Being Referred to as "Illegal" Traumatized Me and My Family For Years

Sylvia Banderas
Sylvia Banderas

I grew up in Los Angeles blissfully unaware of my undocumented status until I was around 8 years old. I should have known sooner — all the signs were there. The way my dad never made eye contact with anyone that did not look like him, afraid that his golden-brown skin and broken English would betray him too quickly. The uneasy way he seemed to always be hyperaware of our surroundings anytime we left our house. Los Tigres Del Norte songs he sang regularly compared living in the United States to being a bird locked in a golden cage. A cage made of gold doesn't make it any less of a prison, he would say.

To make a living we sold burritos at car washes, turning the back of his pickup truck into a makeshift storefront. I remember that if he heard a distant siren, he would pack us up so fast and find a way to take the backstreets home in a flash. He was always ready to run. "What are we running from?" I would ask him. "La Migra'' he would say. "ICE." But I was still just a kid. I didn't know what he meant. I did not know that my father was "illegal." I did not know I was "illegal." You see, most of my community lived in our very own version of "don't ask, don't tell" (the documentation status edition). As Mexicans, our relationship with the United States is a complicated one. There are too many gaps to fill left by traditional American history education as it relates to immigration for me to try to cover here, but it's worth noting that Mexicans lived in the United States since before there was the United States. We grew up understanding that for many of us with mixed-status families, the border crossed us. The sting of being treated as a foreigner in our ancestral lands and the irony of our "illegality" was a ruminating thought for my father, especially when he drank.

Without diving into a history lesson, I will say that many do not have the full context and therefore don't have a true understanding of the origins of "illegal immigration." Prior to the late 19th century, it was impossible to immigrate "illegally" to the United States. That changed due to one of the most racist laws ever passed: the 1924 Act, which made it impossible to be naturalized unless you were "free and white." Asians, Blacks, and Native Mexican peoples were all not considered "white" and so were not able to become naturalized citizens. Most notably, the law introduced number caps that gave preference to European immigrants. Yes, this was an overtly racist law and universally considered a stain on our history. Today, the consequences of this racist law remain and so does the racist ideology of who is classified as a preferred immigrant and therefore has access to American citizenship. This context matters because, without it, the narrative paints Mexican immigrants in a different light and allows for narratives like the "great replacement theory" to take root, when in reality, as natives to these lands, the question should be who replaced whom?

Coming of age undocumented did not feel so different most of the time. As a small child, I liked cheeseburgers and pizza, played Nintendo, and watched "Muppet Babies." I was an exceptional student. I loved school and my teachers; I felt safest at school when I was with them. Then one day, a law proposed by anti-immigrant organizations in California passed. It was referred to as Proposition 187. It was then that I understood the consequences of my "illegality." That law meant I could no longer attend school because doing so was no longer possible, and my teachers, if they suspected something based on my appearance, could report my "status" to the state and have me and my family deported. The school was no longer my safe heaven and a paper with an eight-digit number meant more than my humanity to my society.

This derisive language was meant to dehumanize and criminalize us. That was always the point because as "illegals'' we were no longer children.

"Ni de Aqui, ni de alla," I am not from here and I am no longer from there. I don't belong in this society, and there is no place for me. That was the message. This derisive language was meant to dehumanize and criminalize us. That was always the point because as "illegals'' we were no longer children. As criminals, we became unworthy of the human dignity that is our birthright, and therefore our lives as we knew it did not matter. This tactic is nothing new in the racist playbook. It's a classic "othering" and disassociation of our humanity, so that it is justifiable when you put us in cages, separate us from our families, and rip us from our mother's breast. Under this classification, we are not children, we are not human; we are simply "illegals" and, under an unjust law, we are now forced to pay consequences as criminals.

The more thoughtful "undocumented" is preferable to "illegal" because after all, no human being is "illegal."

That is what is in the power of this word. A world of pain in one word. A system of marginalization in one word. How often we tend to take this word for granted when speaking of a human being. If you take anything from my story it's that words have power. Words have the power to inflame and create hate. Words can help justify inhumane laws and ideologies. Americans that see themselves as descendants of immigrants should remind themselves where they came from and think through the greatness of where we can all go together united in our shared immigrant experience, which is ultimately the American experience. When people ask me why I do equity and inclusion work, I know it's because I carry a wound so deep caused by the carelessness of a word leveraged to hurt people like me. The more thoughtful "undocumented" is preferable to "illegal" because after all, no human being is "illegal." Our humanity entitles all of us to be worthy of recognition and respect.