Growing up as one of a few Latino immigrants in my Midwestern town was less challenging than one might think. Unlike a community of Latinos living in a historically all-white town, I was so outnumbered I don’t think I was ever a threat to the monoculture surrounding me. Plus my adoptive parents are white - lending me more acceptance.
After arriving to the U.S. at age 12 I adapted well to “American” life, however I remember struggling with the English language and knew that my peers mocked me for it. I did a great job of hiding how the ridicule really affected me and as I got older I tried hard to understand that I was the first foreigner many in the town had ever met. So even despite my advantages I was still discriminated against. The town was simply not prepared to cope with the issue of race, and many fell back on institutional racism as a result.
One experience stands out as an example of how challenging routine tasks can be for an immigrant of color. When I was in high school I took driver’s ed just like everyone else, and passed with flying colors. I was told by my instructor that all I had to do was provide proof that I passed the course and my school ID to the DMV and I would get my license. When I went to the DMV I waited in line excitedly and gave the required document to the woman behind the counter. She looked at me and said, “You need another proof of ID.” I told her that I didn’t have another one, and she asked if I had a yearbook. I rode my bike two miles home to get my yearbook and went back to the DMV. I showed the same woman my picture in the yearbook; she went to talk to someone else, and then returned. “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you a license,” she said.
I went home in tears. I called my mom at work and she told me my naturalization papers had a photo on them and I should go back with that. I went a third time full of hope. Even this proof of citizenship was not enough. The woman behind the counter could not overcome her prejudices and treat me fairly. I went home for the last time that day feeling crushed and blaming myself. It remains one of the saddest days of my life.
I look around today at the immigrants who receive the same kind of treatment and it is apparent how very badly our immigration system must be reformed. The powerlessness that comes with being denied opportunities and fairness has long-term ramifications for immigrants and the country. Forcing our undocumented and disadvantaged community members to live in the shadows is dangerous for our communities and our future.