My Story

 

THE BEGINNING

I was born on June 3, 1993 at the East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City, the most populous city in the Philippines, and one of the cities that comprise Metro Manila, the National Capital Region of the country. The city was named after the late President Manuel Quezon, a gifted pianist, a brilliant lawyer, and what many would call a “People’s President.” Having grown up in a family that was not very wealthy, but had enough to live by, he connected with the poor working classes of the Philippines. Today, I identify with President Quezon’s desire to connect with people who have struggled.

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Quezon City, Philippines

My father, a dedicated man, finished two Bachelor’s Degrees, one in Zoology and one in Physical Therapy, just a few years before my birth. He had dreams of eventually going to Medical School to become a physician. Then, he met my mother. He was struck by my mother’s beauty after reading about her in a magazine while she was working in her uncle’s law office as a paralegal. He began to court my mother, bringing her gifts every day. The weeks turned into months and, eventually, my mother gave him a chance. My mother once told me that what finally won her over was my father’s promise to her that he could take her and the family they could have together to the United States in order to have a better life in the land of opportunity. They married shortly thereafter, in August of 1992, and brought me into the world, a honeymoon baby.

My father gave up his dreams of going to Medical School because he had been advised that, at the time, it was much easier for Physical Therapists to immigrate to the United States than physicians. As he sorted through the various immigration hurdles, I lived my first few months on this Earth in the Philippines. He was able to secure an H-1B “Skilled Worker” Visa for legal entry into the United States. My mother and I, as dependents, were issued H-4 Visas.

THE NEW BEGINNING

In September of 1994, fifteen months after my birth, my family would uproot itself, taking only enough clothes for each of us to wear for no more than a week or two, packed into two suitcases. We flew nonstop from Manila, Philippines to Detroit, Michigan, never again to return. We left both sets of my grandparents, the rest of my supportive extended family, and stability for the promise of a better life. Our lives would change forever.

For a few months, we lived out of our suitcases floating around from guest bedroom to guest bedroom–from New York City with my mother’s cousin to Baltimore, Maryland with a family friend to St. Louis, Missouri with my mother’s uncle–and finally settled in Macon, Georgia, a small city about an hour-and-a-half south of Atlanta. We went wherever my father’s work took us. For some time, we lived in Waycross, Georgia on the southeastern coast of the state and Warner Robins, just south of Macon. Then, when I was in the Second Grade, we finally settled for good in Macon.

I went to Springdale Elementary School, where I met the best of friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with to this day. Nothing was out of the ordinary. My first few years in Macon, I lived in an apartment complex on the north side of town. One of my neighbors immediately became one of my best friends. We would explore the woods behind our apartment, catching frogs, wading in the creek, “gathering firewood,” and pretending to be Native Americans. My parents bought me a Playstation (yes, the first ever Playstation–now, vintage) and we would spend hours playing the latest games. I was your typical American kid.

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2001. My brother and I. I was 8 and he was 4.

We lived a comfortable life. My father was rapidly moving up the ranks as a Physical Therapist. My mother was raising me and my younger brother (born in 1997, four years after me) and working various odd jobs from time to time. As the turn of the millennium, we were ready to take the next step towards staying in the United States and making it our permanent home. We closed on a house on the west side of Bibb County in 2003–I was ten years old and in the fifth grade.

THE STRUGGLE BEGINS

At about the same time, we started to hit some bumps in the road. We were in the process of applying for our Green Cards, or our Permanent Residency–our permission to live indefinitely in the country. In order for us to get our Green Cards, my father had to present a VisaScreen certificate in order to “adjust our status.” To acquire the necessary certificate, he had to pass a set of English Competency exams in order to prove that he was capable enough in the English language to practice Physical Therapy effectively. Today, these tests are all consolidated into one test, which may be familiar to some. It is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or the TOEFL. It includes four different sections: 1) Speaking, 2) Reading, 3) Writing, and 4) Listening. My father studied diligently. He passed three of the four sections with flying colors–the reading, writing, and listening sections. After multiple attempts, he continued to fail the speaking section by very small margins, just barely missing the requisite score that he needed. My father speaks English fluently. He has a thick Filipino accent that, sometimes, makes him difficult to understand, but he never had any challenges communicating with his patients. Eventually, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (legacy INS) denied our applications for Green Cards.

Immediately, we were faced with a very important question: Do we stay in the United States and risk everything, including the possibility of arrest and deportation to a country we left so long ago, a country of which I have no recollection and a country my younger brother had never before seen, or do we return to the Philippines, now a faraway land? We decided to stay. We entered life in the shadows.

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Photo Credit: Steve Pavey via Flickr (link below)

THE RISKS

That fateful day in 2003, our dreams of living a comfortable life in the United States were effectively crushed. My family spent thousands of dollars on immigration attorneys who promised us a pathway to legal status in this country. All of our appeals were denied and the future was bleak. “Why the fuss?” you ask? “Why is this such a big deal?” When the INS denied our applications for Green Cards, we immediately fell out of status.

