What It’s Like to Live Undocumented

by September 21, 2018
filed under Activism
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Barbara (Babs) Donovan is a Canadian citizen who lived undocumented in the U.S for 13 years. She recently wrote a post on Facebook about ICE raiding her home when she was a child. Editor-in-Chief Amanda chatted with her over email about her experience with ICE, how it’s affected her family and what she would say to those who say “illegal is illegal.”

Where did you immigrate from and why?

My family immigrated from Albania. My father’s life as well as ours were being threatened. The exact reason as to why my father was specifically targeted was never fully revealed to me. In the 90’s the communist state dissolved and at the time my family chose to flee while it was safe to do so.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m 24 years old and working two serving jobs in order to save up for school. I graduated from the University of Windsor with a BA in Drama, and soon after started helping out a local theatre company, Ghost Light Players, as their stage manager and all-around tech/crew support. Shortly after, I got married to a man who is my biggest supporter and best friend and somehow puts up with all of my crazy hobbies. Dress-making, cosplay, building miniature scale homes – there’s no end to what I occupy my time with! I have a deep love of the arts, and my biggest dream is to become a successful actor in T.V and film. I have about a hundred other dreams following that one, and have every intention of accomplishing them all. I always say, “My parents risked everything to make sure I live a good life, so I’ll be damned if I don’t follow my dreams.” I’ve recently been accepted into the Toronto Film School for film acting and will be starting my first semester this October.

Can you give a brief summary of your experience living undocumented in the U.S and what kinds of things your family struggled with because of ICE?

For quite some time I didn’t know my family was undocumented. All I knew was that for some reason we couldn’t vote. I childishly associated it with the idea that only American-born people were allowed to vote. I really thought, for a long time, that I was American. My life in Michigan was very normal, which is why the ICE raid came as such a shock. It wasn’t until maybe the 9th grade that I started asking more and more questions. We moved out of our family home and into a rental and that was what got me questioning every little thing. Why were we going to see lawyers all the time? Why were we going to court? Why weren’t we living in our home? Why wasn’t my oh-so-smart big brother not going to a good college? I was 14, and entirely self-absorbed and focused on my own life, my GPA, what school I wanted to go to (Stanford at the time) and how to get a boyfriend. I didn’t question anything until it was just about too late.

Some people might ask why your parents entered illegally instead of applying beforehand. What would you tell them?

My parents entered illegally because there was no other option for them. Our country was under communist rule and there was no way for them to leave without risking their lives. Once our country was free, with three small children, my parents couldn’t afford to stay and find out if our lives’ would get better or if the people who wanted to hurt my father would be apprehended. They just left with everything they had. If someone wanted to see you and your family dead, would you stay put and wait for it to happen? Would you run that risk? I would ask those people if they would put the law before the lives of their family.

“My parents risked everything to make sure I live a good life, so I’ll be damned if I don’t follow my dreams.”

How did the ICE raid affect your family afterwards?

Since coming to Canada, my mother is still terrified of driving near the Ambassador bridge. She has a paranoia about getting caught for something she didn’t do. She used to be terrified of police. Now, after receiving our citizenship, she is still skittish about some things, worried that one speeding ticket will get her citizenship revoked. She isn’t afraid of the border anymore, though. After a long five years, my father was reunited with us. My mother was able to sponsor him as her spouse and he is now with us.

My two big brothers are still back in the home country. When they were deported, they were 21 and 27, which put them over the age of dependency so my mother couldn’t sponsor them to come over. Their status has been a severe issue which has barred them from living in Canada through a visa. They’ve applied for school visas as well as work visas, all of which have been rejected so far because of the deportation status in the States. It’s really tough for me to think about them now. I know they’re both adults who can take care of themselves, but they’ve both lost formative years in their lives.

I was lucky I was able to come to Canada. I’m 24 and I get the opportunity to follow my dreams and ambitions, but both of my brothers have lost that. My middle brother wanted to be a chef and own his own restaurant. He had applied to cooking school in Canada and for a small glimmer might have been able to live that dream, but that was crushed. As for my eldest brother, I never really knew him well. We had twelve years between us and we never really became friends. We talk on the phone now and as an adult I’ve gotten to know him better, but I still don’t know what kind of dreams he had. He was always the smartest one in the family. He knew three languages by age 16 and was trying to learn German later in life. He still reads thick Russian novels and books on government. Now, he lives in a shoe-box apartment that costs him half his month’s pay. He would have probably been the most successful out of the three of us if he had been allowed to have that chance.

What would you say to those who think “illegal is illegal,” and that people who cross the boarder undocumented should be in jail?

To those that say “illegal is illegal,” I don’t know what to tell them anymore. I don’t know how to explain the difference between criminals breaking the law and a family trying to stay alive. I don’t know how to tell them that when they say those words, they might as well be saying, ‘I’d rather see you dead than here.’ I don’t know how to teach compassion or understanding or humanity to these people. I don’t know how to illustrate the bookshelves-worth of paperwork one has to fill out, or the amount of money one has to pay just so they can sit in line and wait to get killed. I don’t know how to talk to these people anymore. I’ve just resigned myself to believe that they just aren’t people. The kind of people who can’t understand compassion or the will to save their family can’t possibly be human, but rather must be some form of monster.

Is there anything we can do to help immigrants who are currently in detention centers in the U.S?

I wish I knew more about how to help the children currently in the detention centers. Holding people captive like this is new for our generation, not new for the country, but for millennials we can’t help but feel completely ill-prepared for this. I can’t help but to feel utterly helpless and hopeless in this situation. All I can say is to stay educated, and know who and what you’re voting for. Sometimes, you can’t always change the world from the outside, rather you have to get right in the thick of it. Join politics if you have to. I don’t know how to help or how to bring about change, I only know that sometimes sharing a story can do a lot more than you think. Who knows, since we’re taking all these steps back into history, maybe we need another revolution.

Published in the Fall 2018 issue. Get it in digital or print here.


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