My name is Bitia Buenrostro, I am a Christian and proud Mexicana from the border town of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. I’ve worked as a high school social studies teacher in the Rio Grande Valley and Austin, Texas. I’ve also served with a non-profit serving under-resourced communities in inner-city Austin. Currently, I work at the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. When not working you can find me enjoying a soccer match with friends, or at a concert.
My family’s immigration journey began in 1999, and although that chapter of our story is complete, I regularly encounter situations that won’t allow me to forget I was undocumented. I confess that in those instances my gut reaction is to feel anxiety and fear, especially given our current political climate. At the same time I feel deeply thankful as I remember the miracle of my family’s story. My latest reminder of my past has been in the application process for graduate school.
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, this summer I will be a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin! I’ve been ecstatic ever since receiving my acceptance letter and I’m looking forward to learning and identifying ways I can leverage that knowledge to support first-generation college students. Although I’ve been admitted, there are steps I have to take to update my immigration status. When I checked off “US Citizen” on my application, I naively thought that would suffice. But because I was a US Resident during my undergraduate years at UT and became a Naturalized US Citizen after graduating, I was notified I have to prove my citizenship by providing the appropriate documents.
FEELING LIKE A SCARED TEENAGER AGAIN
When I was first notified about needing to provide further documentation, I panicked as memories flooded into my mind. I began thinking about the fall of 2002, during my senior year in high school; I had just stepped out of the stress of my family’s immigration process, to jump into the stress of the college application process. I felt like my life was going straight from the frying pan into the fryer. As if the pressure of being a first-generation college student wasn’t enough, the wait for my green card and social security card felt like forever. As a result of my waiting for my cards I stalled in completing my college enrollment and financial aid paperwork. I remember the look of helplessness on my brother’s face as I cried in his bedroom, sobbing and sharing that this whole immigration process was still trying to ruin my life. Because our official residency and social security cards had not arrived, I was worried that I would not be able to qualify for financial aid, scholarships, or go to a university outside of Brownsville, Texas. My parents most definitely could not afford to send me to college, so that was very nerve-wracking for me. I could have talked to my high school counselor, but that was also a source of shame. My green card and social security card eventually arrived, and I was able to turn everything in on time, despite my anxieties. That was truly such a gift from God!
Fast-forward to January 2020, and I once again felt like the same scared teenager I was almost twenty years ago. Those old fears flooded my mind with worst-case scenarios, despite the reality that all was truly fine. I was nervous that my confirmation process would drag on, and that I would not be able to start grad school in the summer. The first step in the process only required me to send in a scanned version of my naturalization certificate, so I breathed a little easier, telling myself that it’s all ok, I’m ok, I’m not getting kicked out of grad school (dramatic, I know.) Then I received a follow up email from a different university office. The email explained that not only did I have to send in a copy of my naturalization certificate, but I also had to physically go and present myself, and show my original documents so they could confirm it was me. My first thought was, “What?! Why can’t these offices talk to each other?! Why do I have to do this?!” But it also brought back another memory where I had to show up and prove my worthiness to become a citizen of this country – my US Citizenship Test.
REMINDED I’M ONE OF “THOSE”
I’ll never forget that day in 2012 at a US government building in San Antonio, Texas. The office I was escorted to was narrow, with high ceilings, and no windows. The lone fluorescent light gave an uncomfortable ambiance to the room flanked with tall bookshelves lined with binders. The immigration official pulled out one of those 3-inch binders, and placed it on his cluttered desk. I saw it had my alien number on it. Every time I saw the term “alien” on my paperwork it made me feel completely other, like no matter what my paperwork said I didn’t belong. When he opened up the binder he slowly turned each page, his glasses perched halfway down his nose. He was so methodical and never looked up; it made me nervous. When I noticed my parent’s signatures on some of the documents he was perusing, tears started welling up in my eyes. It was surreal to see my life summarized in a binder in the hands of the US Government. Before testing me, the official looked up, and asked what my path to citizenship was like. I fumbled with my words as I tried to explain and kept my gaze on the binder, my hands fidgeting. He gave his attention back to the binder and when he found the pertinent document he muttered with eyes glued to the document, “Oooh…you were one of those.” One of those. That phrase still unsettles my heart and mind. It echoes through my head, “thooose.” What does that mean, those? Other? Not normal? Different? Why am I a those? He then asked me what I did for a living. I was hesitant to share I was actually a high school US History teacher (an AP teacher, mind you) but he prodded and it came out, and instead of asking me the customary maximum of 10 questions, he sped through a lighting round of 12. To give some context, individuals taking the citizenship test only need to answer up to 10 questions so long as they get 6 correct. This man wanted to go above and beyond! I successfully answered all of them and proved I am somebody, not just “one of those” that had an unorthodox path to citizenship.
Walking into the office at UT to provide my naturalization paperwork, I was afraid I was going to be examined again. I feared that I would once again be seen as less than because I am “one of those.” Our current political climate only elevates my sensitivity to those memories. With the current administration’s ongoing aggression towards immigrants, refugees, and even toying with the idea of changing legislation to further curb legal immigration, it makes me question where people like me fit in this country. Although I am a US citizen, I’m a naturalized citizen, and one with a unique path – a path that may be deemed as undesirable by certain hyper-conservative, xenophobic elements.
FINDING HOPE IN THE MIDST OF A DIFFICULT REALITY
The thing too, is every time I’m confronted with a situation that brings back my immigration experience, I remember how truly miraculous my family’s story is and how blessed we are. I’m humbled by what a privilege it is to be in America, even though it’s hard at times. And I cannot help but think of the countless individuals and families who are still suffering as they wait for the same opportunity I’ve been afforded. Whether it be at a makeshift refugee camp in my hometown of Matamoros, or as they sit at an appointment at a US Government office, there are so many honest, hardworking, people who are seeking a better life for themselves, and their loved ones. I have to confess, in this season of life, it’s hard when I’m confronted with my past and current political realities because I can’t do as much as I want. But I can continue having individual conversations, sharing my story, and praying for those seeking to cross our borders. I am encouraged by people that are on the frontlines serving and loving the immigrant and the refugee. I am grateful to leaders and organizations who speak dignity and value into the immigrants’ and refugees’ lives because they are image bearers of God. Like me, these people have worth and should be treated with dignity because they are created by God. I find comfort in passages like these,“This is what the Lord almighty said, “Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another, do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner, or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10, NIV) Despite the constant reminder that I am often still seen as being an “other” I have hope because my God sees, comforts, protects, and executes justice on behalf of every one of those, like myself, because we too bear His image.