‘“Are You Illegal?” I Will Never Forget Those Words.’

‘“Are You Illegal?” I Will Never Forget Those Words.’

‘“Are You Illegal?” I Will Never Forget Those Words.’

A young woman, brought to the US as a baby and abandoned and abused by her parents, struggles to gain status and stay in her beloved Bronx.


The borders of our world cut not only across international boundaries, they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.

As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. “Migrant Voices” is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the third installment of this series, and there will be a new one each month—follow the series here and read the most recent installment, of the visa-holding university student who grew up in the United States but may never be able to work here.

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21 years old
A young woman brought to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a baby.

RFM came to this country as a young child from the Dominican Republic, but that’s about all she knows about how she arrived. She was raised by her grandmother in the Bronx, because her parents weren’t there for her. That’s also why she qualified for a Special Immigrant Juveniles Status (SIJS) visa—available to young people up to age 21 who have been abandoned or abused by their parents.

Beginning in 2017, the Trump administration began denying SIJS to people older than 18. RFM was 19 when she applied for her SIJS visa, so she was denied—but she joined a class-action lawsuit to protest the administration’s new rules. After a sexual assault when she was 14—and a failed attempt to get a U-visa, reserved for victims of crimes who cooperate with law enforcement—RFM suffered from depression, struggled in high school, and resorted to working without papers in an exploitative position at a nail salon. We met at The Door, a youth empowerment organization based in New York, this spring, as RFM was waiting for a decision in the class-action lawsuit, hoping to finish high school and, someday, become a nurse in the Navy.

So, my initials are RFM, I’m 21, and I’m from the Dominican Republic. I was born there, but I was raised here. I don’t know how I got to the US. Every time I ask about how I got here, they [grandmother and other family members] won’t tell me, so I stopped asking. I don’t know anything about the Dominican Republic. Ask me about New York, I got you. Ask me about DR, wrong person.

I don’t have a legal status at all.

I didn’t realize my situation until I got older, but it never really bothered me. I think I was 14, in middle school, 14 or 15. You know what’s crazy, I’ve never been upset, until now. I wanted to work, but it was like, I really didn’t need much, I didn’t have no bills to pay at that age. If I wanted to go anywhere, my cousins would give me something. Now, it’s just like, I need to start working.

At one point, it was just me, my grandmother, and my grandfather. Then my grandfather passed away. I know my grandmother doesn’t get no type of help for me, no food stamps, no nothing. So as I got older, money started getting tight. And then my cousin that used to help out had a baby, so it’s like, I’m already in high school, I want to go out with friends, I want to do this, but I don’t have enough money for it.

I joined ROTC when I was in high school, I was 16. I actually did want to go into the military, but you can’t can go into the military, you know, if you’re not a US citizen or a legal resident. I always wanted to be a nurse in the military. I always wanted to help people. Even now I still want to help people, but there’s only a limited amount of things I could do. I don’t need to have my name anywhere. As long as I know that I went and helped out and did the best that I could, then why not.

But I didn’t get to finish high school. After a while I started working off the books in a nail salon. I want to say something, but I don’t know if I should say it: Don’t get me wrong, they were good people in there, but I feel like since they knew my situation, they were kind of taking advantage, not paying me enough. The hours were crazy. And I’m the kind of person that if I know you need my help in something, I’m going to help you. But it got to the point that it was just too much. Seven days, open to close, and you’re only giving me X amount of money, when the last person that you had, you were paying them way more, and I was doing more work. I was making $250 a week but the other person was making $500. I was working from 10 to 7, sometimes 10 to 7:30, 10 to 8, 10 to 9, 10 to 1 am sometimes. I worked there like two years. [RFM shows me her nails, long and bright orange covered in gemstones.]

I started coming to The Door in… 2014? Oh wow, a while ago. This is my second home. A situation happened in my house—it didn’t have to do with me, it had to do with my cousin—but ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] came. They were there for my cousin, because she was pregnant, and a minor. My family kind of has it out for me, I don’t understand why, so when ACS came, my cousin told ACS, “Oh she doesn’t have papers, deport her.” So ACS asked me, like, “Are you illegal?” I will never forget those words. And I’m like, “Yeah.”

Luckily, ACS wanted to help me. They sent me to Atlas:DIY in Brooklyn, and then they sent me over here, to The Door. This is where I learned about U-visas.

I had a fallout with my whole family after the sexual assault. They would kind of blame me for it. There was a lot going on. I filed a report. I was young. I had just turned 14, and the U-visa didn’t work out. [Applicants need to get a certification, valid for six months, for the U-visa, and need to have either law enforcement or the district attorney certify that the victim reported the crime and did their best to help prosecute the crime. In RFM’s case, the certification expired.] So when that didn’t work, I started working on the SIJS case.

SIJS, in my understanding, is for kids who can’t be reunified with parents, either one or both, due to neglect or abuse. Well, mine, it would be abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, and everything else that falls into that bad category. Verbal abuse from my mom.

