Gilberto Soberanis Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is undocumented immigrant Gilberto Soberanis.

I am from a small town in Mexico. When I was a kid, crime was really rough there. A lot of kidnappings, a lot of poverty. My parents wanted to escape that. When we left, I was ten and my little sister was two.

“I remember taking a taxi to the border. We walked for a long, long distance. Then someone put us in a car and took us to a safe house. I think we were there for a day or two until my dad was able to pay some money. Then we were taken to a hotel. They said, ‘Don’t turn the lights on. We don’t want people to know you’re here.’ We spent the night there, and then we were on a flight to Chicago, because we had family there.

“We came in February, to massive, brutal cold. I spoke absolutely no English. No one in my family did. I was lucky that my school had a bilingual program. I went to school right across the street from my house. It was just: cross the street, go to school, cross the street, go back home, for years and years.

“I realized I was gay around 14, but I had to do everything in my power to hide it. Much later, I realized I had to tell my family. I told my mom in the car. She started crying. Later one of our family members told me that my mom called her and said, ‘I don’t know how he can be gay.’ And the family member told her, ‘You have a gay son, but you have a good gay son. He doesn’t do drugs. He’s a hard worker. He goes to school.’ And my mom said, ‘You’re right.’ I don’t think she had the ability to tell that to my face at that point.

“If you are a quote-unquote ‘undocumented,’ the last thing you want to do is tell anyone, because if one person finds out, you’re putting in jeopardy everything you’ve worked for. And it’s not just about you, it’s about your family and your friends. If I didn’t have DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], I could never have done this interview, ever.

“So what’s DACA? President Obama, a couple years ago, made an executive decision that some undocumented immigrants, who entered the country before they turned 16 and who meet some other requirements, can apply for a renewable two-year work permit and be exempt from being deported. Now, it’s very limited. You can only work. You can’t access any public benefit. And because I entered the country illegally, there’s no way for me to get permanent residency or citizenship, unless I marry a U.S. citizen.

“I have to reapply every two years, and I can be rejected. Once they wouldn’t process my application because I forgot to put a date next to my signature. I remember getting that application back, and it was frightening. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, and I’m doing well, but if I were to be deported, I might have to travel an hour and a half to get my medication, or maybe it wouldn’t be available. I know one woman, her DACA got declined because she got arrested for protesting for LGBT rights. How can you get deported for being an advocate?”   v