We became UNDOCUMENTED. At the time, the rhetoric labeled us “Illegal.” My mother told me that we were now “Illegal Aliens.” She told me never to tell anyone about our immigration status or risk being reported to the authorities, derailing everything we had built in this country.

I didn’t understand this at the time. In the fifth grade, just months after the decision came down denying our Green Cards, I told my best friend that I was an “Illegal Alien.” He said, “Raymond, you’re not an illegal alien. There’s no way. Aliens come from outer space, like martians. You’re not green.” I was comforted by this, thinking that being an “Illegal Alien” couldn’t be that bad after all.

In Filipino culture, we have a phrase that describes people like us. We are what Filipinos would call “TNT” or “tago-ng-tago,” which literally translates, from tagalog (the native language of the Philippines) into “Hiding and Hiding.” There is an incredibly large stigma within the Filipino community of people who are TNT. For this reason, we completely estranged ourselves from our Filipino friends. We effectively disappeared off the face of the Earth–quite literally, into hiding.

Undocumented people face the risk of arrest and deportation every single day. Any contact that they have with a law enforcement official carries the risk of being taken into custody, transferred to an immigration detention center, and, eventually deported back to their country of origin. This is even more of a risk in Georgia, where local and state law enforcement have, historically, cooperated with federal immigration officials to enforce federal immigration law.

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Photo Credit: Steve Pavey via Flickr (link below)

This kind of fear and anxiety is something in and of itself. As an undocumented person, I couldn’t drive legally (and neither could my parents who still, to this day, drive with expired Georgia licenses), work legally, and would face almost-insurmountable obstacles in applying for and paying for college. The hardest part about all of this was not being able to share my fears with anyone. Eventually, I followed my mom’s heeding and opted not to tell anyone about our immigration status.

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I began to understand the kind of impact being undocumented would have on my life. All of my friends were getting their driver’s licenses, their first cards, working for the first time, and thinking about where they were going to college. When asked why I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license yet, I had to lie–“My parents are just really strict. They won’t let me get my license.” or “I’ve just been too busy to make the trek down to the DMV to take my licensing exam.” Every time I told this lie, it broke my heart.

Things quickly went downhill for me. Not being able to tell anyone the real reason I couldn’t do any of the things they were doing quickly eroded my confidence. I wanted so badly to go to college and to make something of myself. After high school, the future was uncertain. The Supreme Court Case, Plyler v. Doe, guaranteed my right to a K-12 education at public schools in the country, but made no guarantee for higher education. My father, who soon after our Green Cards were denied, lost his job as a Physical Therapist, was unemployed for over two years. During this period, my mother had to pick up four jobs to support my family, which had grown to five (my youngest brother was born in 2006). My family had no money to send me to college and, as an undocumented person, my scholarship and loan options were hard to find. In order to maximize my chances of going to college, I did my best in school. At Central High School in Macon, I was a student in the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program. I was a member of the Academic Team, the orchestra, the band, the Key Club, and helped to found the first ever Rubik’s Cube club. I was doing so well. I was the model student, but I feared that all of that work would be for nothing because of my immigration status, something I had absolutely no control over.

THE LOWEST OF THE LOW

By the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I had hit the lowest point in my fear and anxiety with being undocumented. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to tell someone about my situation. I told my best friend at the time that I was undocumented. I told her that this was the reason I couldn’t do so many of the things she and the rest of our friends had been able to do. I said that there was a very real chance that I wouldn’t be able to go to college, despite my accomplishments. I thought this would be a relieving experience. I thought that it would be a huge weight lifted off of my chest. I was wrong.

She reacted with indifference. She told me that there was no way that being undocumented could have such a huge impact on my life. There was no way I, who was just like everyone else, faced so many of these unimaginable challenges. It seemed to me like she didn’t care, but several years later, I realized that she simply did not understand.

I was devastated. I had waited so long to tell someone my story. When I finally did, I didn’t get the response that I was expecting, or even hoping for.

The weeks went by and I quickly deteriorated. I had lost all of my will to live. Why should I keep chugging along if everything would eventually be for nothing? The fall of my junior year of high school, I tried to take my own life. I locked myself in my bathroom upstairs in the home that we had bought, and were struggling to pay for, years ago. I wrote a suicide note that said, “Sorry Mom, Dad, Ryan, and Patrick.” I took several extra-strength Tylenol hoping to end my life. Within minutes, my stomach was on fire–I felt sick. I was on the floor of the bathroom and pulled myself up. I ran downstairs to tell my parents what I had done. They were horrified and acted quickly. They called the Poison Control Center and I remember my parents telling me to make myself throw up, but don’t remember much else. 

I hadn’t taken enough Tylenol to kill myself. I didn’t want to die after all. There was still a fighting spirit within me. I would describe that moment–my failed suicide attempt–as a turning point in my life. At that point, I realized that I had so many gifts, talents, and abilities that I could use to be a force for good. I wanted to be a part of the meaningful change that needed to happen with our broken immigration system.

