2019 marks 10 years for Voice of Witness as a nonprofit, and in celebration of this exciting milestone, we’re resurfacing powerful stories from every oral history book in our series. Though time has passed since these stories were first published, many of the themes and issues they address are as relevant and important as ever.
Millions of immigrants risk deportation and imprisonment by living in the U.S. without legal status every day. They arrive from around the world for countless reasons. Many come simply to make a living. Others are fleeing persecution in their native countries. In the U.S., they live underground, with little protection from exploitation at the hands of human smugglers, employers, or law enforcement.
Underground America, the third book in the Voice of Witness series, presents the remarkable oral histories of men and women struggling to carve a life for themselves in the U.S.
As the current administration continues to propel hateful rhetoric about newcomers, these voices are a powerful reminder that the challenges immigrants and refugees face at the U.S. border and once they arrive are ongoing, and we just continue to amplify their stories.
In this excerpt, narrator Yogesh describes some of the legal challenges he faced trying to become a permanent U.S. resident, and why the passing of the DREAM Act, which has faced major threats in recent years, was so important to him as a young immigrant who only knew the U.S. as his home.
Yogesh came to the United States from India when he was eleven. He was here legally until the age of twenty-one, when he became, in effect, a legal orphan. No longer a dependent, he was stripped from his parents’ green card application, which had been pending for seventeen years. His parents were here legally, and held work permits. But the only way in which Yogesh could become a legal US resident is through a change in the law. At the time when Yogesh told us his story, he expressed hope that the DREAM Act would pass, so he could gain legal residency.
First my parents came to the U.S., to St. Louis, without my brother and me. We stayed on at my uncle’s. My parents thought it would only be a matter of months and then they’d send for us and we’d join them. So a month went by, another and another. Eventually it became two years. It was hard living without our parents. Every time they’d call, my brother would cry after we hung up. It wasn’t that my uncle and aunt didn’t love us—I mean they treated us just like their own kids—it was just that it wasn’t the same.
I’ve been told the reason it took so long is that my parents were promised things by a lawyer. Actually he was only pretending to be a lawyer; he was a notary. And he gave them the wrong information about immigration. He kept telling them they would be able to get green cards soon. And once they had green cards, it would be a lot easier to get us over. But the green cards weren’t going through. In seventeen years, my parents’ green cards still haven’t come through.
Both my parents were putting in a lot of hours every day at jobs. My father was working as a cashier. My mother found a job as a secretary. It hasn’t worked out too badly for them. They recently bought a house. But I think they have their regrets. Especially given my brother’s and my situation. They have work permits and now that we are no longer dependents, we’ve lost our legal status.
“Every other week we would hear about an immigration raid that had taken place somewhere in the Midwest. So now we were waiting again, but not sure for what.”
I started college in autumn of 2001, hopeful that it was only a matter of time before my family’s immigration trouble would be resolved. There was talk then on Capitol Hill of some way of resolving the status of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But then September 11th happened. I remember the day very clearly. We were glued to the TV. The following weeks would only worsen the situation as we heard and read about stories in local papers about people being deported due to immigration violations. We had heard that people in a situation similar to my father’s, who had to get their work permits renewed every year, were denied their renewal permit. We didn’t know what to expect. Every other week we would hear about an immigration raid that had taken place somewhere in the Midwest. So now we were waiting again, but not sure for what.
My own situation is still waiting. Now, it’s five years after 9/11. But I’ve become optimistic lately because I would be covered by the DREAM Act, if it passes. I actually met with Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois about it. The weird thing was that when we met, the senator himself told me he didn’t even know how his mother came to this country. He only knew she came from Lithuania. And there was Senator Durbin’s senior counsel, or his policy director—I forget his exact position—he said that his grandfather had actually come to this country in an illegal way, I think, from Lebanon. He said someone had told his grandfather, “When you see the Statue of Liberty, jump in the water and swim for shore.” And that’s how his grandfather entered into this country.
So I was taken aback by all that, but also it gave me some reason to hope. Paperwise, I don’t have a status. But this doesn’t mean I’m not American. Because I mean, I’ll say it: there’s no way I could go back to India. I don’t know what I would do.