When You're The Only Undocumented One In The Family
“The bottom line is that everyone wants a better life for themselves and their family”
By almost every measure, Gustavo Gutierrez is an impressive twenty-something. He’s a college graduate. A successful marketer in Toyota’s corporate offices. And lately, he's been spending his spare time laying the groundwork to launch his own company. And Gutierrez has had to do it all without a social security number or driver's license— because he was born in Mexico.
But on June 15, 2012, not long after he turned 25, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals or DACA policy into law, putting a series of protections for those who illegally entered the United States before age 16.
Among other criteria, the legislation required those who qualified to attend high school or college in the United States or obtain a work permit to stay under protection from deportation. Those who apply and are approved are protected for up to two years and can apply for renewal. They do not, however, gain citizenship or legal status in the United States.
That legislation is now in serious jeopardy.
President Donald Trump can at any time immediately cancel the DACA program, a promise he made several times along the campaign trail, which means that most dreamers now live in a discomfiting in-between that can be hard to describe to an outsider looking in. In our series “Limbo,” we share the first person stories of those caught in the middle.
Gustavo Gutierrez was the youngest member of his family as well as undocumented
Name: Gustavo Gutierrez
The bottom line for people, whether you’re from the Middle East, Latin America, or Europe, is that everyone wants a better life for themselves and their family. At the end of the day, the search for the American dream—as redundant as it sounds—is the reason why my family came to the United States. You hear so many stories of immigrants establishing businesses and doing so many great things for this country that maybe in their home country they wouldn’t have been able to, but once they get here, they see the opportunity. And we work. We work hard for what we want.
I came to the U.S. in 1992. I was four-years-old. And, I’m the youngest of five siblings. My story and family dynamic are a little different from other people that are undocumented because a lot of times it’s the siblings that are oldest that are undocumented. In my case, I was the youngest and the one that was undocumented. My dad was a resident back in the 80s. They’re both originally from Mexico, and they got married in Mexico before they came to the U.S in search of the American dream. They had their family of four children here.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Society puts stigmas and stereotypes on undocumented people.[/quote]
Then the point came when my father wanted my siblings to (go to) Mexico. So they went back to Mexico in the 80s. I was born in ‘87. So all of my siblings were American citizens because they were born in the United States. Eventually, they decided to come back to the states. At this point, I was undocumented because I was born in Mexico.
When we first got here, I lived in LA for four months. My father had always worked in farm work as a laborer, so we moved to the Central Valley, and that’s where I grew up. That’s where I lived most of my life until I was about 17. Then I moved to Santa Clara and lived there through college until 2009. I came back to LA after that, but for the majority of my life, I lived in the Modesto area. I ended up going to Linden High School.
A lot of people didn’t know I was undocumented in high school because I didn’t know how to express to them or make them understand what I was going through. So, there was a little bit of me keeping things from them, if only because I didn’t know what could happen. I was young at that time.
My family has been very supportive, though. My motto has always been, ‘God gives you whatever you can handle.’ So if he put me in the space where I was undocumented, I wasn’t gonna give up. I didn’t have the financial resources because, as you know, for undocumented immigrant it’s very difficult to obtain financial aid. It’s almost impossible. You have to finance everything through scholarships or family.
Throughout high school, I did encounter people saying, “Oh, you’re undocumented. You’re not going to be able to obtain a college degree. How are you going to pay for it?” There were always those comments, but it goes to show that there are people who are always going to underestimate your worth and the things that you are capable of doing.