TURNING POINT

I started to share my story more confidently with other people. I started with my closest friends and teachers. Most were incredibly supportive. I finally felt like I could tell people the truth. I began to share my story in larger settings, speaking in front of crowds of my peers at coffee shops and at Rotary Club meetings, packed with people much older than me. I began to come out of the shadows. I didn’t share the story about my attempted suicide until years later.

I graduated from Central High School in the Spring of 2011 as the Salutatorian of my graduating class. I had a 4.0 GPA, had been accepted into a number of the 14 colleges and universities I had applied to, and had accepted a seat in the Fall 2011 entering class at Mercer University, a small liberal arts institution in my hometown of Macon, Georgia. They offered me an academic, full-tuition, Presidential Scholarship, for which I am incredibly thankful.

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IB Diploma, Salutatorian

At Mercer, I was finally able to realize my dreams of a higher education. I made the most of it. I took a full load of 15-18 hours every semester while I was a student. I ended up double majoring in Political Science and Spanish and minoring in Criminal Justice. I had dreams of going to Law School, becoming an immigration attorney, and helping other immigrants, like myself, who had been through similar situations. I felt so indebted to Mercer that I made a point of doing everything I could on campus to give back to the University that I felt had given me so much.

As a freshman, I was elected onto the Student Government Association, the representative body that uplifts the needs and concerns of Mercer students. I passionately represented my peers to the administration of my University. At the end of my sophomore year, my peers elected me to serve as their Student Body President during my junior year. I was the first Asian-American and openly undocumented Student Body President at Mercer University. Aside from SGA, I competed on my school’s intercollegiate Mock Trial team, trying legal cases as if I were an actual attorney, and served as a Peer Advisor, mentoring first-year students.

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As Mercer’s Student Body President, addressing the student body during the Annual Founders’ Day

In 2012, I became a beneficiary of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). I was granted a two-year reprieve from deportation and was able to obtain a work permit and driver’s license. This program has allowed me to come out of the shadows like never before, elevating my story so that others would hear it. It’s important to note, however, that this is not a permanent solution to our broken immigration system. It is a form of temporary relief that can be done away with at any point. These next few months are, especially, full of uncertainty with the advent of the Trump Administration. For now, I enjoy the benefits that DACA provides, like the ability to work legally, drive legally, and to live without constant fear and anxiety.

I finished college in the spring of 2015 with an almost-perfect GPA and with several job offers. At the advice of some of my most trusted advisors, I decided to postpone my law school dreams to begin to build some real-life work experience. Besides, as an undocumented immigrant, I wasn’t allowed to legally practice law in any state but California, Florida, and New York. I wanted to stay in Georgia, where I had built my home for the last two decades.

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B.A. in Political Science and Spanish, Summa Cum Laude

I accepted a full-time position with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, the first nonprofit law and advocacy center dedicated to the civil, social, and economic rights of Asian immigrants and refugees in Georgia and the Southeast, as its Program Coordinator. Soon, I was promoted to Program Associate. Today, I use my experiences as an immigrant rights activist to design and execute nonprofit programs and strategies that help to uplift the voices of immigrants and refugees in the Southeastern United States.

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Outside the Georgia State Capitol, calling on legislators to support rights for immigrants and refugees

Most recently, I played an instrumental role, with my organization, in helping to triple the Asian American vote in Georgia in the latest Presidential election. We spent hours and hours “in the field” getting out the vote and then protecting the right to vote at the polling place. Additionally, as an accredited representative of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), I now assist with the representation of clients with immigration issues. Most notably, I help people apply for citizenship, something I am unable to do myself.

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On behalf of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, standing up for the rights of marginalized communities

TODAY

Today, I live in Georgia. Some of the challenges in my life have broken me down, but I have gotten back up. I haven’t given up on my dreams of going to law school. I just think that, right now, I’m exactly where I need to be. I like to fish, read books, play and listen to music, hike, cook, and obsess over pug puppies. I wear my boots to work every day because I think they’re comfortable. After years of estrangement from the Filipino community, I now serve on the Board of Directors of the Filipino-American Association of Greater Atlanta and do what I can, in my spare time, to advance our cultural traditions. All I want to do with my life is make a difference in the lives of others.

My undocumented story is only one in over 11 million other undocumented stories. Change starts with you. Get to know my story. Get to know the stories of the other people in your own community who are undocumented. And, if you are undocumented yourself, I encourage you to share your story. By putting a human face on this abstract concept of “being undocumented,” we challenge people’s preconceived notions that they may have about people like us. Together, let us stand Outside of the Shadows. Let us reveal our hearts and uplift our voices.

Photo Credits:

From the album, “Shadows then Light,” by Steve Pavey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveandluella/albums/72157646231795916)

All rights reserved by Steve Pavey