Two months ago, I celebrated one of the happiest days of my life: I became a U.S. citizen.
Standing with more than a hundred other immigrants from all over the world, I listened as a federal judge presiding over the ceremony in Central Islip spoke to us about his own immigrant heritage and of immigrants’ contributions to this country.
The judge’s words seemed to open the doors to the country, letting me know that it’s my home, and that no one could take that away from me. I was not the only one feeling emotional; tears streamed down faces around me, and I had a brief window into the experiences that brought them to this point — fleeing persecution, risking lives, and sacrificing to be with family.
I came to the United States in 2010, when I was 19. I immigrated because my father and his family were here, and I wanted to get a college education, which was out of reach in my native Colombia. I attend Suffolk County Community College, and work part time to help Long Islanders enroll in health care.
Life here hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had people call me ugly names and give me dirty looks because I’m Latino and an immigrant. Still, I’m proud to be an American.
Over the past year, though, I felt greater urgency to become a citizen. Since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign using slurs and fomenting hatred against Mexican immigrants here illegally, and then became the Republican presidential nominee, I’ve heard scary proposals about building an enormous wall along the Mexican border and launching mass deportations. And then I’ve seen some Long Island politicians stand with Trump, no matter what horrible things he says. So, as soon as I was eligible to submit my citizenship application earlier this year, I sent in the paperwork.
Feeling my family and community under attack, I knew that I had to become a citizen so I could vote — not just for myself, but for millions of parents who risk being torn away from their children.
Last week, the National Partnership for New Americans released an analysis of recent U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data that showed that naturalization applications have increased by 32.1 percent nationally, and 31.5 percent in New York, in the past quarter-year compared to the same quarter in 2015.
Talking to friends who have just applied to become citizens, it’s clear that Trump is driving us to the courthouse and to the polls. Now that we have the power to vote, we are going to do that to protect our families and friends from bigotry.
Still, 11 million immigrants here illegally, including many friends and relatives, are not so lucky. They have no path to citizenship — regardless of the tax dollars they are contributing, there is no piece of paper they can sign, or fee they can pay, that will let them normalize their immigration status and keep their families together under our out-of-date immigration system.
When I vote for the first time on Nov. 8, I will do so knowing that I will become part of the decisions that are made in Washington and in Albany. I will go there thinking of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and knowing that, when I vote, I will be standing up for my community.
José Gallego of Brentwood is a member of Make the Road Action, an immigrant advocacy group.