Elizabeth, N.J. — I slept only a couple of hours Sunday night. I woke up around 1:30 in the morning, kissed my three sleeping daughters and boarded a bus to Washington. Thousands of immigrants were gathering on the steps of the Supreme Court. The court was hearing arguments on whether to uphold President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
All of us on the bus were full of emotion — nervous and excited. Who wouldn’t be? The Supreme Court was deciding whether we could be sure of seeing our children grow up.
The president’s order, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), would let parents like us apply for work permits and free us from the threat of deportation.
I came to this country alone from Peru in 2002, leaving my husband and baby daughter behind. It was very hard, but at first I thought it would be for only a little while. Then my husband’s wages shrank from about $1,100 to $100 per month. It soon became clear that my husband and I would never be able to raise our daughter on the little he could earn in Peru. So I decided to stay and work in the United States. I worked at a factory and a supermarket, sleeping little and earning just enough to pay off our debts. My husband and daughter joined me soon after.
We have made our home in Elizabeth, N.J., for the past 13 years and now have three beautiful daughters, ages 6, 13 and 17. The younger girls were born here and so are American citizens, but my oldest daughter, an honors student at the local magnet high school, was undocumented until President Obama announced his first major executive action on immigration, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. She applied for DACA as soon as she turned 15, and got a Social Security number. This means she can establish a real life here. It makes us more certain that she will have all of the educational opportunities she worked so hard for and that we dreamed about when we first decided to stay here.
Still, she has to miss a lot of activities because we don’t have licenses so we can’t drive her anywhere. She leaves home to take the bus to school every morning at 6:30. I walk my younger daughters to school. If DAPA goes through, I could apply for a driver’s license and take my children to school like the parents of their classmates do.
My husband is 63 years old and works unloading trucks at a warehouse for a little more than minimum wage. Most days, he is in pain. Doctors tell him he should look for another job, but he has few options because he doesn’t have a Social Security number. He leaves for work most days at 3 in the morning because he is dependent on getting a ride from a friend.
We fear deportation all the time. One day, a police officer stopped the car my husband was riding in and asked everyone for identification. My husband doesn’t have an ID, and the police officer made him get out of the car. My husband was terrified that he would be arrested and sent back to Peru. In the end, the officer just made him wait outside in the cold. Fortunately, another friend came to pick him up and take him to work; otherwise he could have lost his job.
This year, both of my husband’s parents died. He hadn’t seen them in nearly 14 years. When his mother was dying, all he could do was speak to her on the phone, telling her how much he loved her. When she died he was inconsolable for days.
My parents are getting older, too. I want to be able to travel to see them so I don’t have to go through the same experience. Not being able to say goodbye to your loved ones is what hurts most about being in this country without papers.
My daughters know that if DAPA goes forward, our lives will change. Dad will be able to look for another type of work that isn’t so hard on his body. I will be able to get a driver’s license and a car and drive them to visit colleges and go to robotics club competitions.
I’m waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision, which will probably be announced in June. I know that things are especially uncertain right now. The justices could be divided, four to four, leaving DAPA on hold until a new president appoints a new justice, which could take many months. Or a new president could kill the program entirely.
But I have hope that the justices will decide in our favor. If that happens, I think that the next day I won’t sleep at all — thinking of everything I will do, thinking of how everything will change.
Olga Armas is a member of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant rights organization. This article was translated by Sara Cullinane from the Spanish.
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