Keith Negley/ The Atlantic

November 2, 2022

AMADOR | Portrait of a Boy With a Passport and a Dream 

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The first time I ever spoke my country’s name outside its borders, I was detained. I was seven years old. Looking back, it should have been obvious to me that no matter how easily the English vowels and consonants found themselves between me and El Americano, Honduran was not American. 

Even if I crept behind façades it did not matter. My passport spoke Spanish like my homeland. Yet, I dreamed; I dreamed of a life should I keep the promise to be who they wanted me to be. As a brief prelude to my American life, I laid behind metal bars dreaming of that blue passport, etched with an eagle. Gold. 

When Joe Biden succeeded to the presidency, along with him came an end to many of Donald Trump’s noxious orders and policies, including the assault on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Under Trump, former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke ‘terminated’ DACA. Plantiffs challenged this decision under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the district court for the Eastern District of New York held that recission of the policy was capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act; more-so that it was substantially motivated by discriminatory animus. Upon reaching office, Biden introduced an immigration bill to Congress, proposing to prolong temporary status protections to DACA recipients that would expand security to more than 2.5 million student and employed dreamers. 

As promising as Biden’s immigration amendment proposals were received by the nation, I have eyed bills akin to these and watched them get killed in the senate, where the freedoms and future of millions of DACA recipients truly teeter on their extinction. It always seems, just as hope prevails, that the reality of being American is but a tease. Just recently, on Oct. 5, a federal appeals court agreed with a July 2021 Houston court ruling that the DACA program is unlawful. 

Because of laws like this, my spelling bee awards and certificates held more weight than my birth certificate. I was a finalist at a national research competition for my work on neurodegenerative diseases. I kept that diploma in a safe box. When I published my work, I kept a copy of it behind my passport in a yellow manila envelope should I ever get questioned about my status.

Perhaps no one other than immigrants cling on to these symbols of being American stronger than we do. Papers like these mean so much, yet so little. When I graduated high school my father made hundreds of copies of my diploma and locked away the original. “You never know when you’ll need it,” he said, referring to ICE, not college applications. It was tradition among peers at my high school to burn our high school diplomas together on the eve after graduation. I, however, never made it to the event. 

Yet, for all the flimsy sheets of paper that I could produce to prove that I’m worthy of staying, none of them could keep me safe. My passport, tucked away, made everything else feel minute. In the yellow manila folder in which I kept my life’s contributions, the lightest thing in there held the heaviest burden on my life. The United States immigration system is nothing but arbitrary and often contradictory. Even if one were to be granted residency to the United States, should a judge claim you do not demonstrate a “good moral character” they can reject your appeal for citizenship without any proper justification. Even then, when your life’s work has been to revel in the potentialities of this country, to embrace its freedom and rigor, it can amount to nothing but an ambiguity of what it means to be American.

I always walked with prudence behind this reality. Careful to steer away from crime, violence, trouble or “senseless” activities that could prove me unbordered, undocumented or un-American. As hard as I tried to forget my sin of being un-American, it would always find its way back. I could not be employed, I could not legally drive, I could not travel to visit my family back home. It took a few years for me to stop asking my father when my legal papers would come, if they were even coming. Yet the despair of hope is hard to extinguish. The hope for the person I wanted to be. The hope for that passport sprinkled with English and gold like the sky my family would watch from their side of the Caribbean, and I would watch from mine. 

I wanted to be like every American, and in some ways I was. I loved this country deeply, unfathomably, senselessly, terribly. Because of a 1982 Supreme court decision, public education was guaranteed to all children, regardless of immigrant status. So I pledged my allegiance to the stars and stripes every morning and fell in love with the privilege, the very freedom of an education, that made me feel human. American. I remember sitting in my academic counselor’s office my junior year of high school after having meticulously crafted each and every essay to my dream schools, including Cornell. My father walked in looking hopeless. The counselor mentioned that DACA recipients or undocumented immigrants cannot apply for federal or financial aid. I came to an unspoken realization that after years of hard and endless work, I would likely not be able to afford the places I dreamed of going. I cried. Honduran.

After being detained, I was expected to mount a legal defense. My English was processed but not defined. I stood by the desk, barely capable of reaching my eyes above it and across from me sat an attorney representing the office of the chief counsel and representing the United States of America.  It was me vs. the country I knew, the country I loved. “Why did you come here?” “Who else is here with you?” they asked. I was not equipped enough to answer. I luckily had an attorney representing me, yet most migrant children do not in these instances and are immediately ordered to be deported. 

One afternoon, 10 years after my court hearing in the fall of my penultimate semester of high school, I received a call from my father who was on his return from Honduras. He had been granted legal, permanent residence in the U.S through business authorization and could travel freely as he chose. As he made his way through customs an officer pulled him aside for standard questioning and asked about my whereabouts. “Felizidadez, mijo” my father said over the phone after his interrogation. “You no longer need to worry. You’re safe.” The officer had mentioned my petition for legal residence in the U.S. had been approved. For once, I felt like I could breathe.

The few years after this news, I came to understand the immigration system’s potential evil under politicians’ hands. In addition to the attempted rescission of DACA, I became more aware of the willful separation of families; the end of Temporary Protected Status for individuals fleeing countries in crises; the rule that an immigrant could be denied a visa on the subjective likelihood that they would become a “public charge;”; the coercion of detained immigrant women into receiving hysterectomies. It made many, especially us immigrants, confront the possibility that Immigration and Customs Enforcement needs refinement. Many think arguments like these hint at a proposition of an open border policy. Really, what we wish to see is a legal, defined process to naturalization. A process that is humane.

When I arrived at Cornell, I swore to put this facet of my life behind me. Yet I felt suffocated in this freedom. In all my years of hoping for a form, a document, a passport to concrete the plights of becoming American, I never allowed myself a moment to grieve my home country and the person I left behind. I was caught up on un-gendering my nouns and falling in love with a country anew without having bidden farewell to the old. I fell in love with this country for all the freedom and possibility and the people you’ll meet and the things you’ll learn and the passionate hatred. It’s silent ruthlessness and it’s strength. I fell in love with the promises it seeks to uphold. I’ve just been lucky enough to exploit that possibility. Still, I never missed my past until I was allowed to forget it. It wasn’t until I was truly American that I felt Honduran. I struggled with this in-betweenness; but in reminiscing bitterly of how my journey played out I lost sight of the present. My greatest sin has been to fail to realize that, un-American or not, passport or not, I produced with poise and promise and can continue to do so.

It was thanks to those that inspired and reminded me of what it means to be Latinx through writing, and those who tore me apart with purpose and humbled me, that I am where I am. Thanks to them, instead of seeing a single world of possibility, I saw that world multiply itself, asking me to define the potential I hope to see in it. No judge, no language, no passport, no country should be heavy enough to make you forget this. I am proud to be American now. I am also no longer afraid — I am proud — to be Honduran. Yet I should have always been proud of my potential separate from either of these. I know now, as I should have known then, that regardless of the circumstances, I can amount to some great power. To do something wonderful — or, at the very least — something meaningful. Life is yours to reconstruct, redefine, break its rules and produce what you want with it. 

Take it as you will.

Hugo Amador (he/him) is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is the Opinion Editor of the 141st Editorial Board. He can be reached at [email protected]. Portraits Of The Man runs every other Monday this semester.