Passing up opportunities: my life before citizenship


My journey from DREAMer to U.S. citizen with Lending Circles for Citizenship

People usually celebrate their first anniversary with paper, but I like to do things my way. I celebrated my 14th anniversary of living in the United States with paper: the N-400 form. This form is a promise my mother made coming to life. It is the opportunity for me to get my U.S. citizenship. With lots of joy and excitement, a little packet that includes the N-400 form, my passport pictures, and a check, I started my process to become a U.S. citizen on April 1st. This simple set of papers means the world me. It is my struggle, my mother’s struggle, my sisters’ struggle, and it is the promise of a better future.

My immigration story is just as much about my mother as it is about me.

My mother sacrificed so much to bring us here and she overcame so much to raise us in a place that, at that time, was foreign to her. My mom left El Salvador escaping a violent marriage, leaving her daughters and her life as a nurse behind as her last push for survival. She left her family, her job, and the life that she knew so that we could have something better – something more than she ever could.

I left El Salvador two years after my mother, when I was 11 years old, with the promise that my sisters and I were going to reunite with her and we would get to go to Disneyland (most immigrant children I know come with that promise, even though we haven’t been able to make that trip… yet).

Instead of Disneyland, and movie stars I came to live in scenic Oakland, CA, which is still pretty cool!

Even though our first apartment was small and cramped, it was packed with love and laughter. I moved years later to San Francisco where I was able to set roots. But those roots weren’t immediately allowed to dig as deep into the soil as I had wanted.

It was when I was a teenager that I realized what it really meant to be undocumented. While in high school, I let go of many opportunities because of my status. I wasn’t able to join a group of girls visiting Washington D.C. because I was a liability to the school. I also couldn’t apply for internships to build my experience because I did not have a Social Security number.

And then I had to turn down the opportunity of a lifetime.

I was full of curiosity and wanted to explore my new home, but being undocumented limited me to explore California. Back then, no one but my best friends knew I was undocumented. I was the only one in my Senior class in that situation and I was too afraid to explain the *real* reason why I had to turn down so many great opportunities.

Then I had to pass on the opportunity to attend the University of California Los Angeles because it cost too much and I couldn’t qualify for financial aid. Back in 2006, when I was deciding what college to go to, there were few resources for undocumented students. We had AB540 which allowed us to pay in state tuition but I was not able to qualify to Cal Grants or federal financial aid like my citizen friends did. So I ended up going to San Francisco State University and made it through college thanks to scholarships from the Chicana Latina Foundation Scholarship that did not require a social security number in order to qualify.

It took more than two years of overcoming immigration hurdles to become U.S. residents, something that I don’t say lightly.

To be able to become a U.S. citizen, you must wait five years after becoming a resident in order to apply. A year ago, anticipating our 5th anniversary of becoming U.S. residents, I invited my mom and sister to join a Lending Circle for Citizenship. I found out about this program while interning for the Cesar Chavez Institute of San Francisco State University. I was working as a student assistant collecting surveys for an academic evaluation on the financial practices of individuals in the Mission district.

While working for the school, I found out about the different programs that MAF offers – one of them being Lending Circles for Citizenship. I signed us up so that the money we needed to apply for the citizenship application would not stop us. For the three of us, it was going to cost over $2,000 just to apply.  With rising living costs in San Francisco, it has been getting harder for my mom to keep up with the rent while also supporting my sister’s college career. The program has helped us put money aside each month for this important application. We knew that our money would be safe with the Lending Circle program and that we would be able to access it once we were ready to apply.

In the Lending Circle program, we each made monthly payments of $68 for ten months to be able to afford the $680 for the cost of the citizenship application.

Becoming a resident has been a huge blessing. I have been able to get a job that I love and travel to places that I only would have dreamed of years ago. I loved Lending Circles so much that I knew I had to be part of MAF. I was thrilled to join the staff at MAF in the summer of 2014 as a Programs Coordinator. My job enables me to help individuals whose stories resemble mine. I see in them the challenges and opportunities of my own experience as undocumented in the US and I want to be there to help them through their journey. Now that I am in the process of becoming a citizen, I am particularly excited to be able to officially express my vote, 2016 presidential elections, here I come!

I submitted my application for citizenship on April 1st of this year and I am waiting to continue the interview process and get sworn in. I continue to encourage my mom to do the same by keeping her up to date on all of the citizenship fairs happening in the city, preparing her for the interview questions, and helping her in small but persistent ways (like installing the citizenship app on her phone so that she can study on the go).  My goal is for her to apply by the end of this month.

I want to do as much as I can to help my mom on her path to citizenship – just as she has done so much to support my sisters and me.

For me, immigration means opportunity. It means survival. It means stripping away the violence and hurt from a broken home, to make new memories and impact in a country you now call your own. Life in the U.S. has given me many opportunities but it has also come with its fair share of struggles.

From my early memories of living in a cramped studio apartment with my sisters and mother, hiding in the shadows for 9 years because of our undocumented status to walking into my final interview for citizenship. In the face of all of that I celebrate, I cheer, and I smile.

This celebration isn’t only for me. This celebration is for everyone that has struggled, and fought past every roadblock, every slap, every name hurled at them, in their journey to  find peace, and a better life for their families. These victories and struggles have brought me closer to my mother, my sisters, and finding a better life for myself as a citizen of the United States. Now, as I take the final step, I reflect back on the long, rocky path, the paper I celebrated my anniversary with, and my impending citizenship.

If you know someone who could use Lending Circles for Citizenship, please encourage them to sign up today at LendingCircles.org.

Mohan Kanungo

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