When I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week about being an undocumented immigrant, my 75-year-old grandmother, Leonila Salinas, sat behind me.
Lola (Filipino for "grandmother") was seated with my aunt Aida Rivera, a mother of five who works in accounting, and my uncle Conrad Salinas, who served in the United States Navy for 20 years. Like me, they were born in the Philippines. But unlike me, they are American citizens.
Filipinos, the third largest immigrant group in the United States, behind Mexicans and Indians, have big families. Mine is no different. Among my large but tightknit extended family of more than 25 people, I am the only one who is undocumented, the sole person in the family without legal papers in America.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are an estimated 17 million people in the United States living in households where at least one person is an undocumented immigrant. Furthermore, about 4.5 million children who were born in this country have at least one undocumented parent.
'Hiding and hiding'
Exactly how these "mixed-status" families will be included in any type of immigration reform is still up for debate. Nevertheless, they are a byproduct of our broken and byzantine immigration system. Consider my story:
My grandparents emigrated legally from the Philippines after my grandpa's sister, who married a Filipino-American in the military, petitioned for them. The process took 12 years. Once they finally arrived, they petitioned for their children to follow them. It turned out, however, that residents cannot petition for their married children, so while my uncle, who was single, packed his bags, my married mother remained at home.
This is where I come in. Grandparents cannot petition for their grandchildren, either, but my family didn't see a future for me in the Philippines. They made a decision to send me, alone and without papers, to live with my grandparents. They assumed I would find a woman and get my legal residence through marriage. But I came out as gay in high school, which considerably complicated matters. Since gay marriage is not recognized by the federal government, which oversees visas, and since I am not eligible for other relief programs, I am the only T.N.T. — "Tago Ng Tago," or "hiding and hiding," the Filipino equivalent of undocumented — in the family.
Most immigrants know someone who is undocumented, and that person is most likely a relative. This often-forgotten fact underscores the reality that undocumented immigrants are integrated not only in our communities — in classrooms and churches across America — but also in our nuclear and extended families.
This can have tragic consequences. A record 1.6 million immigrants have been deported under the Obama administration's enforcement program, and many of them were parents of children born in the United States.
A recent report on Colorlines, an online magazine that has done groundbreaking work on divided immigrant families, found that between July 2010 and the end of September 2012, more than 200,000 deportations, close to a quarter of the total, were issued for the parents of American-born children. As a result, hundreds of children with United States citizenship are living in foster care, unable to unite with their detained or deported parents.
'Is it close?'
I've been traveling the country advocating for immigration reform since publicly disclosing my undocumented status nearly two years ago. In addition to meeting undocumented immigrants of all backgrounds ("Can you let people know many African immigrants don't have papers, too?" an elderly Nigerian woman whispered to me at a rally in Los Angeles), I've met dozens of spouses and children of undocumented people, anxious members of mixed-status families.
Last March, Diego Camposeco, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, told me that he got involved with immigrant rights because of his parents, who illegally crossed the Mexican border in the early 1990s. The oldest of three children, Diego was born and raised in a small North Carolina town with a growing Latino population. Most of his Latino friends, he said, are also children of undocumented immigrants. Diego told me they all voted against Mitt Romney because of his views on immigration. But he also worried that one of his parents, who re-entered the country illegally after being previously deported, may not qualify for any type of relief under the Obama administration.
At least once a day these past few months, Lola calls me and says, "Malapit na ba?" Translation: "Is it close?" That's her way of asking me if immigration reform is close to happening. She wants to know if I will ever have a solid status in this country, if I'll be able to, among so many other things, go on vacation with her to the Philippines and — most important — come back home to the United States.
There are no words to describe just how much stress and heartbreak my immigration status, and my choice to go public with it, has caused my grandmother. Because of her I almost did not speak out about being undocumented. But it was also because of her — and my grandfather, who died in 2007, and my mother, whom I have not seen in almost 20 years — because of all their sacrifices, that I was able to speak in Congress.
I am here because of them.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter, is the founder of Define American, a campaign that advocates for undocumented immigrants. This piece originally ran in the New York Times.