Undocumented in San Francisco: My Story

Content warning: The stories throughout this issue may be especially activating for some readers. Many of these pieces involve descriptions of traumatic experiences including sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, queer/transphobic violence, in addition to the violence of states and false borders.

I am undocumented, and so is my son. We are ‘illegal’ because our coordinates don’t match our birthplaces, because my legal dual American citizen husband beat me mercilessly for years and I had to run to try and save the two of us. Running meant leaving behind my visa, which was totally dependent on my staying in the marriage and thus being compliant to the sexual and physical violence he subjected me to on a daily basis. My son, who was under 10 at the time, was constantly bullied by his father, my husband. He was bullied for not being perceived as loud and macho enough for his tyrant of a father. I protected him as best as I could, but that was increasingly inadequate, so I took the two of us on a trip to visit his family in the U.S., having won my husband’s confidence that he had absolutely crushed me. I pushed myself down deep within myself in order to keep him happy and make him believe I was absolutely compliant. I made him believe I had no fight left in me. I made him believe he had won. I took every rape, every beating, every broken finger, smashed head, cruel word. I withstood him starving me, only allowing me to eat a few times a week, in order to stay to protect my child. I had only one change of clothes and no access to medical care. I had to survive him killing my beloved pet cat—something that still causes me great shame, even though I tried to protect my little friend, taking a nasty injury to do so. I had to survive being told every day that the only way out of the marriage was in a box, and that no one would care if I was dead. I believe this still to be true. If I had stayed with him in Asia, he would have killed me. He would have been minimally punished, if at all, and no one but my son would care.

I still have to cope with people not understanding that although most people don’t see the particular country we lived in as dangerous, or lacking in the ability to seek justice, in fact domestic violence was totally legal in the jurisdiction until relatively recently. When a law was finally passed that made hitting a spouse somewhat illegal, it only made it illegal by civil, not criminal, law. The reality was that the cops would come, they would apologize to my husband for bothering him, and tell me to be quieter. The cops would tell me to get beaten up without causing distress to my neighbors by doing so noisily. I made myself be silent in order to not to make things worse. 

I don’t want pity. My life was what it was for a long time because I had no legal means of taking my child out of the country without severe repercussions. Those whose lives have not fallen to pieces around them do not seem to see the stories behind the undocumented and our reasons for coming to the United States. I came here because this was the only place I had any chance of outrunning him, because his sister was sympathetic and married to an American, and if something happened to me I supposed she might support my child. I came here because I had friends here at the time, and a little bit of support, so I would not be totally alone. I came here because I had already tried returning to the jurisdiction of my birth and had been forced back to Asia under the Hague Convention on parental child abduction. The ultimatum I had been given was to either go back to him or else face a long jail sentence and my child being sent back to him anyway, this time without me to protect him. 

Staying was not an option. The police were not interested and I was being told on a daily basis, in between violent and bloody rapes and beatings that the only way out of the marriage was in a box, feet first. He told me that he would ‘say sorry’ if he killed me, and that he was ‘stressed and crazy’ and he wouldn’t even go to jail. I used to lay in bed wondering if, after he killed me, whether he would choose to kill our son, too. I could not let it happen, I had to run. I was fighting for my life. I was fighting for my child. I was just trying to survive. 

My story is just one of the many devastating stories that lay behind the simplistic arbitrary declaration of ‘legal’ and ‘not legal’. It is hardly unusual, or even particularly extreme. I simply came and overstayed my welcome. When my husband returned to the U.S. to work and live legally—having chased me out here—he demanded I return to him. He said he would renew my spousal visa, but I told him to forget it, that I would rather be ‘illegal’ and free and safe, and so would the kid. It cost me dearly, but I would do the same again, even with hindsight. Becoming illegal under the law saved my life and that of my son. 

I do not enjoy my status as outside of society. I never feel safe. I rarely feel welcome. I have to live with the fact that most of America detests me because I am undocumented. The media peddles the narrative that my son and I are a danger and that we are immoral. Being part of a group that is constantly scapegoated wears on the soul. I am constantly asked about my accent. The question ‘where are you from?” is often followed by the question, “when are you going back there?” Being asked where ‘I am from’ is an attack, it is a danger, and it is not safe for me to say, yet the question is there every time I open my mouth. It is always made absolutely clear to me, that no matter how long I have been in the U.S., I am not American, that I do not belong here, that I am not accepted and that neither of us are wanted. I am not even a second class citizen; I am not a citizen at all. My son was turned away from Little League baseball for not having documentation, and I have had trouble getting him into schooling, eventually finding him a safe solution online that was paid for by friends. Without a community around us, but a few good friends, we survived, but struggled to thrive. 

