Gisele Fetterman: American dream should be for everyone |
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Gisele Fetterman: American dream should be for everyone

Gisele Fetterman

The American dream is real, and I should know because I’m living it. Unfortunately, for millions of people, that dream has been deferred because of uncertainty surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Our elected officials in Washington must act swiftly to pass House Resolution 6, the Dream and Promise Act, to ensure that Dreamers get the opportunity they deserve.

Dreamers are immigrants who were brought here by their parents when they were children. In Pennsylvania, it is estimated that there are 24,000 Dreamers. Their average age upon arriving in the U.S. was 9 years old, and on average they have been in this country for 18 years.

Dreamers grew up here. They were educated in our schools. They work hard, they pay taxes, and they deserve the opportunity to step out of the shadows and live their lives without constantly looking over their shoulders.

Dreamers are the certified nursing assistants who care for your family members at hospitals and nursing homes. They care for your children. Many have even joined the military to serve their country. This country.

I know all too well the stress of living and building a life here without legal status. When I was 7 years old, my mother, who had advanced degrees and a coveted career, brought my brother and I to the U.S. to escape the violence of Rio de Janeiro, where I was born. We had nothing and knew no one, but my mom knew that America was the best possible chance at a better life, so we took that leap of faith.

I will always be grateful for the courage my mom showed not only in bringing us here, but in providing for us after we arrived. Her lack of legal status meant she was forced to take low-paying jobs doing things like cleaning houses and checking coats in nightclubs. Being undocumented meant that she couldn’t turn to the authorities, and employers took advantage of that fact. She was routinely paid less than she was supposed to be, if she got paid at all, and she was even assaulted while at work. She never complained — she just did what she had to do for her children.

The fear of being discovered and deported is always there when you’re undocumented. Every day before we left for school, my mom would tell us the same thing, “I love you. Have a great day. Be invisible.”

Having to remain in the shadows meant that we didn’t have things like health insurance. When I was 8 years old, I broke my nose playing kickball on the playground. Because we were uninsured, I was unable to go to a doctor. I longed to join teams and play sports with my friends, but the risk of injury was just too great. I had to remain invisible.

A few years ago, I was reading a news story from Rio de Janeiro about a young woman, also named Gisele. She was about my age, and she worked as a doctor in Brazil. She was carjacked and murdered. It is a moment I will never forget — it was like reading my own obituary, and it was a painful reminder of the threat of violence that was always present in my home country. When I look in the mirror and I see my broken nose, I am reminded of how much worse it could have been, and how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to grow up in the U.S.

In 2004, when I was 22, I received my green card, and I was finally able to stop looking over my shoulder. Five years later, on one of the happiest days of my life, I became a citizen.

I still tear up every time I hear the national anthem and get super excited to vote, but the moment where I first truly felt like an American was the first time I was called for jury duty. I wasn’t chosen for a jury, probably because I was so visibly excited to be there that the lawyers thought I was crazy, but for me, that was the sign that I truly belonged, and that I could come out of the shadows and be fully embraced by my new home.

The millions of Dreamers who are currently in the U.S. deserve this same opportunity to feel embraced by the country they love and call home, and to come out of the shadows. We must act now to protect their American dreams by passing the Dream and Promise Act.

Gisele Barreto Fetterman, second lady of Pennsylvania, is an access and equity advocate. She is the founder of Freestore 15104, where surplus and donated goods are redistributed to those in need; co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, which aims to end hunger and reduce food waste; and co-founder of For Good PGH, which works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness.

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