In recognition that this is National Migration Week and at the invitation of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Voice of the Poor Committee, for the first time I am telling my story of coming to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.
Our two children, Lizza and Alfonso Jr., and I were born in Tijuana, Mexico, next to the southwest border with USA. My husband, Alfonso, was born in a small town in the State of Jalisco, México.
Margarita with her husband and children in the 1970s
As soon we got married in 1973, he, as a lawful permanent U.S. resident (green card holder), filed a visa petition for me. In those days, the waiting period of time was 12 years.
At the time, we lived in Tijuana. Every day at 2:30 AM, Alfonso crossed the border to work in the fields in the United States, picking tomatoes, chilies, and strawberries. He worked 10-11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and spent one and a half hours commuting each way to work and back home.
In the beginning, Alfonso worked in different, very demanding jobs – as a janitor; in factories and canneries; construction; as a laboratory technician; and so on – until he started to work in an aerospace company, first as a carpenter, then as mechanic, electrician, and welder, and now as a lead man of the maintenance department. I am sharing this with you because I need to make a point – he always worked hard, long hours and different shifts.
While he worked in the United States, I worked in a Social Security Hospital in the Human Resources Department in Tijuana, and, at the same time, took care of two children. Alfonso did everything possible for the children to have a strong father presence in their lives; it was hard for him and for us.
Several years passed, and we were told that the waiting time to become a permanent resident had increased to 14-17 years. So, Alfonso made the hard decision to resign his Mexican citizenship to become a US citizen. In those days, it was not like today where you can have dual citizenship – you had to surrender your citizenship in your own country. Alfonso also needed to speak English well and go to school for the U.S. citizenship classes.
Can you image when he could find time to attend the daily two-hour English and Citizenship classes?
We needed to move to the United States, because it was the only way he could have time to attend his classes and have a little more family time. It was a hard decision – to continue in the same pattern or try to be a real family. We decided to come to live here. In the mid-1980s, my two small children and I came to the United States without permission to reside here. My husband had a resident card so he had the right to live and work here. Thanks to God, we did not come through the desert, a tunnel, or in a car’s trunk. We had short-term visitors’ visas to come and visit the United States and we were supposed to stay no more than three days and keep within a certain area.
I started to feel bad about myself, as if I was not good enough, because I was not able to work or have a driver’s license or walk freely on the streets. I had always worked. I needed to be productive and was worried about how I could help support the family financially, too.
I started to help working mothers with the care of their children after school for a small fee. In the evening, I went to learn English as a second language at my children’s school. But I did not like those classes. They were too slow, and I need to learn a little faster. In order to do this, my English teacher told me to go to a community college, but she did not know that I did not have the proper documents. I attended community college briefly, but since I was not a resident, I did not qualify for reduced tuition. Instead, I would have had to pay full foreign student tuition, even though we paid taxes for community schools. I could not afford full tuition and still help my husband provide for the family.
From the time he started working in the United States, Alfonso paid taxes to the IRS. Once we moved to the United States, we saved some money, with family help we eventually bought our house, and we paid property taxes. I always lived in fear of deportation and the consequences for my family. Our children were in a household where our status was a secret; you did not want anyone to know it, because it was dangerous. For most undocumented immigrants, fear, and the stress that comes with it, is a constant part of life. We had to keep our situation a secret from nearly everyone we encountered, afraid to be reported and sent back to Mexico
It was time full of frustration, learning, adapting, and growing in many ways, but mostly full of joy because we were together.
Not long after my children and I came to the United States, my husband applied for citizenship. He passed the test, and, in three months, he became a U.S. citizen. He next petitioned for our under-age children, Lizza and Alonso Jr., to become U.S. citizens, and in 6 months they were. It was not easy for us to pay in a single year the very expensive fee for the three of them to become U.S. citizens. So again, Alfonso needed to work overtime to afford the house payment and all the immigration fees.
Several months passed before we could change the status of my first petition which, when it was filed back in 1973, was done by my husband in his then-status as a U.S. resident. As a U.S. citizen, he could file an updated petition on my behalf and the waiting period would be shortened. Finally, that was accepted, and I was granted an official U.S. resident card. Then I had to wait three more years to be able to apply and pay more fees for the U.S. citizenship process. Eventually, I was able to apply for it. I passed the test, and finally, after all the risks, tears, frustrations, low self-esteem, and 20 years, thanks to God, I became a U.S. citizen in 1994 – Hurray!!!
For us, it was extremely important to work hard. I really appreciate this country and its people. We made a real pledge to making this country our home.
Margarita, her husband, Alfonso, and their extended family at Christmas 2016
On the other hand, we continue to maintain strong relationships in our birth country. We are the lucky ones to have had the opportunity to access the best from both countries and to celebrate both cultures – not assimilate the USA culture, but to blend both.
I believe we need to share our stories. Some, like mine, are relatively easy, but others are very hard, sad, and dangerous.
We are human beings, created in the image of God, too, with dreams and hopes like every other person. We simply wish to be able to do better for our family, our communities, for the poor, and for our country.
Margarita Galindo is Vice-President for Hispanic Involvement at the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul.