EDER GAONA-MACEDO, 28
Born in Tepochica, Guerrero, Mexico
Came to Santa Ana, California, undocumented at 4 years old in 1992
Undocumented from 1992 to 2009
Applied for green card/permanent resident status in 2001, granted in 2009
U.S. citizen in October 2016
B.A. in political science UCLA, M.P.A. at Columbia University
Executive director of Future Leaders of American

I came here with my single mom, younger brother and aunt with kids. We grew up — if you think of a campsite, no paved roads, no electricity. It’s still kind of like that — lack of economic opportunity. My mother had a restaurant but wasn’t able to keep up with it. My mom and her sister had dreams that they wanted to fulfill. Essentially, the only way for us [to come to the U.S.] was to run across San Ysidro. I remember a little bit, [in particular] a lollipop. What’s this lollipop mean? It turned out to be a Blow Pop. I was about to faint as we were trying to cross the border; it gave me some energy.

We were all living together in Santa Ana and then we relocated to Santa Barbara. I went to school in Santa Barbara, learned English; math came really easy. We knew we were Mexican, we knew we couldn’t do this or that, but it wasn’t until we were driving to school and I heard on a radio station about a green truck offering rides to Mexico that I found out this is ICE. After that, I knew I was undocumented. Essentially, I saw things that I couldn’t do: I couldn’t get a driver’s license, I couldn’t get a passport, I couldn’t go abroad. I had to stay out of trouble or risk everything. I didn’t want to get my family in trouble. I felt like I was living two lives: one at school, doing extremely well, and one at home, living in fear and anxiety.

Eder., 3, with little brother Jorge, 2, in Mexico.

In youth leadership programs, I realized that I could go to college and do something with my life. In 2005, Congress was considering an anti-immigrant bill, HR4437. I was a senior in high school and I had been admitted into UC schools. I was trying really hard. I saw L.A. youth walk out [over HR 4437] and I did what I saw — led a massive walk-out in Santa Barbara. Half of the school walked out at my high school. I was the only Latino student in honors classes when I was quoted in the newspaper: It’s not just about immigration, it’s about equity in the classroom. I felt a little more valued, more authentic [after leading the walkout and being in the newspaper].

My biggest struggle was going to UCLA. During those years (2006-2010), financial aid wasn’t available to undocumented students like it is now. I had a work permit at the time, and I worked multiple jobs (30-plus hours per week) to make ends meet. During the summer, I worked 45-plus hours per week. I remember my first year, I had to commute from my aunt’s house in Santa Ana to get to UCLA. I would wake up at 4:45 a.m., get the Metrolink train at 5:40 a.m., take a bus downtown to Santa Monica and finally arrive to campus at around 8:30 in time for my 9:00 calculus class. I struggled with my energy, keeping up with my courses. I wanted to quit. But at the same time, my mother offered words that kept me going, and essentially shaped who I am today: Don’t let papers define who you are.

I think one of the happiest moments was when I was able to graduate from UCLA. I had tears of joy when I saw my family after the ceremony. When I received my master’s from Columbia, the feeling was great, but not the same as when I graduated from UCLA. Go Bruins!

After I graduated from UCLA, I worked at the UCLA Community Programs Office for two years as the Student Resource Center Internship Advisor with populations who did not have high retention rates at UCLA. After UCLA, I went to graduate school at Columbia. I am now the executive director for Future Leaders of America. As an alumnus of the program, I feel proud and honored to continue the work that was started in 1982. I co-lead the strategic development of the organization with my awesome board and lead our nonprofit fundraising efforts. The most exciting part of my job, though, is working with our youth councils. In Oxnard, the students are using their learned leadership skills to create a college-going culture in Oxnard.
I appreciate my immigrant background — it’s allowed me to have a greater understanding for the current climate but also a deeper appreciation for my culture and America. It’s sad to see the scapegoating against immigrants. We’re all humans who have similar values and want the best for our families and communities.

My process took about 16 years to complete, from the time we filed our paperwork to the time I received my citizenship. The immigration system is very misunderstood; people can’t just go to an immigration office and ask for a green card, there needs to be a petition and a relative that sponsors you. What kind of sponsor/petition you submit will determine your wait time — could be up to 20 years or longer. For a lot of people, though, there isn’t a pathway for a green card and they’re forced to live “under the shadows”; it’s not that people don’t want to get green cards or become citizens, there just isn’t a pathway for them.

Immigrants contribute to the economy, culture and vitality of communities. Countless studies have been conducted that show the economic benefit of immigrants. I believe that comprehensive immigration reform is the only way to really provide a fair opportunity to undocumented immigrants who’ve contributed to our community and call America home. I’m really proud to be in California, a place that has embraced immigrants, not only because of the economic reasons but also for the humane and fair treatment of people.