After 25 Years, My Mexican American Vote Finally Counts
Daniela Chávez Lira, eligible to vote for the first time this year, writes about what it means to finally exercise that right.
I came to the United States at nine months old, and it took 25 years for me to become a United States citizen. Twenty-five long years with infinite hurdles before I could exhale. This is the unfortunate reality for most undocumented immigrants still going through the naturalization process, many of whom will continue fighting for rightful citizenship through the upcoming presidential election.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a backlog of pending naturalization applications that just continues to grow, meaning that some would-be citizens will not be eligible to vote in time for this critical election. For this reason alone, it is imperative for all newly naturalized citizens to vote and to speak up for those going through what was once our own reality. As a first-time voter, my vote will be for the DREAMers who can't vote and for the undocumented families longing for a future of acceptance and opportunity.
My naturalization process began in 1993 when my application for residency was filed, but I didn't become aware of my undocumented status until junior high. Like many others in my shoes, I kept this newfound knowledge a secret for many years. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood didn't help much, either. The fear of my own friends outing me, or getting separated from my family, or even the sense of embarrassment knowing that I was "different," presented a trauma that I wouldn't recognize until adulthood.
But it wasn't until high school that I began to feel truly helpless. The chatter of post-graduate plans filled the hallways, but I knew there wouldn't be any planning for me. My plan was simply to survive. I knew that until I was granted residency, and hopefully (one day) citizenship, I would not have the same opportunities as my counterparts. So until then, following in the footsteps of other undocumented immigrants, it was seguir echándole ganas — keep pushing forward — because living in los Estados Unidos is a dream in itself, right?
At that time in my life, I believed that being in America, the land of possibility, was enough. I accepted that college wasn't a part of my immediate reality. Back then, the term "DACA" — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — was being thrown around with little context, and I wasn't willing to ask my teachers about it. Being persecuted was not a chance I was willing to take. It was a fear that stemmed from the simple fact that my teachers and friends lived with a privilege that wasn't available to me. I not only started giving up on school, but I also began hanging with the wrong crowd. I figured, if I can't go to college and become "successful," then why even try?
Unfortunately, this is the mental burden of many undocumented students. And it's not because our parents don't look out for us or push us to do our best, but because we're brought up in a society that seems to fight against us at every step we take to be better. The emotional toll is exhausting.
I was lucky, though. I received my final interview notice for residency (to get my green card) during my senior year of high school. It was a chance to turn my life around in a matter of months and start applying to colleges. But most of all, it was the thought that I could finally live freely — a relief that all undocumented children hope for.
Believe me, I understand the privilege that comes with this opportunity, because we don't see this storyline often enough. There are millions of undocumented students whose futures are at stake. Those futures are in the hands of an administration looking to push them out, despite their educational fortitude and their promise to make positive change in a world that desperately needs it.
We often hear hateful rhetoric from the current administration stemming from the belief that undocumented immigrants don't contribute to society, but we know that the contributions of immigrants are endless. The Center for American Progress has estimated that DACA recipients alone will contribute about $460.3 billion to the national GDP over the next decade.
Just a month ago, the Trump administration said it will not accept new DACA applications. As the president continues his fight to end this program, it's important to understand that his fight against DACA — and against immigration in general — will only get stronger if he is reelected.
And so, I will say it again: As a first-time voter, my vote will be for the DREAMers who can't vote and for the undocumented families longing for a future of acceptance and opportunity. My vote will be for the candidate that will invest in my community's economic mobility, that will expand access to higher education, and that will secure our values as a nation of immigrants. No one better represents this than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Their plan includes changes needed for the Latino community to thrive.
I'm not advocating for new voters to choose Democrats over Republicans, or vice versa. People should vote for candidates they feel are the best leaders. I'll just say this: My vote will not be for a candidate whose policies don't grant individuals basic human rights. This isn't a time to be complacent. I've had enough of watching this administration ridicule the immigrant journey and spew hateful narratives about my community — a resilient community that has contributed greatly to the culture and economy of this nation.
So, I return to my question, "Is living in the United States a dream?" It's a question I've often battled with, with many "what ifs" along the way. But if someone were to ask me that question today, I'd say yes, it is a dream. Even in these dire times, I'm still proud to have taken my citizenship oath in 2019, to love this country unconditionally. Becoming a U.S. citizen has given me the opportunity to reshape our country toward what's right.
It's my turn to speak up for DACA students who are afraid to apply for educational support. It's my turn to speak up for children locked in cages. It's my turn to speak up for women in detention centers whose basic human rights are being ignored. It's my turn to speak up for every family on this side of the border that is trying to provide their family with a better life.
Finally, after 25 years, it's my turn to vote, and at a time when everything is on the line, my vote is for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They are the only choice for a better future and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure anyone like me knows they will fight for us. It's my turn to dream even bigger and to make my reality one that positively impacts my community and country because la lucha sigue.
Daniela Chávez Lira is an award-winning communications professional with over seven years of experience in the multicultural and general market space. She was recently named one of Publicity Club of Chicago's '30 Under 30' recipients.