My Turn: How I Became a Legal Citizen

When the pundits began to tear into undocumented immigrants last summer, using terms like "parasites" and "criminals," my first reaction was to bury my head and turn off the TV. I had worked too hard since my own illegal Mexican border crossing 30 years ago, at the age of 8, to blow my cover now. I had assiduously cultivated myself as an American, reading the right books, sporting "the Rachel" haircut in the '90s, gossiping about reality TV with gusto on the sidelines of my children's soccer games. I was aided by pasty white skin that placed my ancestry vaguely somewhere in the northern Mediterranean countries or Eastern Europe in most people's imaginations, not among the stereotype of an illegal immigrant.

My parents came to New York City to make their fortune when I was a baby. Irresponsible and dreamy and in their early 20s, they didn't think things through when their visa expired; they decided to stay just a bit longer to build up a nest egg.

But our stay got progressively longer, until, when I was 6, my grandfather died in South America. My father decided my mother and I should go to the funeral and, with assurances that he would handle everything, sat me down and told me I'd have a nice visit in his boyhood home in Argentina, then be back in America in a month.

I didn't see him for two years.

Being stranded in Argentina on the dusty Mendozan foothills where my parents had met and married, and for which they'd pined during my childhood in our little New Jersey basement apartment, was a revelation for me. While growing up different and apart in the U.S.—not being able to enter kindergarten with my friends, speaking rickety English I picked up from "Sesame Street"—my parents had assured me that one day we'd be in our real home of Argentina. But I soon realized I was even more of an oddity in the insular world of this tiny Argentine town. I missed my Barbie dolls and games of tag that went on until dusk. I missed the New York skyline and hearing the national anthem before the TV networks stopped broadcasting for the evening. I missed home.

We couldn't get a visa to return. My father sent us money from New Jersey, as the months of our absence stretched into years. Finally, he met someone who knew "coyotes"—people who smuggled others into the U.S. via Mexico. He paid them what they asked for, and we flew to Mexico City.

The coyotes hid my mother and me for weeks in a shack in Tijuana with an outhouse so pungent I held my need to use it until I was bursting. At 8 years old, I only vaguely understood the danger of being in a no man's land, completely dependent on the smugglers, with nothing but my mother's mostly empty purse and the clothes we were wearing.

Being light-skinned like gringas would work in our favor, the coyotes told us. They drove us to the Mexican side of the border, and left us at a beach. Another from their operation picked us up there and drove us across as his family. We passed Disneyland on our way to the airport, where we boarded the plane to finally rejoin my father.

As a child, I had thought coming back home would be the magical end to our troubles, but in many ways it was the beginning. I chafed at the strictures of undocumented life: no social security number meant no public school (instead I attended a Catholic school my parents could scarcely afford); no driver's license, no after-school job. My parents had made their choices, and I had to live with those, seeing off my classmates as they left on a class trip to Canada, or packing to go off to college, where I could not go.

The year before I graduated from high school, Congress passed the amnesty law of 1987. A few months after my 18th birthday, I became legal and what had always seemed a blank future of no hope suddenly turned dazzling with possibility.

When I went for my interview at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the caseworker looked at me quizzically when he heard me talk in unaccented English and joke about current events. Surely this American teenager did not fit in with the crowd of illegals looking to make things right.

At the time, I was flattered. His confusion meant I could pass as an American. But in the 20 years since, I have come to realize that I fit in with that crowd of illegal immigrants as well as with "real" Americans. I've finally come to understand there are many paths to living the American Dream, and I took one of them—mine.