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How Getting a Driver’s License Changed My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

Photo from the film "Documented"
Photo from the film “Documented”

(Vanity Fair) – To be an undocumented immigrant is to obsess over documents. A driver’s license, for example, is not merely a driver’s license—it proves you exist, that you’re part of a community. A license allows you to drop your kids off to school, go to church, the mall. You can drive yourself to work.

In writing about my undocumented status in an essay for The New York Times Magazine, and directing the film Documented, my chief goal was to expose and document, sometimes against the advice of my own lawyers, the cracks in our broken immigration system—to show Americans what undocumented people have to do to work, live, and survive. In one scene , I look straight to the camera and admit that I checked the “U.S. citizen” box on an employment form to get a job. It was either lie, or not get the job. I was 19 years old and wanted to work, pay taxes, and contribute to my adopted country.

A driver’s license has carried an outsized meaning in my life. While trying to get a license at age 16—four years after my mother in the Philippines sent me to live with my grandparents in California—I found out I was in the country illegally. My grandfather bought a green card to smuggle me to the U.S.; I discovered it was fake when I was at the D.M.V. Six years later, I landed a summer internship at The Washington Post. When the recruiter asked me if I had a license, I said no and assured her I didn’t need one. I could walk. I could take the bus or subway. I could even hitchhike if I needed to. The recruiter, however, was firm. I couldn’t show up in Washington, D.C., for the job without a valid license. Set on the internship, yet scared that I might be risking too much, I spent two weeks researching how I could get a license.

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