Eight years ago, my story appeared in the pages of this newspaper. I was 17, entering my senior year at Tampa Preparatory School and thinking about college. Unlike my peers, though, I was navigating the complex maze of our nation's immigration system and worried that between my AP classes, volunteer shifts and SAT prep courses that I could be separated from my family, community and the country I loved and called home my whole life.
My family legally moved to Tampa Bay from Mexico months after my birth there. Due to a combination of bad legal advice and mishandled paperwork, I fell out of status and became undocumented at age 14. A student visa obtained after returning to Mexico brought me out of the shadows three years later after comprehensive immigration reform faltered in Congress. Eight years later, I am a legal permanent resident expecting official U.S. citizenship in 2014.
Most people think they have an idea of what that system looks like. My story illustrated just how complicated and frustrating it really is for millions across communities like Tampa Bay. In many ways, I was an embodiment of just how broken the system was and still is: Even if you do things the right way and play by the rules, you can still fall through cracks. Long backlogs, high legal costs and processing fees, and differing treatment between immigrant categories contribute to an inefficient and confusing system that has hurt our businesses, our economic competitiveness in the global marketplace, and communities of immigrants who have come to America to make better lives for their families.
Eight years ago, I talked about the love and commitment I have for America and how I wanted to contribute to my community and my country that had given me and my family so much.
Since then, some things have changed. I've gone on to become a legal permanent resident on a path to citizenship, continuing toward those same goals I talked about at 17: improving society and making a difference. I graduated from the University of South Florida, where I spent time organizing on important community issues across Hillsborough County and Florida. Then I came to Washington to work in public interest. I pay taxes and spend a significant amount of time volunteering in my community, including at family shelters and health fairs for uninsured children. I hold leadership positions in my local Junior League chapter and other local nonprofit organizations, and I plan on starting my graduate degree program in the fall. It's my hope to soon return to Tampa to continue finding ways to impact the community and help solve issues facing families in the bay area.
What hasn't changed in the past eight years is the state of our broken immigration system. We have unscrupulous employers who exploit vulnerable immigrants, a huge backlog of hopeful immigrants waiting to be processed to join their families in the States, STEM graduates who come to our universities to gain knowledge without the ability to apply it here where we need it, and millions of undocumented immigrants who form the backbone of labor in many industries still living in the shadows.
People who know me will tell you I embody the ideals valued in our society, the kind that make us the strong nation we are: hard work, sacrifice and giving back. These are the responsibilities of citizenship that I take seriously and will be proud to continue when I officially and proudly become an American citizen next year. It's not an understatement to say that the day I take the oath of citizenship, change my passport for a blue one bearing our seal, and register to vote will be the happiest one of my young life.
But there are millions more just like me eager to give back and waiting for that same chance to officially become on paper what they already are in every other way: Americans.
Congress has the opportunity to take a step forward and do right by our history as a nation of immigrants and secure our economic edge in the global market. This week, the U.S. Senate takes up a serious and thoughtful comprehensive immigration reform bill that tackles the pillars of reform: border security, a legal path for the undocumented, a streamlined process for legal immigration and employer responsibility. While not perfect, the bill constitutes the best chance our businesses and families have had in years to fix a badly broken system. The bipartisan legislation, crafted in part by Sen. Marco Rubio, is a strong start toward modernizing our laws and ensuring those who contribute to our society by working, paying taxes, starting businesses and serving in our military have the opportunity to, as President Ronald Reagan said when signing 1986 legislation granting status to millions of undocumented immigrants, "step into the sunlight … and ultimately become Americans."
Reagan's words on immigration will echo across the Senate chamber this week. Will the Senate listen?
Xenia F. Ruiz is a graduate of Tampa Prep and the University of South Florida. She works in Washington at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.