When we came to the U.S. we were homeless, living in parking lots and campgrounds with a very kind American friend of mine that I had known for some considerable time. I had tried to access help in different states, all up the West Coast, and even over in the Midwest. My American born friends formed a circle around me and the kid, and although it was very hard living outside for years, I had the comfort of being able to move on geographically when I felt as if the world and my husband was catching up with me. There was no help, because of the simple fact that I was ‘illegal.’ I couldn’t even access a domestic violence shelter in Washington State when I tried. I had no paperwork or documentation, nor did my child. We were turned away from food banks, we were refused legal aid, my child was turned away from schools despite my trying very hard to work with the system; the system was stacked against us. 

My child and I spent over 5 years unhoused and traveling across this beautiful country before we got inside. It was only when the pandemic made being on the road an impossibility—closing down campgrounds, showers, and bathrooms, so that we never got a break with electricity for warmth, and a safe place we would not be moved on from—that I took a breath and decided to try something else. I sat down by the campfire and thought hard. I had to think of where we could go and possibly get some help to survive. After living remotely for so long, the idea of being homeless in a city with a child was almost too frightening to consider. I had been homeless and city-based when I was a young childless woman, but the brutality of being both undocumented and unhoused with no friends to help me, and being in a city that I did not know at all was overwhelmingly terrifying. 

I realized that there was one city that might just be safe: San Francisco. It has a reputation for being a sanctuary city within a sanctuary state, so I figured there might well be some kind of resources available to us that was not there in northern rural coastal towns, and if it came down to it and we had to be in a tent, then the weather was survivable for the most part. I looked at the boy sleeping by the campfire, and the shame and guilt of being undocumented, of being unhoused, of not having anything to offer him but my love and protection overwhelmed me. I knew I had to try something different. I decided to go to San Francisco and see if there was anyone there that might understand why I did what I did, and consider helping us, or at least helping my son stay safe. 

Getting down here was a problem. I was advised that ICE was occasionally raiding both the trains and the Greyhound buses. Trump had whipped up anti immigrant sentiment into epic proportions. I was legitimately scared. Every pro-Trump sign felt like a threat to our existence and safety. I had no one to drive us down to San Francisco, and the idea of driving illegally for hundreds of miles just seemed to be tempting fate. One cop traffic stop would mean jail, deportation and the prospect of never seeing my child again. I knew one bad day, one wrong police traffic stop and the possibility was there that my son and I would be put into an ICE facility, and separated possibly to never see each other again. I was terrified that he would not cope. Every photo of these facilities full of children missing their loved ones and family and being treated appallingly made my heart sink for them. This is not the America I know and love, this is the dark underbelly of hatred that I cannot fathom. 

In the end, the individual kindness of friends pulled me through. A very kind feminist friend offered to pay for a very expensive taxi ride and ten days in an AirBnB if I agreed to try and seek help in San Francisco. I threw everything we owned into two bags, grabbed my little tent just in case, and put us in the taxi. As we pulled into San Francisco at night, driving over the bridge into Outer Sunset, I had the feeling that things might just be ok. I thought that perhaps things might be ok because this great liberal city on the Bay has that effect on people. It gives people hope. It gives people the sliver of a prospect of not just surviving, but also possibly thriving. It gives people the space to feel as safe as they can possibly feel in a society that demonizes them for trying to survive situations that would otherwise be fatal. 

At least it used to. Mayor London Breed’s new ‘Take Back the Tenderloin’ militaristic push has left both me and my son feeling absolutely terrified that we might be the next targets of the ‘clean up’ of society, as the compassionless politicians see it. San Francisco is being driven in a direction that is against everything this City of beat poets, hippies, and vibrant immigrants have ever stood for. The city knows who it is at the heart of everything: we are progressive, we care, we do not victimize, but the influx of the rich and successful has led to a city riven in two. We are now a polarized ‘have’ and ‘have nots’, and the ‘haves’ do not feel much like sharing. San Francisco is fighting for its very soul, but I believe that the power of love, kindness, acceptance and independence is so strong here that we have a chance of keeping San Francisco the kind of place that remains a shining beacon of hope amid a sea of dark hatred. 

