The article I clipped all those years ago is yellow now, and a little frayed. The first time I saw its headline was under a streetlamp on a cold fall morning. I was sixteen years old, carrying my empty, red papergirl canvas bag. It was still dark as I walked up to the two stacks of newspapers some faceless person left on a street corner for me every morning.
That morning was like every other for the nearly two years I’d been a paper girl. I had a double route, which meant big bundles of my local newspaper were waiting for me to deliver up and down the hilly dead ends on the north side of my blue collar New Jersey town. Each stack was held together by a plastic tie which had been inscrutable to me at first, but which I now expertly opened by pulling on it at just the right angle. One stack was “face up,” with the paper’s name and main stories showing, whatever was most important on that cool pre-dawn moment in 1986, now forgotten. The other stack was “face down,” showing the headlines that belonged below the fold.
I never read the paper before delivering it. If there were a couple of copies left over, I’d take them home and thumb through them after school sometimes. At this early hour, still in my sweats, my Catholic schoolgirl uniform back home waiting to be donned, a bus yet to catch, there wasn’t time for catching up on the news.
But this unassuming headline below the fold jumped up and grabbed me by the eyeballs and wouldn’t let go. “Congress passes amnesty bill,” it said. My heart started to pound as I sank to my knees on the cold cement sidewalk and read the story. Illegal immigrants were to be granted amnesty, first a temporary residency, then a permanent one, and, finally, a path to citizenship. It couldn’t be. Could it?
If the headline proved to be real, then my whole life was about to change. The child of immigrants who had overstayed their visas, I was what people liked to call “illegal.” I wasn’t sure what I’d done to earn this shady moniker, since I considered myself as American as apple pie and had never called any other country my own. I’d grown up being jealous of Marcia Brady. I’d learned to ride a two-wheeler on my red, white and blue Bicentennial bike. I’d learned to love Fitzgerald and hate Hemingway in school. I’d grown up on the Cosby Show and Charlie’s Angels. But, somehow, I was an undesirable, unworthy of a social security number.
By the time I read that headline, I had begun to feel the sting of exactly what that meant. I couldn’t get a driver’s license as my peers had begun to do. Although I loved school and was a straight-A student, college looked impossible. My parents had circumvented the public school issue by enrolling me in parochial school, but once that was over in another year, I couldn’t get a job. My country, the one I loved and pledged allegiance to every day, had no use for me.
I delivered my papers in record time and ran home with my extra copy clutched to my chest. I showed it to my parents. “They passed the amnesty!” I said.
“No,” came back my parents’ reply. “They always talk about it but they’ll never do it. What if it’s just a trick to get us to register so they can find us and deport us all?” I had lived a life in the shadows, filled with doubts, afraid, hiding. It was, and is, the common feeling of the undocumented.
But my parents’ fears were unfounded. The amnesty had, in fact, passed. My life had changed. A little over a year later, I walked out of an immigration center with my temporary resident card in hand. A few weeks after that, my social security card came in the mail. There would be a permanent residency card and, years later, a citizenship ceremony during which I choked back tears of pride. My future, once black and ominous, had filled with possibility and light.
And it had all begun with that newspaper article glimpsed on that cold morning under the emotionless eye of a streetlight.