Diana is the quintessential Chicago 20-something: social, outgoing, hip to the latest trends in fashion and music, and with plenty of swag to spare.She’s the type of young woman you see surrounded by her girlfriends on a Thursday night outside some bar or club on the North Side, face lit up by her iPhone as she laughs with her friends over the lame pick-up attempts they were the targets of earlier in the night. She’s probably even said most—if not all—of the classic lines from “Sh*t Chicagoans Say.”But Diana has a secret, one she’s revealed to only a handful of people during her 20-odd years.
“‘You don’t have a Social Security number?’ ‘You don’t have any papers.’ I didn’t know what meant,” she tells me, describing what it felt like to discover she was undocumented as a 14-year-old just starting high school.
“I didn’t know I couldn’t get a license. I didn’t know I could get deported. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Diana is a native Chicagoan from another country. The date on her entry visa shows that she was born just five months before she entered the country. The baby in the photo looks nothing like the girl I’ve known for nearly three years, except even then she was smiling.
She’s one of an estimated half a million undocumented immigrants living in Illinois today, according to the most recent Census data.
Before taking courses at a Chicago-area community college, Diana graduated from a local high school, the same one her younger sister, a natural born citizen, currently attends. Her youngest sister, also a natural born citizen, is still in middle school. She has two older sisters, one who was brought to the States at the age of 2 and now has a daughter.
If finding out you’re undocumented just as you’re starting the turbulent high-school phase of your life wasn’t bad enough, it’s how Diana discovered her vulnerable status which makes her story even sadder.
It was when her father was being placed through the deportation process for failing to show up in immigration court that Diana found out that she too had no legal right to live in the United States.
Describing herself as “the biggest daddy’s girl ever,” she tells me about the heartache and confusion she felt while having to watch her father sit through deportation proceedings and eventually get deported.
“I could not believe that it was a possibility that I would never see my dad again,” she says as tears form in her big, round eyes. “Now, I know there’s that possibility, and now it hurts even more than before.”
Diana and her older sister wrote letters in hopes that they would be able to sway the judge’s decision. But he told the two young girls that their letters would not be heard in his courtroom because they were undocumented and, therefore, their words were irrelevant.
The judge did allow the two younger sisters to be heard, since they were the only American citizens in the family of seven. But they were too young to understand what was going on.
Since then, Diana has hid her immigration status from everyone she meets.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says, “even going to a bar, even on a date…. I hate people asking me, ‘Why are you using your [Mexican] passport? Why don’t you have a license?’ And I have to make something up because I don’t trust that person enough to tell them I don’t have papers.”
Diana laughs uncomfortably as she tells me about what happened the previous night when a bouncer asked her for her driver’s license after she handed him her passport—“I told him my license got suspended.”
Toward the end of our talk, I ask her what Obama’s recent decision to make people like her eligible for a work visa—which would finally give her a temporary number, a driver’s license and the right to work—means for her
“Everything,” she says with a sigh of relief. “I know it’s not permanent, but knowing that, after so long, something is getting done, I can do something now. I have more resources. I can freakin’ take myself to school. If I wanted to, look for another job or ask for a raise. Get insurance.”
In a couple of months, undocumented immigrants living across the Chicago area will be coming out of the shadows to ask for the same rights Diana describes. And if her story is proof of anything, it’s that many of the undocumented are more Chicagoan than some people think.