One of the earliest memories I have in New York City is of scrubbing toilets alongside my mother. She worked as a housekeeper for wealthy families and because she could not afford a babysitter, she would often take me with her. I would do my homework while catching glimpses of my mother as she was dusting television sets or folding bedsheets in homes that we would visit once a week.
I remember the day that my mother walked off a job after the homeowner refused to pay her. I was taking a nap; my mom woke me up. She had been having an argument with the owner, who told her she should feel grateful to have a job that would let her take her child to work. My mom was being exploited, but she was undocumented, and there was nothing she could do.
She has been undocumented for 16 years. In 2014, we thought this might finally change. President Obama announced a program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which would have protected her from deportation for at least three years and allowed her to get a work permit.
But Texas and 25 other states sued to keep the program from going into effect, calling it an abuse of power. For months my mom would call me and ask what was happening with the president’s immigration plan. I would tell her, “Nothing new,” and I could always sense her disappointment. Then the calls got less frequent. Thursday morning, I called her. I had to tell her that the Supreme Court had taken the issue on … and deadlocked. The president’s program couldn’t move forward. My mother still can’t get a work permit, or relief from anxiety-ridden nights.
My mother and I moved from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States in October 1999, and we have lived in New York ever since. My little sister was born here. In Puebla, my mother was a lawyer. Here she is part of the pool of undocumented immigrants who facilitate the lifestyles of so many people in the country that she calls home. We have spent more time in other people’s homes than our own, cleaning, dusting, scrubbing, cooking, the same tasks that many women who migrate to the United States subsist on.
From a young age, I understood my place in the world through the eyes of my mother. Her jobs required her to use cleaning products that burned her skin and blurred her vision. Her knees have scars from all the years scrubbing floors. Housekeepers are the heroes of the immigrant economy — they do their work silently, efficiently, and find money on the table after the job is done. There is no exchange of stories. None of the people whose houses my mom has cleaned know that she was a lawyer, that she is an intellectual and passionate person; they don’t know that she crossed a treacherous border, or that she lives with the constant fear of deportation.
My mother and others like her are pushed to the background of conversations about immigration reform. When people talk about who “deserves” to have a path to citizenship, they like to talk about young people who came to this country as children and therefore, most now can agree, don’t deserve to be punished for it. As a result, in 2012, President Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects people like me from deportation.
But if I don’t deserve to be punished, then my mother doesn’t, either. Because she brought me here, I got a chance to go school, I got a chance to put down roots and build friendships, even while my childhood was vastly different from those of many, and my days were spent at the homes of strangers helping my mom fold and clean.
As I got older, I got the chance to escape that reality. Thanks to the childhood arrivals program, I have a work permit and a good job. My mom, however, still cleans houses; my mom is still undocumented; and my mom is still criminalized by an administration that continues to deport the most vulnerable members of our community. Thanks to the Supreme Court, that’s not going to change anytime soon.
We will have to keep fighting to live without fear in this place we call home. But in moments like these, of sadness and defeat, I think of the night that we crossed the border. As we were running, I fell and for a moment looked up to the night sky, scared that I would be left behind. But my mom was there, she was there all along — she picked me up, and we started running again.
Luba Cortés is a youth organizer for Make the Road New York, an immigrant-rights organization.
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