At Age 23, I Still Don’t Know What it’s Like to Call
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Renata Mauriz, NILC intern
OCTOBER 6, 2016
My palms are sweating as I sit outside the school nurse’s office waiting for my turn. Should I tell her about the symptoms I’m feeling so that maybe she can help? Will she tell me I need to see my doctor?
Mrs. Elliott had sent me down to the nurse’s office during geometry class after one of my fellow classmates told her she had seen me sitting on the bathroom floor twice within the past two periods, head down and eyes closed. I had been dizzy and nauseated all day due to Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes attacks of spinning and episodic rational vertigo, a benign and fairly common condition among Americans.
“Who is your doctor? You’ll need to see him and get the proper medication for this and come back next week to check in with me,” the nurse said.
Fear permeates my body, weakening my legs, as I think of how to explain why—despite having lived in the county for eight years—I have never had a primary doctor. In the small suburbs of Roxbury, NJ, everyone knows who the doctors are in town and treat them almost like extended family.
I quietly respond, “I don’t have a doctor.” She stares at me blankly, as if I’m speaking a foreign language. I blurt out, “My family can’t afford one and we don’t have health insurance.” Her expression still shows only confusion. I finally have to say it: “I’m not eligible for health insurance because of my immigration status—I’m undocumented.” My ears grow hot with embarrassment and my heart pounds faster. Not knowing exactly how to deal with the situation, she asks me what I usually do in times like these. “I close my eyes, sit, and hope that it’ll go away,” I respond with my head down, not wanting to admit my shame.
My life as an undocumented immigrant has been a collection of these moments. At age 12, I journeyed from Brazil to the United States to reunite with my mother, who I hadn’t seen in 7 years. In a strange country, surrounded by an incomprehensible language, I was often left with unanswered questions and fears. I didn’t understand why some days we had to stay home hiding with the lights out as immigration officers searched the neighborhood. I didn’t understand why my mother always told me I was not allowed to tell anyone but her when I felt sick. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to ride the neighbor’s bicycle on the sidewalk or learn how to skateboard like the other kids.
“Se você se machucar brincando eu te dou outra razão pra você sentir dor,” she’d say loud and clear in Portuguese, which translates to “if you get hurt while playing around, I’m going to really give you a reason to cry.”
This imposed silence and cautiousness transformed me into a timid and extremely careful child, skipping all the potentially “dangerous” activities and hoping I could get by unnoticed. I understood that a life “in the shadows” was necessary to protect us.
DACA helped change some of that reality. In the fall of 2012, I received a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and was granted a temporary work permit and relief from deportation. Along with thousands of other undocumented youth, I have gained access to opportunities that have allowed me to be less afraid and slowly step out of the shadows. With a work permit, I have been able to leave my two under-the-table jobs—where I made less than minimum wage—to find employment that pay me livable wages and treated me with respect. Higher wages have meant being able to pay for community college classes, and finally pursuing higher education and obtaining a college degree is not out of reach for me.
However, that same year I found myself in a paradox, walking the line between inclusion and exclusion. DACA has opened new doors to me, allowing me to live and work without fear of deportation. It helped me be recognized as a person and as a member of my community and this country. Unfortunately, when undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients were restricted from accessing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it reminded me that I was still not welcomed here—worthy enough to work and pay taxes, but not to live a healthy life.
Throughout my childhood, my undocumented Latina mother always told me that I was not allowed to get sick. Today, I understand how our intersecting identities—especially our socioeconomic and immigration status—make us particularly vulnerable to health care disparities in the United States. As a young DACA-mented adult, I still find myself overly cautious about getting sick or hurt because I cannot afford the high costs that come with not having health insurance.
At age 23, I still don’t know what it’s like to call “my doctor” and make an appointment or even go for a regular check-up exam.
Every ache that goes ignored, infection that goes untreated, and injury that is uncared for undermines the spirit of inclusion that DACA has brought me. Undocumented and DACA-mented immigrants are important members of American communities across our country and should have the right to live without the constant fear for our health and safety. This means having the needed tools that allow us to thrive and live healthy lives. Access to health care for undocumented and DACA-mented immigrants is not only an immediate necessity but a chance to show how immigrant lives are valued beyond our labor—and that regardless of our immigration status, we too deserve to live with full dignity and respect.