When I saw the violent pictures of border patrol agents on horses rounding up Haitian immigrants last week, I immediately understood the look on their faces, because it’s very familiar to me. As one of the 11 million undocumented Americans living in the United States, I live with the terrifying threat of capture, deportation, and family separation every day.
I’ve been in the United States for 14 years and lived in Philadelphia for 11, building my life, raising my children, and working hard cleaning homes with no minimum wage, no health insurance, and no labor protections. Not having legal status here makes it easy for people to exploit and threaten me. My landlord has called the police on me and my children, and threatened to send U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to where we live. My kids know that ICE could separate us, and as a mother, it’s the worst thing to see your children so scared.
I can’t get health insurance, so getting sick would mean going into serious debt. I can’t get a driver’s license, but I have to drive to work and take my kids to school. Even being stopped by the police for a broken taillight could mean being deported and taken away from my son and daughter. They’re 12 and 9, far too young to be on their own, so they’d probably go into the foster-care system or a detention center. Imagining it breaks my heart.
Every day is a risk, simply because I sought a better life for myself and my kids. But this fall I’ve had real hope of this fear finally ending, because Congress is working on a way to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people, including essential workers like me, in the federal budget. We’re so close, and our Congress members can’t let this plan fall apart
About 115,000 people in Pennsylvania could finally become citizens, and get access to the job openings companies are desperate to fill, health insurance that will drive down overall costs and put less stress on emergency rooms, and the driver’s licenses that so many citizens take for granted. Helping millions of people like me come out of the shadows is good for our whole community: As this newspaper has reported, a path to citizenship would add $51 million to Pennsylvania’s bank account. That could mean better schools, cleaner streets, and open libraries for all of us.
While Congress has been working on the budget, I’ve been organizing with Make the Road Pennsylvania and other immigrant groups to make sure we win a pathway to citizenship. Together, we won support from Sen. Bob Casey and Reps. Brendan Boyle and Madeleine Dean, but other members of Congress are still holding out. I want to tell them that as undocumented people we might not be able to vote, but we are American in everything but paperwork, and we’re still your constituents.
Everyone knows that without immigrant workers this country would stop. We make all your necessities and luxuries possible. We are the farmers who pick your berries and pack your meat, the domestic workers who help raise your American kids, the cleaners who keep up the homes and offices where you live and work. And we are done being invisible, letting this country take our labor without acknowledging that we exist or granting us access to the basics we need to survive in return. We know you see us, and it’s time we’re recognized as essential not just in words, but in practice.
Now we’re in crunch time for the budget, and we won’t let citizenship slip away. Although the Senate’s adviser ruled against one plan for citizenship, there are other options on the table and we need our Pennsylvania members of Congress to pursue them. We are fighting for the stability of permanent status and nothing less.
Our representatives and senators — including Sen. Pat Toomey as part of his final term — should do the right thing supported by most Americans: Reform our immigration system to create a pathway for undocumented folks to earn citizenship. We’re already here contributing and want to do more — Congress just has to let us.
Betania Shephard is a mom, immigrant, and member leader of Make the Road Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia with her two children.