Leaving The Shadows: AfroLatino's Plea For Immigration Reform

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Jairo Lerma

[Op-Ed: On Immigration Reform]

As an AfroLatino New York City turns into Arizona at night because of Stop-and-Frisk Laws and my "undocumented" fears in case of an arrest.

Even though the Obama Administration okayed Deferred Action, it's still not enough. My mother brought me into this country legally at age 7 because of the lack of opportunities for Black men in my country. After our visa expired we kept living a regular life; but for me everything changed.

I followed all the instructions while in school. I had good grades, engaged with my new friends even though I had an accent.

In July 2008 my life went from being an accepted member of society to being an undocumented man full of shame. I was born In Buenaventura, Colombia, which is mostly populated by Afro-Colombians affected by poverty and violence.

At the age of 7 came to the United States with my mom and sister with a B1 Tourist Visas. My mom was fascinated with life in the USA and always wanted for me to have a better education here. We returned to Colombia with the promise that we would return to admire that New World of opportunities.

At the age of 9 my mom traveled back to the U.S. in search of a job before her visa expired. Because of the violence in Buenaventura, my mother brought me to the New Strange world; but this time, to stay. She always felt my sister was a grown up who was used to life in Colombia so she left her behind. My mother helped her with her college education by saving money in the U.S.;today she is an Odontologist. As for me, I’m just a survivor.

In 2005 my mother was deported because of her status; she overstayed her Visa. I refused to leave all my friends and professors so I promised her to achieve an education.

I attended Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice. Not many people get accepted into this school. The school was new and designed by Black New York City Legislative Leaders. I was going to be attending this school and it made me proud. I got to wear ties for 4 years.

I struggled with my accent but it was part of my everyday life. School was the place where I started to learn about race and people. Being a Black-Latino was always a challenge because even though I look like many Black Americans I never fit in anywhere. I always felt like I was between a sword and a wall -- Entre La Espada y La Pared.

My immigration nightmare started from the beginning of my Senior year, after filling in my application for the PSAT, reality set in. My heart dropped. I was in denial. I even went to the Social Security Office. The lady at the counter called me an “Illegal” and asked, “What are you doing here?”

I grew more shameful. It ate bits of my soul and I kept it a secret out of fear that I would be made fun of.

After living 2 years with my stepfather, a man I respect for his generosity in the sense of maintaining a child that was not his, my mom decided to have me live in Brooklyn with an aunt because my grades started falling. That was never accepted by my mother who is a very educated woman.

I had to share a room with two uncles who woke up every morning at 4:45am. I had to be in school at 7am. I was naive and scared of my surroundings I hadn’t integrated well before, so this new neighborhood scared me. I moved to Flatbush. My neighborhood was filled with people of color and it reminded me of life in Buenaventura, my native city. There were a lot of Blacks, many Caribbean, most of them middle class. For the first time in my life I could feel proud of being Black with a mentality of an immigrant and feel at home united by skin color.

After graduating High School I applied to many SUNY schools and got accepted. However, because of my immigration status I was always scared to go to upstate New York since it was full of conservatives and the cost of tuition was out of my reach.

I enrolled in a CUNY school; BMCC. I would be paying full tuition out of my pocket, while working in a restaurant, construction and many low-paying jobs. Because of my level of English I was always a translator between the people in the kitchen. I was always proud of my ability to help both sides. Everyone at work was happy; I was in school and at least trying to take advantage of the opportunities they never had.

Tuition kept increasing and I was forced to skip a year. I transferred into a new CUNY program at John Jay College for Criminal Justice. I always wanted to be lawyer because of the things I would hear about Colombians who paid a lot of money to a lawyer only to be lied to.

Now, I’m 22 years old and I still live in fear.

Even though New York is know as a city of immigrants. I still live in a constant fear because of Stop-and- Frisk. This program by the Bloomberg Administration and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, gives power to police officers to search "suspicious" individuals supposedly for any “concealed weapons”.

The City claims the program prevents thousands of deaths; but officers need better training in social relations with the community.

They should at least have a supervisor that keeps control of the cops that abuse their power. I have been a victim of random searches by the police, but is not the fear of being arrested, it is fear because of my immigration status. My immigration status turns New York, the city that I love, into Arizona.

I’m a double target. I could be arrested for a violation like hopping the turnstile or driving without a license, be fingerprinted and that can lead to deportation. Many immigrants get taken without the right to counsel.

I’m currently an activist for The New York State Youth Leadership Council and Cabrini Immigrant service. I’m still trying to pursue my education but it has become very difficult due to economic reasons and Governor Cuomo’s irresponsible behavior towards the New York State Dream Act.

One relief for many Dreamers like myself was having Deferred Action. I’m still waiting for my response so I could start driving and obtain a Social Security since all I’ve been using was an ITIN; Individual Tax ID Number.

I’m coming out the shadows, with this piece, demanding Congress and the Senate to pass the Dream Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform for all the 11 million living in the shadows filled with discrimination and violence.

Violence from many, including the police, because of their immigration status. Stop the dehumanization of people. I’m willing to speak out as one of the many voices of young Latinos.

We are misunderstood by society and it is important to speak out. I shared my story with the world to voice out my struggle and my commitment to everyone in my community.


Jairo Lerma is an Afro-Latino youth activist and champion for the New York Dream Act


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