Turning 21

Lily was born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, just south of the airport where the expressways and rail lines converge before going their separate ways, in the kind of bleakly peaceful Midwestern town named for its two main streets. She’s the fourth of five daughters, growing up in a modest house with a little lawn, a rickety two-car garage, and a hypoallergenic dog that looks like something they sell at Build-A-Bear. During the searing summer months she and her little sister would splash away in a whale-shaped kiddie pool.

Lily is and always has been an overachiever. She rarely got a B, took honors and AP courses, joined all the kiss-ass clubs; she even played tennis. While most of her schoolmates spent their final months goofing off, Lily spent her senior year agonizing over college applications, admission essays, and then scholarship applications. Her self-inflicted torment paid off when she was offered a full ride to attend a private liberal-arts college a couple hours from home, becoming the first in her family to go away to school. Lily majored in accounting, played on the tennis team, took advantage of career-building programs, and, of course, joined a sorority. After interning at a big-name accounting firm last semester, she received an offer. More than a year away from graduating and she already has a job waiting for her, with a starting salary most people at any age fantasize about.

Lily is about to turn 21. Instead of fussing over the details of her upcoming b-day bash, however, Lily’s stressing over yet another application, the I-130, the form U.S. citizens and permanent residents use to petition for relatives to receive a green card. Lily has been waiting for this moment for over 10 years, since the day her dad loaded his pickup and reported to the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for voluntary removal. An immigration judge had ordered Lily’s dad, here on a work visa, to leave the country due to the equivalent of a filing error: he’d failed to register his change of address when he moved his family from a cramped apartment to their humble home, which resulted in him failing to receive notices from the visa office. In court the judge refused to hear testimony from Lily’s three older sisters, in their late teens, because all three were undocumented. Twenty-four hours after kissing his family goodbye one October morning, Lily’s dad was back in Juárez, Mexico, where he’s been living and working since. He calls every Sunday. According to current U.S. immigration law, as soon as Lily turns 21 she’ll be able to petition for her dad and finally bring him home.

“Everyone else who turns 21 is just excited to drink, you know, and celebrate their b-days,” she tells me:

I mean, I am too, really excited. But I’ve also longed for this day for so many years because I knew that once I turned 21 I was able to help my dad out. And it’s just scary and hard because it was always up to me. It was something we had planned on since we found out about it when I was in 5th grade.

I should mention that “Lily” isn’t Lily’s real name. She’s asked me to use a fake one, since only her best friend knows something about the legal struggles threatening her immigrant family. That’s how it is with most Latinos I talk to who either have undocumented relatives or are undocumented themselves. Everything’s hush-hush, a big family secret. Even after all the immigration debates in the media, the rallies and events (or maybe because of them), being undocumented in America is still like being a gay atheist in Iran or a Jew in Nazi Germany: you don’t know who you can trust or who believes what, and so you don’t reveal yourself to anybody, anywhere, at any time. Plus the taking of her father has convinced Lily that, although she’s a U.S.-born citizen and therefore safe from deportation herself, a few of her loved ones can just as easily be stripped away at any moment, just as her father was. And since her father’s still in Juárez, she fears even publishing her real name could jeopardize his return. So Lily isn’t taking any chances.

“It’s been really hard that my dad hasn’t been here to see all of it, but I know that he’s really proud even though he’s miles and miles away.”

Latinos are a largely immigrant community, with families, neighborhoods and friendships divided by legal status. Most Latinos have a non-citizen parent, grandparent, cousin or aunt, and usually a combination of those. Nearly every Latino, if they’re not undocumented themselves, has an undocumented friend, neighbor or co-worker. America’s immigration system, because it treats the undocumented like suspected terrorists, inevitably drives entire communities into the shadows.

Yet Lily isn’t the type to worry about the big picture. She keeps her head down and focuses only on those things within her control. At the moment that means finishing up the semester and making sure her I-130 is filled out correctly and sent in as soon as possible, along with a check for $420 for the application fee. And while it’s her name on the application, her family is helping every step of the way. It’s a big day for all of them.

“It’s been really hard that my dad hasn’t been here to see all of [my achievements], but I know that he’s really proud even though he’s miles and miles away,” Lily says:

And I definitely think that, because of the situation I’m in, that has been the sole reason and motivation for me to succeed and pursue a better life. Obviously we’ve struggled ever since my dad left, and it hasn’t been easy at all. Lots of adjustments. And I think that’s why I’ve worked so hard to become successful, so that I can give back to my family who has helped me so much to get to where I am now. I would have never thought a few years ago that I’d be graduating college early and have a job lined up with one of the big four accounting firms — the one of my choice that I’ve been wanting to work for since high school. So it’s just been an emotional roller coaster. But I know that without this constant support of my family and the reminder that I’m doing this for them, to help us all out, has pushed me to do better and given me the confidence I need to succeed.

Once she receives a letter indicating that her application was received and is under review, Lily will then worry about how long the process should take. “Hopefully it works out where my dad can actually be there for my graduation [next spring],” she says. Till then she’ll just keep doing what she’s been doing, and hope for the best. At least now she’ll be able to have a drink. She deserves one.

(Photo: Brooke Binkowski/Flickr)