This is what life looks like when you’re undocumented


Leezia Dhalla at TEDxSanAntonio

For TEDxSanAntonio speaker Leezia Dhalla, the issue of immigration in the United States isn’t some distant governmental matter one discusses at a dinner party then forgets. It is an elemental part of her everyday.

In 1995, when Dhalla was five years old, her father moved from Canada to the U.S. chasing the American dream, looking for sustainable work more lucrative than that of where Dhalla and her family lived. By the time Dhalla was six, her father had obtained a visa to allow her to come join him in the States.

Once settled, the family hired an attorney to appeal to become permanent residents, but, Dhalla says, things went wrong and they were left paperless; undocumented. And Dhalla, still young, had no idea she was an undocumented immigrant and could potentially be deported.

Eventually, Dhalla found out about her immigration status, and everything changed for her. “I feel American,” she says, “but every day I’m reminded that I’m not.” When she left for college, she didn’t qualify for federal aid and had to take out a six-figure loan to pay for school; when her friends were studying abroad, she had to stay on campus, because her parents feared that if she left the country, she wouldn’t be let back in.

In 2012, the Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows children brought to the United States who do not currently have legal immigrant status to obtain a temporary work permit and deportation deferral, allowed Dhalla to feel a bit more secure, but, still, she says, her and her family’s future remains uncertain.

“How can you plan for a life,” she asks, “when that life could come crashing down at any moment? It’s scary knowing your status is a secret you always have to hold. So, we hide in plain sight. We drive below the speed limit. We stop at every yellow light. And we try to stay positive, but it’s hard to keep your head down and your chin up at the same time.”

Dhalla is used to hearing things like, “I wish those immigrants would just go to the back of the line.” But for people like herself, who are brought to a different country as children, there is no real line, she says. “And that’s why immigration reform matters to so many people,” she says, “because it gives us a chance to get in line.” But, beyond that, the re-evaluation of immigration practices means a sense of legitimacy, safety, and potential for millions of people.

Watch Dhalla’s whole talk below:


  1. Leezia Dhalla

    Thank you for writing this! You captured my story and the issue of immigration really well!

    One quick correction: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is targeted at individuals who are currently undocumented, but who were brought to the US as young children both legally and illegally. Some beneficiaries entered the US with legal paperwork and overstayed visas, but others entered without authorization (or without a visa).

    Thanks again for writing this! Great to see so many people showing interest in such a timely and hugely important issue.

    • Hailey Reissman

      Thanks for writing to us, Leezia, and for sharing your story at TEDxSanAntonio. We will make that correction now. All the best!

  2. Beth Hasbrouck

    Leezia, I loved hearing your story – thank you. TedX San Antonio – thank you for this video. Is it possible to get the transcript of Leezia’s talk?

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