Home » Leezia Dhalla: Hiding in Plain Sight – My Life as an Undocumented American (Transcript)

Leezia Dhalla: Hiding in Plain Sight – My Life as an Undocumented American (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Leezia Dhalla’s TEDx Talk: Hiding in Plain Sight – My Life as an Undocumented American at TEDxSanAntonio conference. 


Four years ago, I almost got deported. It was a couple of days before my 21st birthday and I had just come home from a ski trip in the mountains with my college friends.

I remember pulling my suitcase up the stairs and just as I pushed opened the door to my childhood bedroom, I heard my dad’s voice from behind. That’s when he said four words I’ll never forget: “You don’t have papers”. In his hand was a letter from The Department of Homeland Security – a notice to appear in Immigration Court. The letter said that I had overstayed my visa and now had to go before a judge who could issue me a ten-year bar from re-entering the only home I know. How do you prepare yourself for the realization that you are less than legal? That suddenly, you’re an unwelcome guest in your own home? Facing eviction.

That moment of truth sent me flying into a new chapter of my life that I never wanted or imagined. I could ever be a part of because I had heard about those illegal aliens, how they’re criminal, they take our jobs, they don’t even speak English! But my dad’s words exposed me to a reality that wasn’t mine, until suddenly it was. And suddenly, that illegal alien was me.

Today, I want to take you on that journey of transformation. To help you understand what it’s like to be undocumented in America. My story starts about 300 miles north of the Montana border in Edmonton, Canada.

My family didn’t have much money, so in 1995, when I was five years old, my dad went to the US to search for something more, while his wife and his two young kids stayed behind. In Florida, he made five bucks an hour behind a counter of a Dunkin’ Donuts. It wasn’t glamorous and the future was really uncertain, but my dad believed in the American dream. The American dream is – it’s what you tell your kids or maybe what your parents told you – that if you just stay in school and if you eat all your vegetables, you can be anything you want when you grow up. It’s the idea that if you just work hard, you can do great things.

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And our founding fathers believed in the American dream. And did you know that none of our founders were born American? They all became American over time. In fact, many of our nation’s immigrants were paperless, but their dreams of prosperity gave their children and their children’s children the ability to call themselves American. Many of those children are in this audience. I was six years old in 1996, when my dad got me a visa to come here.

And I can still remember learning the words to the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of school. I remember when I traded in my snow boots for cowboy boots and when “washroom” became the “bathroom”. And when I learned “The Star-Spangled Banner” and how it replaced “O Canada” I remember how in elementary school, I spent five years learning how to square-dance, which, by the way, is not a transferable skill – I can’t take that to Canada with me. Yeah.

My parents loved it here and they wanted to stay. So they hired an attorney, filed the paperwork, they paid the fees and they waited for an approval that just never came. We never imagined our attorney would file the paperwork late. Or that an employer would refuse to sign a document in the final stage of a years-long application process. Things went wrong.

But we played by the rules and 18 years later, we have nothing to show for it. Not even papers. You know, handling immigration paperwork is sort of like filing taxes – it’s an adult’s issue, not something you would concern the kids with. So I didn’t know I had overstayed my visa, because I was left out of that decision-making process. And instead, I focused on other things, like school.

I got accepted to Northwestern University and when I left for college, my parents came with me to make sure there’s air conditioning in my dorm, which there wasn’t. But also to make sure there were no boys living in my dorm, which there were. But that was the last time they ever got on a plane, because a couple of months later their driver’s licenses expired and that’s really when their life of invisibility began.

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You know, living in this country without a valid, government-issued ID card, is hard. Because while my parents can’t renew their driver’s licenses, they still pay car insurance. They can’t open a savings account, can’t get a credit card, can’t sign up for Obamacare, and forget retirement without social security.

My parents have a 20-year track record of paying income tax, sales tax, property tax, Medicaid tax, Medicare tax, Social Security tax, and yet we are still undocumented. Growing up, I felt the burden of being undocumented in so many other ways. I felt it when I took out six figures in loans to pay for college because I didn’t qualify for federal financial aid. I felt it when my parents wouldn’t let me study abroad because what they knew at the time, and what I didn’t, was that if I left the country, I wouldn’t be allowed back in.

I was sitting at my college graduation ceremony in June 2012 on the day that White House launched a new program that allowed young people brought to the US, including myself, to get our work permits. And it was a huge sigh of relief, because before then, I didn’t know what I was going to do with a diploma in one hand and without a work permit in the other. But that work permit is a temporary solution to a much longer-term problem. Because it expires in two years. And beyond then, my life is uncertain.

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