KENYA GALDAMEZ, 36
Born in San Salvador, El Salvador
Came to Oxnard undocumented at 14 years old in 1994
Undocumented from 1994 to 1995
Humanitarian parole visa in 1995
Green card/permanent resident through fiancé sponsor in 1999
U.S. citizen in 2008
Three A.A.’s at Oxnard College
B.S. in sociology at CSUN 
Counselor at Ventura College EOPS

After my parents got divorced, we lost our house and my mom lost her business as a seamstress. When my father moved to Guatemala and my mother moved to the U.S., my mom worked as a seamstress and she got TPS (temporary protected status) through the amnesty program because of civil war in El Salvador. My Mom left me with my maternal grandmother, who only had four kid at a very young age, including my mom. At one point, 11 of us lived there, all of us sharing three beds. We went from semi-middle class to worst of the worst in El Salvador, an abundance of poverty. I was robbed four times walking home from the market. I still remember one time, we only had two tortillas among four of us and that’s all we were going to eat. She gave me the most before giving to my uncles. They would provide for me first, though I wasn’t super well fed. Three years later I left that house and moved to my paternal grandmother’s house. I only lasted one year there before I decided I wanted to be with my mom again. My paternal grandma had raised seven kids. Grandmother was getting older and suffered a lot her entire life — she was an orphan herself. She was not in the best nurturing state of mind to raise another adolescent. She motivated me to leave the country and be with my mom. 

Kenya, 7, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

When my mom left our place for the land full of opportunity and to provide for our family, it took her three months to get here by bus, train, banana cars, trailer, hiding, crossing rivers, mountains. I never dreamed of moving to this country but after five years of not seeing my mom I was desperate to be close to her again. Moreover, safety conditions for any person, especially young girls, were far from desirable in El Salvador.

When I came to the U.S., my mom didn’t want me to do it like she did. The next step: Buy a tourist visa. I flew as another El Salvadorian girl on a tourist visa — it cost $3,000 for the visa — but I was caught right when I arrived at LAX. There were a lot of people like that, 17 people who were in a room with me. I was detained for two days, a nightmare that started with immigration and ended 14 years later. Just the fact that they caught me, no one wanted to take my case. What I did was a felony under someone else’s identity. A year later, we found a wonderful lady who took my case and I was granted humanitarian parole. Out of desperation, people will do all sorts of things. Freedom is safety. I’ve only been back three times — stress and nightmares I experience before I take off. I hope nothing happens to me.

In Oxnard, high school, I didn’t talk about it — only very close friends knew I was undocumented. I didn’t know a word of English, was learning ESL and learned how to speak Mexican. I was made fun of and had to assimilate more to Mexican culture.

It was a very painful transition. I went from having a big extended family to a very small stepfamily. My school experience grew from being around 100 students in a school in El Salvador to being lost in 2,000-plus high school students. My immigration status for the first five years in the U.S. was my main socio-emotional struggle. I was assimilating to a new culture and family set up, but the most difficult daily fear was deportation. The main positive and transforming difference was the lack of delinquencies, thieves, fears and threats that were infamous in my daily life in El Salvador. My happier times included my high school experience. I took advantage of the extracurricular activities available to me. I had great teachers in Channel Islands High School, very supportive coaches in cross country, awesome classmates and friends that I still keep in touch with.

At 18, I had to leave, or [ICE would] come and deport me. I didn’t go for the first few months and worked as a maid, but in 1999, I left through voluntary departure [which would be better in terms of returning legally]. I was in El Salvador for 11 months. I got extremely depressed not finding jobs, not going to college; I didn’t know how to get my transcripts from the U.S. When I found a job at Burger King, the corporate offices, I was told to wear miniskirts [and declined the job offer]. I couldn’t find myself doing anything productive and just sleeping. I couldn’t live there; I was worried I would be robbed or raped — I had two relatives who got raped.

I came back again, but I came legally. Both my boyfriend at the time and stepdad requested that I come back as fiancée and daughter (respectively). [My fiancé’s request to sponsor came first] then my father’s papers came in two more weeks. I was married for five years, married in ’99 and divorced in 2005.

At age 14 I was clueless about immigration matters. Now I know that it is a very complex issue around the world. It is disheartening to see the lack of humanity and love we show towards other human beings who happened to be born under extremely adverse circumstances in their countries. I find it challenging to understand the full experiences of privileged people. I think the opposite is just as true. Growing up in a country like the U.S, one lacks much perspective regarding the struggles of meeting basic needs: food, safety, love, etc.

I guess more than wanting to change policy I want people to understand some simple struggles human beings face around the world.  To say that I am extremely blessed to be alive is an understatement. In my country there is more violence than a decent mind can imagine. Leaving El Salvador would not have been my choice had I felt safe walking on the streets. People migrate as a means to survive. It takes a lot to abandon your home country. When you know you have nothing else to lose, including life itself, then you come to terms with taking risks to migrate to another country.

The whole process of adjusting my status was a nightmare worse than I could have imagined but better than my reality of living in fear in El Salvador. I finally became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and for the first time I was treated with dignity by an INS officer.  People need to understand that undocumented individuals are not proud of that legal status. If given the chance, people would apply for adjustment in a heartbeat. We want to do nothing but contribute to this country. We are thankful to live and be able to do it here. Building a wall and mass deportations will not stop people from coming here. A viable solution needs to be put in place to help grow our social fabric with the people who are already here.