The ‘American Dream’ of an International Student
January 12, 2021
By: Stephany Ordóñez
The immigration system is broken.
This was a phrase I often heard from my friends and relatives when referring to U.S immigration laws and policies. My knowledge about the U.S immigration system was very limited, and I didn’t quite understand how the process worked. At least not until 2016.
Born and raised in Honduras, I grew up with this idea of achieving the American Dream, the belief that anyone [in the U.S] can have a successful life if they work hard enough. In Honduras, as in any other Latin American country, the dream of living in the U.S has become part of the culture. From a very young age, I was told that if I wanted to be successful in life, I had to leave my country and find such opportunities abroad. To me this made sense, especially because Honduras is among the most violent countries in the world, with organized crime, corruption, and insecurity being driving factors for migration. With 68% of the population living in poverty, I decided to study abroad, not only because I knew I would find a better future elsewhere, but because I had to pursue my American Dream.
With my student visa in one hand and my dreams in the other, I decided to start my journey of a lifetime. A journey full of unfamiliarity, learning experiences, and awakening.
In 2016, I left my country to start my college career in Nashville, TN. It was a drastic change, but I was determined to make it work despite the homesickness. I wish I could tell you things got better after this, but the truth is, these were the months where I came to realize how the immigration system really worked. As time passed by, I noticed how my safety net slowly but surely started to fade away. I was constantly being asked by strangers about my legal status, mainly because they wanted to make sure I came to the country “the right way.” On one occasion, one person assured me I would be sent back to Honduras due to the administration’s new immigration policies.
I realized my race and skin color would ultimately play an important role in the way others would see or treat me. As a Latina in a foreign country, I often felt the need of justifying my actions to make sure people didn’t have a negative perception of my identity. I was constantly explaining myself––who I was, where I was from, or how I came to the U.S––as a way to avoid judgment. I was desperately trying to feel welcomed in a country where legal status felt more important than my true self.
If you were to ask me, I believe we got this American Dream all wrong. In my experience, this is less about getting a job, receiving a nice paycheck, and having a good life; it is more about living under the shadows of a broken immigration system, enduring racism and inequality, and hoping to have laws that would act in your favor and make you feel welcomed in an unknown country.
But there’s hope.
In the midst of being stuck between the constant laws within the system, I must say I did find joy and perspective. I had the privilege of being surrounded by Christ-followers who, despite our physical differences, adopted me into their churches, families, and friend groups. I saw the ugly side of the system, but I also experienced the redeeming, all-loving side of those who are willing to fight for the most vulnerable.
The brokenness of this system has pushed me to grow in love for my neighbors, in patience for my leaders, and in hope for a better tomorrow. After four years of what seemed to be like the most eventful time of my life, I have learned to live with the struggles and limitations of being an international student without letting them define me as a person. At the end of the day, my American Dream didn’t necessarily give me the best job or the most successful life, but it did allow me to learn, understand, and experience the reality many vulnerable groups constantly face in the hands of U.S laws and policies. It pushed me to experience discomfort, to fight for what is right, and to advocate for a better future.
As we are approaching a new season, my prayer is that we may embrace our peers and their differences with open hearts, open minds, and open arms. May this be the year we redefine our priorities of what it means to welcome the stranger, and may we do and be better––as advocates, Christians, neighbors, and friends.
Stephany is an international student from Tegucigalpa, Honduras and has recently graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN. She received a B.S in Social Justice with a dual minor in Social Work and Non-Profit Organizational Leadership. Stephany was an intern with the Evangelical Immigration Table in Fall 2020.