Realizing my mom’s dreams as a childhood arrival

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Countless times throughout my adolescence, I listened to my mom crying behind closed doors. Even though she would make every effort to hide her worries from us, I knew that her sorrows stemmed from struggling to pay rent, bills and food. I always respected her privacy and walked away, leaving that closed door behind me, but her tears would follow me in my thoughts.

I knew very well then, as I know now, that the real culprit of all her stress wasn’t a lack of money, but a lack of Social Security.

My mom and I migrated to this country when I was 4 years old. When we crossed that Tijuana-San Diego border into the United States, I was too young to understand the importance of the opportunities that awaited us — and also the struggles that we would encounter in trying to obtain a better life.

As a child, I didn’t know exactly what a Social Security number was or what it even looked like. But I did understand that it was essential to have it in order to work. I had never stopped to consider that obtaining this piece of paper would be a struggle in my own adult life, as it was for my mom. It was only after I was accepted to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that one would be made available to me at the age of 23.

When I turned 15, I became obsessed with the possibility of obtaining a part-time job to help alleviate some of my mom’s financial worries. I could no longer bear to witness her struggles to find employment. But when I went to pick up my work permit application, the first thing I noticed was the Social Security slot. I was hot with anger at the realization that I was unable to help dry my mom’s tears — that her financial worries would persist just because I didn’t have that nine-digit number.

It was then that I promised myself that I would be the best student possible in order to make her proud and get into the top colleges. Soon, however, I found out that even this goal would prove too large without Social Security.

At 16, my college counselor acknowledged that my grades, extracurricular activities and volunteer work were exceptional. Although on paper I appeared college-bound, by this point, I had realized that once again my lack of a Social Security number would be an obstacle.

Being undocumented meant that I didn’t have access to financial aid. Even if I could find a source of tuition, I had to consider that moving away for college meant I needed money for housing, food and school supplies.

I had failed at 15 in my attempt to alleviate my mom’s financial worries. And now I had failed her a second time by not being able to transfer to college straight out of high school. I felt helpless. Despite my good intentions and hard work, the absence of a Social Security number would be a deciding factor in my future and goals.

In the end, I decided that I wouldn’t apply for college right out of high school. Instead, I stayed home, got a job and attended night school at the local junior college. I knew that this was the immediate assistance that my mom needed.

DACA would permit me to make good on both the promises I had made to my mom as a teenager. First, I could work legally, thanks to being assigned a Social Security number, which meant that I had the financial stability to help her. And second, California residents who are DACA recipients could be granted financial assistance for school through state and college funding.

When I found out that I had the opportunity to obtain financial assistance for college, my educational possibilities now seemed limitless. I finally saw an opportunity to finish school and make good on that promise I had made my mom –– after all, I still owed her a college diploma.

I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley in April 2016. The twinkle in my mom’s green eyes told me that I had made her proud just by being accepted.

It has been 10 years since I first promised myself that I would obtain a college diploma for my mom. I may not be able to guarantee her a Social Security number, but on May 13, 2018, I will give her the piece of paper she labored, sweated and cried to give me. Her perseverance through all that suffering of being undocumented is what really made my success possible.

Gladys Torres Avalos writes the Monday column on being a DACA recipient. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @gtorres_avalos.