It’s been 15 years since I first placed foot in this country. My name is Adriana Velázquez, and I am an undocumented young adult in the South Side of Chicago. I came to the United States when I was 11 years old in 2002 with my mom and my two sisters to finally live as a family with my dad and to build a better future together.
I received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status in 2013 and have had it since. Having DACA for me has meant having a range of new possibilities.
Before DACA, most of my decisions were heavily weighted on my lack of status and my inability to work legally. I refused to access a fake Social Security number to find work, and risk getting caught. Luckily, I found stipend work that did not require a Social Security number, but pretty soon I realized how limited my options were.
Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. I went to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music, which I paid through private scholarships, stipend internships and selling chocolates from a box I carried wherever I went. When I was studying for my degree, I made sure I didn’t choose a career in which I wasn’t going to be able to pursue work. I couldn’t be a teacher, I couldn’t be a nurse or doctor, and I definitely couldn’t be a lawyer.
As a DACA recipient, I had more choices about what to study and where I could go. When I finally graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in May 2015, for the first time, I was able to research a variety of jobs I wanted to apply for.
It got me all excited for a minute that, heck, if I wanted to be a server at some fancy restaurant I could; if I wanted to be a music teacher at a private institution, I could be that, too.
Having DACA gave me the possibility to get my driver’s license and state identification. This has given me peace of mind, when I think of the road trips I want to take and the places I want to fly to (of course, all still within the U.S.).
DACA is not perfect, but for five years, it has given me and 800,000 other recipients a two-year renewable ticket to a somewhat normal life.
I am finally building credit. I have a job I love doing and, with that, the ability to live a healthy life and help my family do the same. Now, when I see a police officer drive next to me, my first instinct isn’t to fear anymore.
When I hear my friends are going to New York or Miami for vacation, my first instinct isn’t to exclude myself anymore. When I get a job offer or think of continuing my education, I don’t have immediate limits.
DACA also has affected my family and friends. Several of my closest friends were finally able to apply for jobs they enjoy that offer them health insurance, improving the way they can take care of themselves.
Now that my two sisters and I are able to work, my mother and father also are affected by DACA because we are able to contribute to the home expenses. In addition, we’re three more drivers in the house in case of an emergency.
I’ve also seen some depression and anxiety hovering over my undocumented peers, who feared encounters with the law, detainment and deportation. Having DACA boosted the confidence of many to excel without fear and granted them some tranquility in their everyday life.
Since I arrived in the United States, I’ve lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a strong but underserved part of the South Side of Chicago. I learned English, excelled in school and became involved in the visual and performing arts as well as with many opportunities to serve my community.
Soon, I was helping to paint a mural, developing community plays, providing mentorship for children and helping start a scholarship for youth in my neighborhood. Through my actions, I became an example to other youth and young adults in my community, who, like me, look for brighter futures they can be a part of.
Thriving and modeling for others have given me the opportunity to see individuals and families grow in their own strength, while continuing to shatter the stereotype that people might have of me because of my status or the color of my skin.
I have grown so much in the past five years; became a bolder, stronger, more confident me. That is my contribution to this country, and one that cannot be taken away by ending DACA. My ability to find a job is diminished greatly by the president’s unjust decision.
But my courage, resilience and will to fight for what I believe in is stronger than ever.
Today, I am a community organizer, musician, leader, sister, daughter, friend, a human being. I am the seed of immigrants whose valuable teachings have made me into the person I am today. I will not stop seeking that brighter future when my family’s dignity and safety will not depend on the color of our skin, or the place we were born.
I recently celebrated a special day. I celebrated my birthday. I’ve celebrated 15 birthdays in the United States, a place I call my home. There is still so much more I can contribute and will continue to do so, here. I hope many will join me, undocumented or not, in continuing to fight with me for family and the millions of immigrants.
We have so much to give. We are not giving up. And we are here to stay.
Adriana Velázquez is a community organizer with Chicago-based Southwest Organizing Project, which works with faith groups, schools and residents to strengthen neighborhoods and build leadership. A version of this essay appeared on Equal Voice Action, a family-led membership organization focused on social and economic equity and the SWOP website. All photos are courtesy of Adriana Velázquez.