I was lucky. When we got into San Francisco, I was able to secure a place at a SIP Hotel. It saved our lives. We were allowed access, despite being undocumented, and given food, help, support, acceptance and understanding. For the first time since we had been in the U.S. and been undocumented, I felt like people cared for us, and wanted to protect us both, and for the first time we were given assistance. Eventually we gained a housing subsidy via a domestic violence charity and therefore a chance at survival. We now live in the Tenderloin, and are very happy here. We both love our adopted country. I love the America that I know, and the kind and decent people that live in it. The loud voices of those who spout hatred and lack of understanding and tolerance, that refuse to share the huge bounty of our society, are just that – loud, but oh so damaging. Since coming to the city I have met people who are devoted to a more equal society, a society that includes those who are undocumented, unhoused, those who struggle with various issues that put them outside the accepted privileged norm. For once my son feels like it is possible that one day he might be allowed to participate within society fully and equally, and all that is being threatened, all that good is being dragged down by the weight of hatred and a new vigor towards a right wing agenda. He still can’t play in a little league game, I still have to fund his schooling, and he still worries every single day that the DREAM act will not pass, but he has hope and a place to live, and we are together, and that is the greatest gift anyone could ever give either of us. Thank you, San Francisco. 

Whilst I am immensely grateful for the help I have received, life is still not easy, not absolutely safe, and my daily struggle to survive exhausts me. The rhetoric that the undocumented get everything for free disgusts me. The actuality of the situation is so far removed from that it is unreal. We had no access to any healthcare and still do not. When my son had an accident, a very kind nurse in the ER made sure he got treated, but that was the action of a single caring individual who worked around a system that barely cares for citizens that are poor and fall through the cracks, let alone those it is hostile to because they are undocumented. I have not been able to access any health care at all, and live in constant pain from injuries that have never healed properly. I have not been able to find any legal support that is able to deal with my complex case. I have no bank account, and cannot even use Western Union, Venmo or Paypal without a social security number. I survive on the kindness of friends, who seem to be delighted that I survived and who understand the impossibility of my situation; and my situation is almost impossible. 

Every day I wake up wondering if today will be the day ICE makes an appearance. Even writing this down for others to read is an act of defiance and feels hugely unsafe, but if I don’t speak up, then others will not either. That is perhaps the most damaging and hurtful part of being undocumented: you lose your voice out of fear. I am compelled into silence for fear I will be deported. I rarely voice opinions because my voice does not matter. I have been told many times by legal citizens that I have no right to a point of view because I am not documented. Opinions are not only forbidden for me to hold, but are also dangerous for me to have. In order to survive I have had to abide by the edict of ‘low profile’ because to be loud, to speak out, is to be noticed, and to be noticed is not safe. When getting on a train is dangerous, and that danger has not abated even with a Democratic President, who has failed to abolish ICE, then there is something very wrong with society. The undocumented are being used as a political football, with the Dream Act still not passed, and the border being used as a battering ram with which to attack along political party lines. Politics is not solving problems – it is the problem. Nothing can be done because people are not being seen as individuals, with individual stories, and reasons for coming to the U.S.. 

This is my story. It is only one amongst many of the stories of the undocumented who live, work, and try and survive and thrive within San Francisco, and every single one of those stories are worth compassion and understanding. I am sure many who read this would be happy to see me thrown on an airplane and deported, and my son thrown into a dangerous and uncertain future without me, simply because I am ‘illegal.’ These people never see the person that I am, who has done so much to survive. Many people seem to think they could do things better in my situation. Privilege blinds people to the reality of survival. These judgmental souls always seem to think they can do better, and do it in a way that would be more socially acceptable. I do not care. I am alive. I saved my child. I am still here fighting for a long term solution so that I can stay in my home, because California is my home. San Francisco is my home. This is where we belong, and a piece of paper saying I have permission does not make that any more or less true. When the politicians start up their rhetoric, which detracts from their own failings, and pushes the need to hate and blame for those inadequacies upon the vulnerable, if only one person thinks of my situation and pushes back against the drift towards inhumanity, then perhaps the risk I took writing this will be worth it.