There are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today. Most are unable to see family and other loved ones across borders or overseas. They are, in many ways, trapped. A painful sacrifice made in the hopes of a better life.
I used to be undocumented. Visiting from the United Kingdom in my early twenties, I had no intention of living permanently in the U.S. but was offered a job and accepted it.
The first few years went relatively smoothly. I was living in San Luis Obispo, and the company I worked for began the process of sponsoring a Green Card, also known as a Permanent Resident Card, which is a key to a pathway to citizenship. Then things got complicated. The owners of the business divorced, closed the company, and moved out of state.
Assuming it would be simple to transfer my Green Card sponsorship to another small business I had recently purchased with a U.S. bank loan, I called my attorney. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that, Gareth,” he said. I had two choices. Immediately leave the U.S. and my new life, or stay, illegally, and become undocumented.
I decided to stay.
This decision meant I, too, was trapped inside the United States, unable to leave and visit my family as I would likely not be allowed back in.
The years ticked by. At first, I was constantly on edge, always fearful of being found out. Encounters with law enforcement such as for a speeding ticket are stressful enough, but even more so when you are undocumented. I lived in constant fear about what I would do if something happened to one of my parents.
In 2013, President Obama proposed an immigration reform bill that would have provided me and millions of others a pathway to legal residency. Republicans refused to consider it. As time passed, I found myself less worried about being caught and more empowered to speak up about the immigration system and, more importantly, to bring attention to its many flaws.
In 2015 I was approached by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas (himself an undocumented immigrant) and his advocacy group, Define American, to see whether I was interested in outing myself as an undocumented immigrant.
Undocumented immigrants are quite diverse in terms of nationality. Many are white from European countries. Roughly two-thirds arrive by plane, not across the southern border.
On July 19, 2015, I outed myself as an undocumented immigrant live on television. I was the lead story on KSBY’s 6 p.m. news, wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper, spoke on KVEC talk radio, and shared my story through the S.L.O. Chamber of Commerce.
Friends and neighbors were shocked to learn I was undocumented. My privilege as an educated white guy from England had shielded me in a way other undocumented people do not enjoy.
As all this was happening, I met my wife. Our marriage gave me a pathway back to legality, and we moved to Goleta. Seventeen years after first arriving in the U.S., I am now finally eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, and I look forward to doing so.
Unfortunately, millions of undocumented people are not as lucky or privileged as me and are forced to live in the shadows. I continue to speak out on this issue for those who have built lives here, own businesses, own houses, pay taxes, often have U.S.-born children, and still have no way of becoming legal in the country they love and consider home.
In the hope of shining a light on this issue, I have been working with a group of filmmakers to produce a short film called The Golden Cage. To learn more about the project and to support our crowdfunding campaign, please visit seedandspark.com/fund/goldencagefilm#story.
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