One of the biggest hot button issues in the first two week’s of Donald Trump’s presidency has been immigration. He’s signed executive orders temporarily banning travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries; cracking down on sanctuary cities; and ordering that a wall be built along the Mexico border. And there’s concern he’ll go even further and deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants.
It’s a contentious issue on all sides of the debate. But there are also many people for whom this is more than a question of policy. It affects their daily lives.
Freelance TV news writer and producer, America Arias, is one of them. She grew up in Orange County and over the past few days, she’s gone public with a secret she’s kept for 20 years. America is an undocumented immigrant. She’s one of the so-called Dreamers and is able to work here legally under the DACA program. But she’s afraid that could change.
When she was growing up, her father worked a small farm in Mexico and struggled to feed the family. Plus, he was getting hit up by drug cartels for protection money. So when she was nine years old, her father decided to move the family to the US.
America Arias: My dad paid a man who basically smuggled us out through the pedestrian crossing so they crossed separately, my mom and dad crossed separately, but me and my brother and my sister we were smuggled into the U.S. through the pedestrian crossing. They were four and five and I had this huge responsibility of taking care of my brother and my sister, you know my parents just left me with this strange man and I had no idea where we were going, I had no idea what I was going to say or do, all I knew was my mission was to make sure that they were safe.
KCRW: And your brother and your sister?
America Arias: And my brother and sister were safe.
KCRW: So it sounds like you know even at nine you really realized how serious of a situation this was?
AA: It was, but I also had recognized that my parents desperation was so great, that whatever was waiting for us on the other side, had to be better than the situation that we were living in Mexico. I knew that if they felt that, this was the only way to survive, then I had to support them and that I was going to do whatever I could to make that happen.
KCRW: You and your family have spent the last 20 years building a life here, going to school, working, but you didn’t tell people you were undocumented, why not?
AA: There was just a huge stigma and I think growing up in Orange County made that worse. I grew up thinking that I needed to be punished for something that I did at 9 years old and especially, in my community, people have strong views of immigration and I didn’t want to be judged for it, because I’m more than my immigration status.
KCRW: Were you concerned that if you said you were undocumented it could affect your options as far as for school and then work, places to live?
AA: Absolutely! I was afraid for my parents, they’re not protected. I am, my siblings are protected, but my parents are not and so I mostly stayed quite because of them because I fear that I’m going to lose them. I’ve already had to take care of my siblings before and now there’s another sibling, one was born in the U.S. He’s fifteen, he’s in high school and if something were to happen to my parents, I would have to become their mother. I would have to take care of them.
KCRW: Immigration and immigration reform were major issues all through the Obama administration and the debate really heated up during the presidential campaign, but you didn’t reveal your family’s secret until the last few days. Why now?
AA: Because I am going to take Donald Trump at his word. He said in the campaign season that he was going to deport millions of people and president Obama was be able to offer me protection and give me a work permit, just as easily, President Trump can take that away from me. I think that fear has heightened and people have strong views on the issue but have never met or talked to someone who was brought here illegally. A lot of the time the person who is undocumented, who winds up on TV is a criminal because sometimes that’s the only time they get on television or they get on the news. We are also college educated professionals, we are veterans, we love this country and we contribute. I think a lot of people don’t know that we pay taxes. For the past 20 years my parents have paid taxes. The IRS gives them a number so that every year they go and they pay taxes. We are giving back, we are hardworking, and I wanted to paint a different picture of what an undocumented immigrant is.
KCRW: You are a reporter; you have covered a number of immigration stories. But now you, your family, could be part of the story itself. How does that feel?
AA: I think I have to confront that fear. Recently, last month, I was at the boarder covering an immigration related story, this is a reunion between two daughters and their mom, their mom had been deported. I had not been by that boarder in two decades. Just being there brought back the fear that that can happen. Being a journalist, I had always said that I am a storyteller. I’m going to let other people talk about their stories and I never wanted to share my story because as a journalist, you tell stories it’s what you do.
KCRW: The story isn’t supposed to be about you, it’s supposed to be other people.
AA: Right, but I really felt compelled to share it. I couldn’t stay quiet anymore. It was just so raw and real. Covering that story made me feel that I can be next.
(Banner image:Annette Bernhardt)