As an undocumented immigrant who came to southern California from Mexico 22 years ago, Patricia Serrano has achieved part of the American dream: She raised a son who recently graduated from prestigious Williams College in western Massachusetts. However, she could not fly cross-country to see him receive his diploma, because she lacked the proper identification to go through airport security. She also can’t travel to Mexico City to visit her 86-year-old mother, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. And although she studied law in Mexico, Serrano can’t legally apply for any jobs in the United States, so she works cleaning houses.
Serrano is a fierce advocate of immigration reform that gives the more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants the right to work and travel and, eventually, a path to citizenship. “We know we came here the wrong way, but we didn’t have any other way,” says Serrano, 49. “We came to survive.” She followed her husband to California in 1994, but when she unsuccessfully tried to renew her tourist visa, she says she had no choice but to stay illegally. By that time, she had given birth to a son – an American citizen.
Kids are frightened about what could happen to their parents.
Even though Serrano can’t vote, she’s worked more than a decade to empower those who can. Since 2013, she’s served as the chairwoman of the North County Immigration Task Force, which she says helped register more than 1,000 voters in time for the 2016 election. The group also organizes protests, including against a recent wave of deportations of undocumented immigrants in the San Diego suburb of Escondido. Serrano says the deportations have created an atmosphere of fear in the immigrant community. “There are checkpoints in the streets. People don’t call the police if they’re getting abused,” she says. “The police don’t have the trust of the community. Kids are frightened about what could happen to their parents.”
For Serrano, reform can’t come fast enough. After spending 22 years in legal limbo, the consequences are becoming more severe. “I pay taxes, but that’s money I’ll never see,” she says. “I’ve spent all my best productive work years here, and I have nothing for it.” If she had a work permit, Serrano says she’d train to work with victims of sexual abuse or kids in juvenile prison. She also worries her mother will lose her ability to recognize her by the time Serrano is able to visit her. “She is waiting for me,” she says. “Right now undocumented immigrants are treated like third-class citizens, but the government has to recognize we are humans.”