Sergey Podlesnykh/Contributing Writer
I’m a U.S. Army veteran, discharged honorably in the rank of Sergeant after three and a half years of Active Duty service and two overseas deployments.
Normally, that’s where people thank me for my service. They praise my bravery and look up to a role model citizen who answered the nation’s call in the times of turmoil. They come up to me and want to shake my hand. The hand of an illegal alien. The hand of an invader who’s been stealing jobs from US citizens. The hand of a criminal who should go back to where he came from.
I’m all of it. I picked up random jobs to survive, I drove without a license and lied to police when getting pulled over. I slept in the street and worked under-the-table 16-hour shifts for days on end. I spent eight years of my life to get the holy grail that some of you might have had since their birth—the U.S. citizenship. Sadly, my story is not unique, as millions of others experience the same thing. Actually, my experience isn’t even that bad compared to others, since I already arrived at my destination while they still remain in limbo.
I want to believe that I did more than just surviving and getting my legal status in the past ten years living in the U.S. I influenced and changed people. I realized it for the first time back in 2010. My coworker approached me and said, “looking at you and working beside you has changed my perception on immigrants. Had I met you earlier, I would’ve voted differently.”
I never knew if I’d be able to find another job without a work authorization, so I could never afford to quit. I had to show up early and leave late and do more, typically working way above the pay grade. Make no mistake – I was not a unique overachiever – it was normal and necessary for many immigrants like me. This work ethic inspired people around me, and finally someone said, “obviously, you’re a stranger to welfare and collecting checks from the government. We need immigrants like you.”
I was too scared to get in trouble and couldn’t afford any bad decisions, so I’d never speed, never fight and ultimately learned to suppress my emotions. It slowly ate away pieces of my soul, but it impressed people around me. When I finally got my green card, I signed up for the military service, so I wouldn’t have to wait for my citizenship. This seemingly hard decision came to me easy, since I didn’t see myself waiting for another five years. My commitment and dedication inspired people around me. They’d say, “if you’re willing to sign your life away for this country, you deserve to be its citizen.”
I’m lucky. My long and winding road truthfully wasn’t that long and didn’t have as many turns as others’. I was blessed to inspire those around me, to change their perception of immigrants as people and immigration as a phenomenon. But I know many people who are not that lucky and despite their obvious multiple merits, still remain unnoticed, neglected and looked at as a threat to American society.
I cringe each time I hear another politician praising our brave and glorious military while bashing “nasty” illegals. I can’t help remembering the kindest and smartest people without work authorization that I was honored to work with in my “illegal” time. And I can’t erase the memory of some bottom of the barrel service members I had to deal with in my 3.5 years in the Army.
In this day and age, we have to admit that we live in the gray world of Walter Whites and Jaime Lannisters. I came all the way from being considered not good enough to wash dirty dishes for the Americans, to being trusted with the lives of American soldiers. It took me eight years to change people’s perception of me. Funny enough, I didn’t change much and when I look in the mirror, I still see the same illegal guy from 2010, maybe with a couple extra pounds.
Truth be told, I was never as black as people thought of me ten years ago, and I’m not as white as they think of me now. I’m gray, I’m a human with my merits and inferiorities, just like most of you are. And I deserve to be a US citizen just like many others out there.
Featured image by Bert Kaufmann on Flickr.
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