You might say I was a typical American kid. But my true cultural peers were not the kids I grew up alongside. They are the DREAMers living double-lives, hidden in plain sight, yearning for the same rights and opportunities that most of us take for granted every day.

I believe we are living through the greatest civil rights crisis of our generation in the United States, yet it is mostly hidden from or misunderstood by the general public. While this is not a forum to debate immigration policy, what I feel most fail to understand about the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented people is that for the vast majority there is no means to adjust their status or correct the situation, despite their desire to do so. Truly, our current laws are such that almost no one ever makes it out of the undocumented nightmare. People like me are extremely rare exceptions.

My family moved to South Florida from Colombia in the early 90’s when I was six years old. My childhood was pretty normal: I went to school, had friends, ate pizza. The sense of normal came crashing down abruptly at age 15 when, to my shock, I discovered that I would be unable to obtain a learner’s permit, the prerequisite for a driver’s license. But a driver’s license is so much more than its name suggests. It is state issued identification, and probably the most important document to have if you want to live a normal life in the U.S.

Not having documents to prove my status or identity meant I couldn’t get a legitimate job, open a bank account, get a loan or have access to credit cards, get health insurance, receive most medical services outside of an emergency room, pick-up a prescription, go to a museum, use a library, own a vehicle, drive a car (at least not legally), travel on a plane, go to a bar, get a Blockbuster account, or even see an R-rated movie with friends when you have a baby-face well into your twenties — and that is just the tip of the iceberg! One is systematically excluded from nearly all aspects of society, and denied basic rights universally thought to be “inalienable.” The only up-side is no jury duty.

A young Enrique Bejarano (centered)

Growing up, I had always been an above-average student and placed in the top 1 percent on standardized tests. By the time I was in high school, however, I would not be allowed to take college entrance exams like the SAT without a state ID, which meant I would be ineligible to apply for any universities (believe me, I tried). Suddenly, ten years of academic achievement and Ivy League expectations were down the drain. How would I ever get an education, have a career, or raise a family under these circumstances?

I always believed I would go far and achieve great things. That is the spirit with which all immigrants come to the U.S. and then bestow upon their children.

Today, I am a naturalized citizen of the United States, working at a top firm in the profession I love: Architecture (with a capital A). In spite of the obstacles, I feel my current position in life is due to relentless, defiant, and meticulous planning, research, goal-setting and action. In the meantime I found outlets such as art, music, and meditation, which gave me the clarity to apply the knowledge that freedom is a state of mind, peace is a feeling, and love is the greatest force of nature.

When I was growing up, it didn’t seem like anyone knew that Undocumented-Americans like myself even existed. Then, in August 2001, The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was introduced to Congress and suddenly Undocumented-Americans such as myself had hope, and a name to rally under: “DREAMers”. Unfortunately the DREAM Act never became law; and DACA — the executive order later introduced by the Obama administration which provided limited protections to people brought to the U.S. as children — was over a decade away.