Of course, I qualified. I allowed myself to dream of a different future.

The day I held my driver’s license in my hand, I decided I’d travel around the States, visiting as many places as possible. With this new ID, I was able to do so without fear.

I chose San Francisco first. I wanted to go to the West Coast because I’d never been there before, and San Francisco was a place I’d always loved seeing in movies. The Golden Gate Bridge was my favorite color, the hills looked like a fun obstacle course, and the Pacific Ocean—because it was the biggest and most mysterious—had been my favorite ocean since third grade.

My friend went with me, and we began exploring as soon as we checked into our hostel. After visiting iconic restaurants, museums, and famous neighborhoods, I was looking forward to Chinatown. As soon as we walked into the heart of it, the produce sitting on stands outside the shops filled my nostrils with a pungent, earthy smell—the familiar scent I associate with farmer’s markets in Atlanta and outdoor markets in Brazil. I saw jackfruit as big as watermelons sitting next to smaller fruits, and I couldn’t help but take pictures. The last time I’d tasted jaca was at my aunt’s farm in the outskirts of Goiânia. The juice stains your clothes, my mom’s warning came to my mind. Staring at the odd pig parts hanging, displayed through windows, I imagined my mother looking through them, choosing the right one for feijoada. I knew that if my family had immigrated here, she would’ve come to Chinatown for our produce.

Golden Gate Bridge on a cloudy day
photo by Aline Mello

When we heard that the beach and ocean were just a 10-minute bus ride away, we had counted out our change for the fare. As I stood on a crowded bus, one of the poster ads caught my attention. It featured three brown young adults hugging, alongside a chunk of text that showed a familiar acronym—DACA. I got closer to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, but there it was with instructions on how to apply for it. Yes, this was a poster about immigrants, about the very program that allowed me to visit this city in the first place. My reality suddenly didn’t feel so taboo, so hidden and scary. It was ordinary enough to be displayed on public transportation. I felt seen. I felt normal.

Back home in Georgia, I had taken public transportation for five years and had never run across anything like this before. This ad on a San Francisco bus normalized DACA and the existence of undocumented people, but it went against every intuition I’d ever had. As undocumented immigrants, we are taught to hide. Growing up, when people asked me what my mom did for a living, I wouldn’t say she cleaned houses—I’d say she owned a business. I didn’t want them to ask why she couldn’t get a better job or to tell me of job openings for her—job openings she wouldn’t be able to apply for. Why hadn’t I visited Brazil? Not because I wouldn’t be allowed back into the States—I’d say it was because we never had the time.

I’d gotten really good at pretending, but I’d still face anxiety at the thought of being found out. I dreaded people seeing me differently. It wasn’t until after college, once I became part of a mostly white American work environment, that I realized that people were mostly confused when they learn about a person’s undocumented status. If they are your friends, they’ll ask questions born out of genuine curiosity. Most citizens I’ve encountered know nothing about their country’s immigration system.

Having this new freedom makes the US feel bigger than the South.

Sitting on the sand, finally facing the Pacific Ocean as the sun sank into its waters, I allowed myself to think that maybe in San Francisco, immigrants were included enough that immigration laws were a part of everyday life. Seeing that ad gave me that hope: that I may actually be a part of the American story—included as a main character, a regular person, no longer a scapegoat, an outsider, a disturbance.

Since that trip, I’ve been to Portland, Seattle, New York City, Chicago, and Puerto Rico. Having this new freedom makes the US feel bigger than the South. Though it made the South stand in stark contrast because of its states’ anti-immigrant laws, it also gave me a deeper appreciation of Atlanta’s impressive diversity.

I couldn’t have chosen a better first city to visit. If San Francisco is out there with DACA ads in buses and jackfruits sitting harmoniously beside apples and grapes, then perhaps there are more cities like that. And though DACA isn’t a permanent law, and any president has the power to revoke it with a single signature, it has given me adulthood—I can work and I can drive. And it’s made me a traveler. As I continue to explore, I hope to see that this country is what I was told it was when I was younger—a country of inclusion. And I hope to find somewhere I fit, where I am considered American in mind and heart and every other way.

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