Today I made the decision to come out. Out of the shadows and into the light. I have lived in America for the past 12 years of my life and consider this great nation my home. I live in a fantastic community and have felt blessed by the life I have been able to live in San Luis Obispo, named “Happiest Town in America” on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
However, for approximately the past 6 years I have lived with a secret few knew. I, along with 11.5 million others, am considered an ‘undocumented immigrant’. Trapped in a quasi paradise of this great land without the ability to leave its borders for fear of not being able to return and every day living with the stress of potentially being picked up and deported.
America is a land built by immigrants, for immigrants. All hoping for a better future. No other nation on earth is as enriched with such opportunity, vigor, hope and a single minded dedication to do better. To be better. Not just personally, but for the greater good of all, no matter ones race, age, sexual orientation or ability.
And yet in this great land, America’s current immigration system is broken. Decades of neglect have resulted in the breakup of hard working families as children are separated from their parents. The creation of a pseudo underclass of ‘non-citizens’, most hard working and dedicated to the American dream but constrained by their lack of status or from the failure of a broken, antiquated system.
When talking to Americans aware of my status, or lack thereof, I am often asked, “Why don’t you just become an American?” I usually sigh and shake my head. It is simply not that easy. There is no line to simply go and stand at the back of, even if you have been here 20 or 30 years. There is no special visa or green card one can purchase for thousands or even millions of dollars. Even getting married to an American is no guarantee one’s status can be changed.
President Obama enacted some positive changes with his recent executive action but for many, like me, it had no affect on our status whatsoever nor did it provide any new pathway or even a basic option for us to move forward. There is no magic line, no option or pathway to citizenship for the majority of undocumented immigrants–none.
So why have I decided to ‘come out’ and why now?
I came here legally nearly 12 years ago from England. I was working for and was sponsored by a local business and as such had a work visa. A few years later the economic downturn hit and I could see the writing on the wall as the business owners decided to close up shop and move to Oregon.
By now I had fallen in love with California and its lifestyle and truly felt this place was my home. As luck would have it, I stumbled across a concrete business for sale, Freshcrete. I went to a bank, got a loan and bought the business. I was 26, excited, filled with ambition and passionate about creating my own American success story.
Soon after I called my immigration attorney to ask him to transfer my work visa from my old employer to my own new business. I was shocked to hear that this was impossible. According to him, I should have packed up my life and my new home as soon as my old employer folded and returned to England. I had two choices, pack up, walk away from the business I had just bought and return to England or stay ‘illegally’ working for myself and fighting to make my business a success. I chose the latter.
Approximately 8 years later I still own my business. I haven’t been deported, and as someone who believes in being an active and engaged member of society, I have worked hard to further cement my place within the locally community only strengthening my love for this place I proudly call home. I have incredible friends and colleagues and not a day goes that I don’t realize how lucky I am.
A couple of years ago I heard about a journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas was a Pulitzer prize winning writer at the Washington Post who, after spending almost his entire life in the U.S. came out as an undocumented American and made a film, Documented as a way to shine light on this forgotten but critical issue. He has subsequently launched the ‘Define American’ campaign as a way for others like myself to come together and be part of the narrative. Slowly but surely this man has changed how America discusses immigration.
As with any group of people there are a few bad apples, but overwhelmingly the population of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented people in the U.S. are your neighbors. They are your colleagues and your friends. They own businesses, they own property and they contribute to the U.S. economy. In fact, in California alone-undocumented immigrants paid $11.84 billion in state and local taxes in 2012 and it is estimated that the differed action programs such as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) will grow the U.S. economy cumulatively by $230 Billion over 10 years. (source: defineamerican.com)
But more importantly than this, undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. care. I care. We care about our communities, about our schools, our roads and our infrastructure. We consider ourselves active citizens and Americans whether America recognizes us as such or not. We still believe in the American Dream and all hope to realize it.
Finally, thanks in no small part to Jose Antonio Vargas and his Define American campaign, we have found our voice.
My name is Gareth Kelly. I am an undocumented American. I, and many like me, are part of your everyday life. This is our home. We don’t profess to have all the answers but we would like to start the conversation.
Gareth feels humbled by all the support he has received as he made the decision to come out. By the time you read this Gareth will have come out live on national television as well as at the Good Morning SLO breakfast program run by the chamber of commerce. Gareth welcomes civil thoughts or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org