I do not discuss it often, but there was a time in my life when I lived in a border town. I was born on the other side, the foreign side. But as a small child, my parents brought my brother and I to live on the U.S. side, where my father worked. I did not understand at the time that these two neighboring cities – one where I lived and one where the rest of my extended family remained – were different countries. Nor would I probably have understood the ramifications of this difference if my parents had attempted to explain it to me.
I did not choose to grow up in the United States. My parents made that decision for me. I speak English with an American accent. I went to American schools. The Pledge of Allegiance was how I started each day, saluting the stars and stripes and reciting my loyalty to a nation with liberty and justice for all. My parents were adamant that we must drive American cars. We celebrated the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. (One year in elementary school, I actually rode an Independence Day parade float down Main Street.) Our town was so small and patriotic, that when we went to the local movie theater, instead of movie previews a waiving American flag was projected across the screen before each movie. And we would stand with the rest of the audience, put our hands to our hearts and sing The Star Spangled Banner.
As ’70’s kids, my brother and I rode dirt bikes down trails on vacant wooded lots near our home. We drove for hours with our parents to the nearest shopping mall to do back-to-school shopping each August at JC Penney’s. Mom hosted Tupperware parties and baked Chex mix in the oven for those sort of special events. We got our tacky family Christmas photos done at the Sears Portrait Studio. I went camping and canoeing. I won blue ribbons from 4H at the county fair for my produce and livestock entries.
In short, I was your typical, small town American. Except for one thing. I was undocumented.
My world changed in 1987, when my father died. At the time of his death, my father was a U.S. citizen, but my mother was not. Prior to his death, he did not take the proper steps with the federal government to effectively secure my American citizenship. My only proof of any nationality was my birth certificate, issued by a foreign country. But I was still young. I did not understand how the right to work or to travel could be affected by a birth record.
There is one more thing that does not make my undocumented circumstances typical, however. Although I share a familiar immigration story with Mexican kids, I am not Latino. I am fair-complected, tall, with blue eyes and blond hair. You see, I was born in Canada. And no one has ever questioned my status as “real” American. In fact, I got my driver’s license and even a Social Security card long before I ever held my certificate of U.S. citizenship in my hands.
Like so many others, I am a real American who loves his country. But I was once undocumented.