Society puts stigmas and stereotypes on undocumented people. And I didn’t want to be a part of that. So I’ve always told myself, ‘If I was undocumented, then I was going to do something about it. And if my parents brought me to this country, I wasn’t gonna waste my time sitting around with my fingers crossed.’ So I started to research my options for college. I applied to—I kid you not—30 different schools because I didn’t know which school I would be able to afford. And I was blessed to be able to study at Santa Clara University on a full-ride scholarship. So that was a huge blessing for me. And, at that point, when I was a senior in high school, I knew that if I just put everything in God’s hand's things were going to work.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"] I went through a short depression at one point because I wasn’t able to travel abroad or study abroad or other things that I wanted to do.[/quote]
When I first started at Santa Clara University, I felt a huge relief that I was there. Out of 220 people in my graduating class, 60 percent were Latinos. I went to a school that was half Caucasian and half Latino. And, I kid you not, out of all those kids, I was one of only maybe five Latinos to go to college. So I felt a sense of empowerment to myself and them. To show that if I was able to do it and I was undocumented then why wouldn't they? And a lot of them were born here. They had their citizenship. They had all these things going for them.
It got difficult after graduating from college because I didn’t have a social security number and I didn’t have a driver’s license. So a lot of things that my peers had I didn’t have. And I felt embarrassed. I went through a short depression at one point because I wasn’t able to travel abroad or study abroad or other things that I wanted to do.
When you’re undocumented everything revolves around the things you need to do to get through your day and life. I mean, just the simple fact of not being able to drive legally. People don’t think about the privilege that having a license is. You can’t do a lot of things that a person with a license can do. You need to go to work, buy groceries, and provide for your family.
So feeling that pressure of not being able to get from point A to point B and then to point C. Your opportunities are so limited when you’re undocumented. And the pressure of just being outside in society because you can’t walk outside your door and feel completely safe. You don’t know who’s going to come and approach you.
I took a year off because I wanted to reassess what I was going to do in my life. I had my sister that lived here in LA. She’d been living here for about five years, and she invited me to come down and live with her. I slept on her couch for over three years. She has a real estate business, so I helped her with that. I just kept moving, kept doing whatever I could. Here in LA, it was always a dream of mine to study for a master’s degree. I visited USC and fell in love. I went back to school. I wanted more. I had to buy time. I was like, ‘I’m gonna educate myself.’ I was going to obtain a master’s in journalism and communications from USC. I graduated in 2012, and things have lined up after that.
That year, Barack Obama came out with Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. So I was able to obtain DACA status because I passed all of the stipulations. You had to be here before you were 16. You had to have no criminal history. I was able to prove all of that. Then, I renewed in 2014. So I had DACA for three-and-a-half years.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"] I cried the day of my interview with immigration services.[/quote]
Once you obtained DACA you could get a social security number, a driver’s license, and the ability to legally work in the U.S. So when I graduated, after my masters, was able to do all of those things thanks to DACA. Through everything, my oldest sibling began the process of petitioning for me when he turned 21. It was a process that took 19 years. I was in the system, you could say, for 19 years until I received my green card.
I was undocumented for 26 years here in the United States. I became a resident—not even a year ago—so I’ll be coming up on a year in June. I can’t even describe the excitement that I felt when I received my green card in the mail. I cried the day of my interview with immigration services. To this day I think about it and I can’t believe that I’m a permanent U.S resident. It’s been a long road with a lot of uncertainty. Living in the shadows. I wanted to tell certain people my background and how I was undocumented.
There’s a lot fear now because of the executive orders. People are scared to go outside. And even though I’m documented now, I’m going to Mexico in five months to get married, and I’m thinking about when I have to come back, and, I don’t know if I’ll be questioned coming back to the U.S. There’s this fear in me. It doesn’t go away. And it should go away because I’ve done everything correctly, I’ve waited my turn in line for over 19 years. Even though I have no criminal issues, I still feel fear. I can’t even imagine how some people who are currently undocumented, how they feel. It’s a horrible situation to be in right now.
But I just want to say, there are so many things in life that try to distract you. Yeah, we might be going through so many things right now with our new president and so many things have changed in the last few months, but I look at these changes as opportunities. We should be learning from them. Things aren’t going to be like this forever. One person doesn’t have control over everything. You just need to focus on the present, and that’s kind of what I try to say and communicate on social media because there needs to be a lot more inspiration in the world.