In his most impactful speech, Martin Luther King spoke not only of a Dream but also of a Check. He spoke of "a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'" (MLK Jr. Speech).
As a fresh-faced 16-year-old high school sophomore, I went to the DMV to cash that check by getting my driver's license. I was looking forward to that token of personal freedom— the freedom to eat out, visit my friends, and explore the world without my parents' supervision. I stepped out with it after I turned 18, two whole years later.
I had everything: my social security card, my birth certificate, even my adoption papers; all but one— a "Certificate of Citizenship". During those two years, that missing document manifested into something ugly in my chest; more than envy or anger, it was fear— a fear that I wasn't truly American.
As I waited for a letter in the mail, my "American" friends had experiences that I was deprived of without a license. They were able to cash the check that Dr. King spoke of. While my friends used their licenses to drive to malls or restaurants, I had to walk. Their licenses proved them as citizens, as Americans, but I was not going to let a bounced check prevent me from being the same. So I walked— not to malls to shop or restaurants to eat, but to houses to campaign and to parks to rally.
I gave speeches, I talked to candidates, I learned about policy, and I made my mark.
I was a citizen, perhaps even more so than my peers, but it took two years for the papers that proved it to end up in my mailbox, two years for the government to cash my check, two years to know for certain that I was American. And so, like those that came before me, I went "to cash [my] check, a check that will give [me] upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice" (MLK Jr. Speech).
It is because my peers, with their licenses and cashed checks, do not exercise their freedom that fellow citizens like me struggle to truly join them as Americans. So I took my license and I went out to fulfill my own obligation— my obligation as someone who cashed their check— and I used it to vote.
My license is my golden ticket. It allows me to reach places I could never go on foot. It allows me to pursue my passion for justice and human rights. Without my golden ticket, I would not be where I am now, fighting each day as a proud American.
I know that policymakers fear immigrants, then act on that fear by taking jobs and opportunities away. That is why being an advocate for immigrants has become a part of my mission in serving the community. I have made it my responsibility to fight against legislation that erects barriers between them and the American dream.
To sway voters into becoming afraid, policymakers stoke fear within citizens about how illegal immigration is the source of the United States' issues. Why do they keep complaining about undocumented people if they continue to create laws that continuously make it more and more difficult for them to achieve legal status, let alone citizenship? It could be no clearer that illegal immigration is their favorite fearmongering tactic.
By living my morals and learning from my experiences, I can make positive changes for the community. To do this, I must be the change I want to see. Acting upon injustices facing immigrant Americans, I have testified in front of elected officials, engaged with national politicians, written for newspapers, and spoken on television— and this is just the beginning of my work.
Since I, fortunately, have my golden ticket, I want to give the next generation the check to freedom and the mobility to be fearless, active citizens. No matter if we have already made it to citizenship or are still on the journey, we should keep telling our stories to let others know that they are not alone.
When I was made an automatic citizen through the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, my family and I grew up never questioning my American status. Yet, over time, this one paper would be the evidence that I was an American. After living through years of struggles, anxiety, tears, and fear, I am more inspired than ever to prevent immigration kids from undergoing a similar fate.
Moving forward, I strive to use my ticket and my voice to cash the check for young and future immigrants. It is imperative that each individual does not cave in to hopelessness and grow discouraged on their journey. Those fostering a hopeless mindset will only live expecting the worst, which causes emotional distress; I know this because I was one of them.
I implore policymakers to fix the broken immigration system by first making legal status more attainable, developing resources for migrants to learn how legalization works, and focusing on combating harmful policies. For my part, I will continue campaigning for effective leadership that governs with the right intentions for all voters and working diligently for causes I am passionate about.