Boyle Heights Beat | Los Angeles, CA
By Carmen Gonzalez
I got the call on a Tuesday morning. My immigration lawyer was adamant to have the whole family hear her announcement. We gathered at the dinner table and listened to my immigration attorney tell us to come and pick up papers from the office because I was going to get my citizenship the following week. Twenty-one years. We waited twenty-one years for this. I wasn’t sure what to think.
Two days later in an empty room decorated with American flags, with what seemed a never-ending line of people, I received my citizenship. My sister said she thought I’d be happy or celebrating but what I looked like was “lighter.” I didn’t know what I thought or felt about a piece of paper that was going to change my life. And I hadn’t realized the weight of the world that I was carrying around with me.
While I did not know if I would even be able to pursue any real jobs because of my status, I still felt like I had to grind. I buried myself in work so I did not have to deal with my reality.
Mayra Barran O’Brien, an undocumented mental health specialist, said this is especially common among undocumented people. “You’ve been in this survival mode for so long, that you’ve gotten used to it. And typically, when you slow down, you start feeling uncomfortable,” she said.
As an undocumented teenager under Trump’s presidency and then during COVID-19, my well-being, along with the well-being of approximately 100,000 undocumented college students and 72,000 undocumented K-12 students in the state, was not even considered. With very few state and federal protections, the past seven years have exponentially affected my mental state.
During the first year of lockdown, I remember when the public was trying to figure out who was eligible for the stimulus checks. I also remember undocumented people not being included in this conversation. Being constantly disregarded from significant conversations about basic needs does something to your person.
For some, the pandemic was a small taste of living as an undocumented person. Not being able to physically be at family gatherings, overthinking the safety of places you might visit and being constantly reminded of the things you cannot do is an insight into the undocumented experience. I experienced this alienation before COVID-19 and continued to experience it even after everyone decided it was over.
In 2022, the Office of the Surgeon General released an advisory urging people to take action on the youth mental health crisis happening in the country, specifically after COVID-19. It broke down what factors shape youth’s mental health. The advisory also highlighted groups at higher risk of mental health challenges during the pandemic.
Youth included: racially and ethnically minoritized, LGBTQ+, low-income, those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and ones in rural areas. The report found that young people that are part of one or more at-risk groups may experience a higher risk of mental health challenges. There was no mention of undocumented youth.
Last June at a Youth Mental Wellness Summit put on by The California Endowment and The U.S. Surgeon General, I had the opportunity to interview Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and asked him why undocumented youth weren’t included in his Protecting Youth Mental Health Advisory. His response was lackluster.
Murthy responded about the need to take care of each other and emphasized the efforts of making the COVID vaccine available to everyone regardless of status. “Every life matters in our country. It doesn’t matter how you got here. We’ve got to take care of people’s health and their well-being. If we do that, we have a society that thrives.”
Some of the recommendations in the advisory included remembering that mental health challenges are real and asking for help. The latter is what I have the most trouble with.
Asking for help is easier said than done. Growing up undocumented meant you always carried a secret with you. It’s not easy to share this part of you with people who might share your secret and put you in jeopardy.
When your status is constantly used as a political pawn, trusting people is almost impossible. The only people you could turn to are your own community – who are also struggling — of other undocumented people.
At least that’s who I turned to.
I remember during President Trump’s random ICE raids in different cities, my friend Andrea and I shared our locations with each other, just in case. Luckily, nothing happened to us. Ever since then, we continue to have each other’s location because the uncertainty never leaves.
We have to carry that uncertainty with us every day. Not able to share what’s weighing on us. Yet the neglect I experienced because I was undocumented — from the institutions created to help me — scarred me and although a piece of paper alleviates some of the pressure, the damage is still there.
I still remember my first winter session in college. I would wake up at 5 a.m., prepare my bag and get some breakfast and hop on the train to take me to Union Station.I would ride another train so I could catch my final bus to campus. After my morning classes, I would commute again and try to arrive before I had to host my radio show. Once my show was over I would try to work on the next show before I worked on some freelance gigs and get some homework. By that time I was arriving home around 6:30 p.m. ready to shower and sleep. All for this to repeat the next day.
Navigating college is hard for anybody. Now imagine attending college knowing that you probably will not be able to work your degree in the “real world” or that your two-year work permit will not renew and you might get deported. It’s not much of a motivator.
As Taylor Swift sang, “Long story short, I survived” and this past February I became an American citizen.
I have always been open about my immigration status. Never showcased shame or fear. It felt like the only thing I was in control of, it was my narrative. Every summer my mom would take a week off from work to go drop my siblings off in Mexico. They went to visit our dad leaving the 14-year-old me home alone. I would boast about all the things I would do while home alone. The reality was I loathed being alone, it reminded me of my limitations.