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.

I had to build my own path forward to pursue a future and an education. Fortunately I had a few advantages: my skin was white, I had an American accent, and I had friends who’d known me since childhood. It was because of this that at 16 I got a job at a mall pretzel store where a few friends worked, without anyone being the wiser of my situation. For almost seven years I kept this job, thankful that I would not have to resort to physical labor, odd jobs, or questionable sources. Years would go by and my peers would scratch their heads wondering why the “smart” kid was still at the same job and offer me motivational speeches about doing something with my life while I got them their lemonade. But the truth is I was a proud master-baker, and I was slowly carving my way out with a dull spoon. I had to have faith that when I took a step the ground would be there, and I had to laugh at myself and the absurdity of it all along the way.

To pursue an education, I went full “Ocean’s Eleven” until, after many failed attempts, I discovered a loophole that allowed me to enroll at community college. But having no way to prove residency, I paid out-of-state tuition at three times the in-state price.  I often worked over 50 hours a week to pay for classes. Even with all my high school AP credit, it took over five years to complete a two-year degree — and I did it with honors. Along the way, events unfolded that would allow me to apply for residency, and transfer to the architecture program at the University of Florida College of Design, Construction, & Planning. (Go Gators!)

Even with these life changing developments, the struggles of a tenuous immigration status followed me wherever I went. I recall a semester in architecture school when I had to attend an immigration interview — or possibly face deportation — on the same day as a final crit. The instructor had zero empathy and nearly failed me because of it. During the middle of my third year the situation became so dire that I dropped out entirely for a year in order to pay for a lawyer and focus on my legal issues.

I think back to one of the many times in my life that I would be before a judge who held my future in their hands. A darker-skinned Hispanic immigrant was presenting his case before mine. He had a similar story, a DREAMer with an American accent about the same age as me. In less than five minutes the gavel came crashing down, and in a snap he was taken away in handcuffs, tears streaming down his face. Freedom is a state of mind, but a government can be pretty good at changing your mind about it. To me, there didn’t seem to be any discernible difference in our cases other than the color of our skin, but the judge ended up ruling my case favorably. I remember calmly walking home and screaming into a pillow. I should have felt relieved, but all I could feel was outrage.

Enrique Andrés Bejarano (Author photo)

After all of this (and so much more we simply can’t get into), I finally became a naturalized citizen one week after my 30th birthday. A week later I graduated with a master’s degree, and one week after that I moved to New York City. A few months later I accepted a position with SOM, where I got to learn and practice architecture at a global design firm for several years. I married someone I love, with whom to build a home and life together. It finally felt like I was leading a normal, successful life.

A few years later, I left SOM with a very different story than the one I arrived with. I felt confident as a professional working at the highest level in the industry.  I built a professional reputation that eventually led to an opportunity at HOK, and I couldn’t be happier.

Sharing this story is likely to bring unwanted attention and scrutiny. Until now, it’s a story I’ve shared with only a small handful of very close friends. Coming out about it now serves two purposes: The first is to help me heal from the experience and overcome the crippling fear that an ICE agent is hiding under my bed wearing a metal-clawed glove waiting to put me and my family in a cage — I still keep a “go-bag” with cash and my passport(s) ready. The second reason is to try and bring perspective and awareness to this issue.

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You have a strong sense of “survivor guilt” coming through that journey; that you should be doing more, drop everything that you are doing right now to become an activist, an organizer, a “resistor”, call a lawmaker, get on a bus, make a sign, and go yell at a wall. But like a real American, I now have the privilege to be wholly consumed by the daily struggle of my job, my bills, my calendar, my shows, my dog, and my relationships… so I don’t. But if sharing my story can somehow help others to be more compassionate towards people, and to have a greater sense of clarity and understanding of the consequences our laws and attitudes have on our collective human dignity… then I will have a great sense of relief.

For these reasons I chose to speak my truth now.

I chose to not live in shame.

I chose to not live in fear.

I chose to no longer live in hiding.

There are millions of people trying to do the same.

The author, Enrique Andrés Bejarano, is a specifications writer in HOK’s New York office. He shares his story in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month.