By Raymond Partolan
Oftentimes, when people come across the phrase, “undocumented immigrant,” images of men, women, and children of Latin American heritage coming across the southern border of the United States come to mind.
However, often overlooked are the hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants who are currently living in the United States without lawful status, or whom we would also call “undocumented.”
According to the Center for Migration Studies, in 2017, undocumented Asian immigrants comprised over 1.7 million of the nearly 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Approximately 16%, or one out of every six undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Asia. Digging even deeper, there are over 175,000 undocumented Filipino immigrants in the United States, or around 10.3% of the total Asian undocumented population. This means that one out of every ten undocumented immigrants from Asia are from the Philippines.
I am one of those 175,000 undocumented Filipino immigrants. I was brought to the United States from Quezon City at the tender age of 15-months-old in September of 1994. Like most Asian immigrants in the U.S. who become undocumented, my family came to this country on a valid visa and was admitted into lawful status. Like most, if not all, immigrants who come to this country, my family came here in the search of greater opportunities that were not available to us in the place from which we came.
After years of attempting to rectify our status in the United States and become lawful permanent residents of this great country, our “green card” applications were denied and we became undocumented. When I was 10 years old, my mother, father, and I officially lost our status and our permission to remain lawfully in the United States. We became undocumented.
Filipino Americans here in the United States have a phrase for people like us – “tago ng tago,” which translates from my native Tagalog to English as “hiding and hiding.” For me, to be “TNT” means to live in the shadows of the United States — to evade all law enforcement authorities by any means so as not to risk being removed to the land far, far away that my family left over 26 years ago.
Being an undocumented Filipino American is an enormous burden to carry. At the age of 10, I did not even begin to fathom the differences this would come to mean between me and the rest of my peers. My parents warned me never to tell anyone about my lack of status because if I told the wrong person, we could be on the next plane back to the Philippines because we did not have the permission to be here.
For years, I heeded their warning. I retreated into the shadows and kept my lack of legal status to myself. Eventually, this became too much to manage. In the small city of Macon, Georgia where I grew up, just about an hour outside of Atlanta, I felt alone. I felt that no one could truly understand why, despite my excellent academic abilities, there was a very real possibility that I would not be able to attend college, that I would never be able to drive with a valid driver’s license, or that I would never be able to work without an employer looking into my status.
After breaking my silence for the first time and confiding in a friend about the struggles I was going through, I was met with silence and indifference. I was told that I was making a big deal out of nothing and there was no way that lacking status could have the profound effect I shared that I was experiencing. I was devastated.
Weeks later, I tried to take my own life, sure that it was the only way that I would escape the suffering and hopelessness that I was feeling as an undocumented Filipino American living in Georgia.
This, however, was my true awakening.
Upon my unsuccessful suicide attempt, I rose and decided that I would do everything in my power to fight for people like me, for our undocumented communities. I wanted no one else to feel as alone as I felt that one afternoon with a pill bottle full of Extra Strength Tylenol to slowly overdose myself into submission.
On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a program that would forever change my life – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. For the first time ever, I was able to step out of the shadows and into the light. For the first time ever, I could finally live my life without the fear and anxiety that I once felt as an undocumented Filipino American with no protection whatsoever. Now, I can drive legally, I graduated from college after attending with a full scholarship, and I work at one of the top-rated immigration law firms in the world.
Just this week, the United States Supreme Court released a monumental decision, shutting down the Trump administration’s efforts to wind down the program.
However, the fight is not over. President Trump could continue his pursuit to end the program. What we still need is a permanent pathway to citizenship that will allow us to fulfill our greatest potential in this country. There are 700,000 other undocumented young people currently protected by the DACA program, over 4,000 of whom are Filipino Americans like me. Every single one of us has the potential to make an incredible difference in this country.
The time is now for Filipino Americans all over to come together and demand that Congress introduce and pass legislation that would permanently protect undocumented young people like me and hundreds of thousands of others.
Those who enjoy lawful status in the United States are privileged insofar as they do not have to live their lives with the fear that I have lived and continue to live. We must act now before people like me must once again retreat into the shadows, unable to help make this country the best that it can be.
Raymond Partolan is an undocumented Filipino American living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an immigration paralegal at Kuck Baxter Immigration, LLC, working primarily in complex family-based immigration and removal defense matters. He also works independently as a consultant, working on political campaigns, non-profit capacity building, and civic engagement efforts. A Grammy Award-winning musician for his work on “American Dreamers” by John Daversa, Mr. Partolan is an often-invited guest speaker, writer, and contributor in all parts of the United States.