What It Means to Grow Up American When You’re Not American
ATLANTA—He looked sturdy and confident, wearing a pressed dress shirt and an orange tie. But Mercer University senior Raymond Partolan was taking a risk by standing up and telling his story. He is an undocumented immigrant, and so are his parents. He signed up for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA.
That was the first part of a program that a Texas judge just blocked from expanding to cover more youth and some parents. “Immigration is such an abstract issue,” he said. “People sometimes forget that behind the decisions our politicians make, there are individual lives.”
In 1994 when Partolan was 1 year old, his parents emigrated from the Philippines to America. “My father came to practice his profession of physical therapy.” He had an H1-B visa for skilled workers. “He helped Americans,” he said, with pride.
After living in Georgia for years, the family decided to become permanent residents, and Mr. Partolan senior applied for a green card. He could not get one, said his son, because he could not pass the verbal part of the Test of English as a Foreign Language, TOEFL. Georgia requires the TOEFL for skilled immigrants to get a green card.
But with roots in Georgia and an American son, “we decided to stay,” and as the visa expired the family passed from legal to undocumented immigrants.
“I found out when I was 10 that I was undocumented,” said Partolan. His mother warned him that he must tell no one, ever. At first he did not understand a lot about it. “I am an American. I don’t know anything else,” he said.
In high school he began to “learn what it meant.” He could not apply for a driver’s license, which made him different from his classmates, and “severely limited” his mobility, as he put it. He could not accept any federal financial aid for college. The secret was hard to bear.
“The worst part—I felt completely alone,” said Partolan.
His sense of isolation and of being different overwhelmed him. “Half way through high school I tried to kill myself.”
He had put aside his mother’s advice and “shared my undocumented status with someone. She reacted with indifference. I was devastated.”
He said he is so grateful that he survived.
He lived to apply for and be covered by President Obama’s executive action, DACA. It started in 2012, and it shields people with clean records who were brought to the United States as children from being deported. It does not offer a path to citizenship, or give a green card, but it allows eligible people under 30 to work, to get a Social Security card, and to get a driver’s license.
Now he knows that his confidante was not really indifferent, he said. She did not know what it meant to be undocumented. So that more people will know what it means, and so that other undocumented people will not feel as alone as he did, he stands up and tells his story, as he did at the 4th Annual Asian American Legislative Breakfast at the Georgia Freight Depot next to the state capitol on Feb. 18.
He has abandoned his mother’s advice about keeping the secret. He said it makes his parents feel exposed, but they understand that he does it to try to make things better for other people.
Partolan is president of his class. He is about to graduate with a “nearly perfect grade point average,” he said.
He got a full scholarship to go to Mercer, a private school. Georgia law says undocumented immigrants must pay out of state tuition at state colleges. Partolan is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Board of Regents challenging that.
He is also two weeks into a new job as a part-time outreach coordinator for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. It is “the first non-profit law center dedicated to Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asian-ethnic refugees (‘Asian-Americans’) in the Southeast,” according to its web page.
As part of that job, he will go into high schools and tell his story, he said.