I was 17 when I first met her. My dad is either in Spain or in the DR. I know him only by pictures. I’ve spoken to him on the phone. We were okay, up until he asked me for diamond earrings, and I couldn’t buy them for him, and he called me an ungrateful little b-i-t-c-h, and then he stopped talking to me, and I haven’t spoken to him ever since. To be honest, it used to bother me, but now it’s just like… whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I used to be like, damn, I wish I had a relationship with my parents, but do I really want a relationship with somebody [her mother] who used to constantly say, “That’s good that that sexual assault happened to you”? No. It was too hard. It was to the point that I started to pull my hair out, like I used to not want to be on this earth because of that. It was just not healthy for me at all.

When I was in high school I was in the hospital for my gallbladder, my appendix, and a biopsy of my stomach. Kind of back-to-back. I was always having stomach problems, like I couldn’t keep anything down. I got to the point that I couldn’t go home, because if you can keep nothing down, they don’t send you home. Yeah, so I was for whole weeks in the hospital. I once left the ER without them knowing because I didn’t want to stay. I was always in and out. I was 16, 17, 18. Because I was always eating greasy foods. That was my thing. Like cheeseburgers and Chinese food. Yeah, but it cost me two biopsies and a surgery. I was stressing. When I stress out I eat a lot, and I was stressed out a lot. Because of my parents, just everything, like even after the whole assault case, I was still going through it. And I couldn’t really do much for myself, because I have nothing, so, regardless, I still have to rely on my grandmother. Where was I going to go without no legal status? Nowhere, not even when I turned 18. There was nowhere I could go.

I feel bad for my grandmother sometimes. I saw her today, I went into the kitchen and she was there putting her insulin in and she looked sad, and I’m like, “What’s wrong with you? Pick your head up. Why you so sad?” And she was just like, “No, nothing.” And I’m like, “Talk. What’s the matter?” and she’s like, “Oh, your stuff, your situation.” And she’s always like, “What are you going to do when I die, and you don’t have nothing?”

To be honest, she’s getting older, and I’m young, so she’s not going to be there my whole life. So what am I going to do? That was just in the back of my head, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I can’t do this, I can’t do that. Can’t go to school. I can finish high school, but I can’t go to college because I don’t have the money to pay for it out of pocket, I can’t file for financial aid ’cause I don’t have a Social Security number, so I’m like, yeah, I’m F’d.

And I was stuck, because you can’t have two sad people in one house. You got to do something. So I said, “Lift your head up, leave the sadness to me. Let me be sad.” When she gets like that, I’m just like, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, I’m going to be okay.” But I know deep down like, “Damn, what am I really going to do if I don’t have my stuff [my papers]?” So I need to just amp it a little more to my grandmother, tell her like, “Just in a week or two,” I just gotta keep pushing it and amping it because I don’t like seeing her sad because of that. So it’s like, damn, my situation is like a burden to her too.

I was supposed to have some status. We were starting the SIJS process. I had everything good, down pat, everything was good, and then all of a sudden they denied me in March, last year, because I was 19 when I filed. Which is kinda dumb, because they said I was supposed to be under 21, and I was under 21, so I didn’t understand that. But I’ve been working with The Door and with Latham & Watkins [a private law firm] and it’s been crazy, crazy but like in a kinda good way, like a roller coaster, because I found out when I got denied, I found out that it was a whole bunch of other people that were denied for the same reasons. And we started a whole class action lawsuit. And it’s been… [Laughs] crazy.

[Trying to get SIJS] has helped a lot. Especially like, the whole oral-argument part of the court hearing, it boosted me, like a lot. That will never leave my mind, everything that I’ve been through, just to get here, just to get where I’m at. To be honest, it doesn’t really make no sense. You’re trying to take away for some people the only opportunity that they have to get legal status. Why? You’re already hurting so many other immigrants, why are you taking status away from people who actually qualify for it? It doesn’t make no sense.

Because we live here. I lived here all my life. I don’t know no other country but the US. I don’t know nothing else but New York. I would never do anything in my life to harm this country, like at all.

I’m nervous, anxious, scared, happy, excited, nervous, everything. I don’t know, if you were there [in court] you could feel that [the judge] was really leaning towards us. Yeah, like just everything that he was saying, like his movements, like he literally was just tired of them [the government attorneys] talking and he was just like, “You know what, let me just lay back and let you just talk because you’re not answering my questions anyways.” The government was stuck on stupid.

As long as I get a Social Security number, and I get to work, and I’m done with high school, I want to go to SUNY Maritime College in Throggs Neck, and then the Navy.

This is the only thing I have. SIJS, and that’s it. Because I’m not getting married for legal status. If I get married it has to be because like, Oh my God, I need you. I can’t live without you. But that has to be some deep love. Because right now, no.

A few weeks after I met with RFM, she finally received the good news: A New York judge ruled that RFM, along with four other plaintiffs, were unfairly denied protected status when the administration declined their SIJS visa requests. The ruling will apply to potentially hundreds of other young people in New York, offering them a pathway to legal status in the United States as their previously denied rulings will now be reopened. RFM, still not wanting to reveal her full name, told me, I feel anxious, excited. I can’t wait to finally have legal status, but I’m also very nervous still… It’s a long waiting game.”

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