Eddie Chavez Calderon  ·  Mexico

Growing Up An Undocumented American

Interview by Sherianne Schow
Edited by Nicole Taylor
Photography by Sherianne Schow
Eddie Chavez Calderon
Eddie Chavez Calderon in his Jews for Justice office

My name is Eddie Chavez Calderon. I am formerly undocumented and I currently live in Phoenix, Arizona.

I came to the United States in 1999 with my Mom. I was four years old. Violence was peaking in the southern region of Michoacán, (S Mexico) where I’m from.

The war on drugs was really a war on people with hundreds of casualties. A lot of the victims were single women with small children and my mom did not want to be a statistic.

She risked everything to make the journey up north. She sold everything she owned to get us through the journey. Crossing the desert is extremely dangerous. If the elements don’t kill you, there’s a possibility of getting killed by the cartels or human trafficked.

And we know that this has been a system that the United States has used: a system of deterrence by fear. But fear doesn’t stop our communities. My mom and I crossed and were apprehended by border patrol. We had not eaten or drank water for a long time. Remember, I was a four year old toddler. And my mom asked the agent in the little English that she knew, she said can you give us water? And the agent looked at my mom and I and gave us a pack of saltine crackers. That was the first point I ever saw my mom break down and shatter. Border Patrol has no idea what to do with families. They weren’t set up for families.

Growing up undocumented really sucks. You live in a state of constant worry that you may not come home. My mom worked multiple jobs. Every single school year of my life I had to move because my mom would have to balance knowing that there was an ICE raid here and another ICE raid here so we would have to move and it was hard to make friends. But, my mom never told me I was different from any other little kid.

I was so proud to be line leader and have access to saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I was so proud of being able to speak English. That somehow made me feel American. My mom never shut that down. My mom never let me know that I had any sort of boundary or barrier that would stop me from anything. I just knew being undocumented was the thing that I wasn't supposed to tell people.

But starting in high school, I began to understand that I couldn’t get a license and that my college experience was determined by my parents taxes and my Social Security number. Neither of which I had. It was a gut punch to know that I didn’t have a road to be financially able to pay for higher education.

I had DACA when it first came out, it showed me the importance of papers. At that point, my life narrowed to two year increments. Can I invest in a house? I don’t know. Will I be here in the next two years? I don’t know.

When DACA was implemented we understood that it was just a bandaid on a wound that was infected.

It was an attempt to say the wound isn’t there. If it’s hidden we can take our eyes off it and say it’s not broken, it’s not hurting. But that wound always comes back to tell you it’s there. And in 2019 during the Trump administration, we saw the awful impacts of the US immigration wound. One of those impacts was to kill a program called Advanced Parole, which allowed DACA recipients to temporarily leave the country for education, business, or a family emergency.

I called my grandmother daily. She was my best friend. She would give me the juiciest gossip, and I was here for it, you know. Every holiday, even minor holidays, she’d call me just to talk and talk and talk about the most stupid funny things. If I had a stomach ache, I’d call my grandma before I called my mom. My grandma would never judge me because to her, I couldn’t do anything wrong. And in 2019, my grandma passed away.

It was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever experienced. You know, when you have even the slightest bit of privilege, it makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. And for me, I felt that by having DACA I was on top of the world but life humbles you, and the United States humbles you very quickly. Without the Advanced Parole program I couldn’t go to her funeral. Instead, I flew to Colorado, because I knew that if I was in pain, my mom was even worse. I had to switch roles. And I had to be the one to hold my mom, as we watched my grandmother be buried on FaceTime. With one hand I held my mom and with the other I held the phone covered in tears. The system did not allow for her to say goodbye to her mom.

I think that that was the pinnacle piece that really smacked me down. Because see, as much as people want you to say that they want you here. “We love refugees. We love migrants. We love your music. We love your food. We love your colors, your smells, and your sounds.” They don’t love you. They don’t love you. They love you from a distance: from a vacation, from a picture, from a painting, from a book. But they forget that you’re actually right here. And that that was a really humbling moment of coming to that conclusion through my grandmother’s death.

It was after her death I realized I needed to be able to move freely. So I looked at my range of options. Multiple lawyers, multiple people, until ultimately they found a visa process that I somehow qualified for.

We applied and 13 years later, I was approved.

All pathways to being legally in the US are incredibly expensive, thorough, and meant for you to fail. It’s an elitist way of ensuring that only folks who have high education and high income are allowed in. DACA renewals cost $500 plus, every two years. You have to gather up that money, plus a lawyer to fill out the form if you don’t want to risk doing it yourself. Then, continuing your own immigration journey, you need a lawyer at $300/hour. You pay the lawyer to call and get your history, get your fingerprints, to fill out some forms, to help you figure out if you have a birth certificate from your home country. If you get denied you won’t get this money back. You also need folks who have the proper education to translate documents. You need to know what time you crossed into the US and what you were wearing. How many people remember those details? And after all that still you worry: Do I have the paperwork needed? Did I miss a little checkbox, and actually say that I’ve renounced citizenship in the United States?

Again, our system banks on failure. To the people who say, “do it the right way!” Ask them to tell you what the right way is. I guarantee you that those folks might not have the civic education to understand the legal processes of becoming a United States citizen with the boundaries and barriers that the system puts in place to keep you where you are.

Seeking asylum is in the Constitution. But we know that a lot of these laws weren’t meant for people that looked like me. So the government implements policies to make it hard. Wait times are extreme– years and years. The requirements are almost impossible. That’s where we are as a society right now. Creating systems that say this is legal for some people, and we’re gonna make it brutally hard for others.

That’s why it’s so important to me to bring resources to asylum seekers, like a hairbrush or toys for kids. Because I was that kid.

And now, I am a part of Jews for Justice.

Read more about Jews for Justice and Eddie’s ideas for systemic solutions for asylum seekers and migrants:

Jews for Justice: Healing the Here and Now
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