Poly grew up like many typical American girls. She loved Disney movies, took dance classes and played sports, enjoyed her dad's Italian home cooking, and spent Sundays at church with her family. She excelled in school, and even won a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, where she was active in volunteerism. After graduating, she went on to study at a college in New England, where she became president of the Board of Multi-Cultural Student Affairs.
But in other ways, she grew up in a world apart. Her mother made typical mineira dishes, including frango com quiabo, pão de queijo, and feijão tropeiro; Poly's favorites were salpicão and canjiquinha. Her parents only spoke Portuguese at home, knowing that Poly and her brother would learn English in school. Her family rented VHS tapes of Brazilian soap operas and popular TV shows like Faustão and Silvio Santos. She took Brazilian dance lessons and played with other Brazilian kids, since her parents were active in the local Brazilian community.
Not only did Poly live between two cultures, but also in two realms - the public, seemingly normal life, and the other private life, that involved a carefully guarded secret. She grew up undocumented, without a Social Security number, a driver's license, or even a visa. Until her fateful return to Brazil in 2008, she had never left the United States, despite studying International Relations in college with a longing to see the world. She was unable to work legally, and would have been unable to go to college were it not for a miraculous bureaucratic omission by the university she attended. Her parents have not been back to Brazil in twenty-three years, and have not seen their close family since then. Poly's brother was born in the US, and is the only member of the family who grew up as a citizen and had been to Brazil to visit family. Poly, who was forced to leave the US, is now unable to return. She has not seen her parents in nearly four years.
It all began when Poly's mother learned she was pregnant. She and Poly's father lived in Governador Valadares, a city in Minas Gerais that has historically had the largest number of residents living in the United States (read an interesting article about it here). Poly's father was out of work, and there were no job prospects. At the time, Poly's uncle was living in the United States, so Poly's father decided that to try his luck there. In the next few years, thousands of fellow citizens of Valadares would follow in his footsteps. Poly's dad flew to New York on a tourist visa, and got work in construction. After about a year and a half, he returned to Brazil and discovered that job prospects were still slim. So he figured out a way to return to the US, bringing his whole family this time to Connecticut. Poly was two years old, and she and her mother came through Mexico illegally. Poly believes they crossed the border in a car, though every time she asks her mother about it, she pretends not to remember. Poly doesn't remember immigrating, and grew up only knowing life in the US.
Poly's biggest test came when she was applying to college, and it was the first time she considered moving to Brazil. Without a social security number, she couldn't apply for financial aid, and her options for colleges to apply to were limited. She told very few people about her immigration status, and slowly came out to friends. Eventually, she confessed to her high school guidance counselor, who helped her apply to schools as an international student. Though she was able to get scholarships to a number of schools, Providence College offered her a full ride, and off she went. There were so few international students there, Poly says, that admissions and financial aid seemingly never communicated with each other, and Poly never had to produce a visa.
Meanwhile, Poly's parents were finally able to obtain their work authorization. Poly's father had applied for a green card years earlier with no success through his employer, and although the law wasn't applicable anymore, he was grandfathered in through the same process, but with a different company. But since her parents received their work authorization two weeks after Poly's 21st birthday, she was no longer a dependent, and would no longer be able to get immigration documents through her parents. In other words, she was still stuck. She was in college, but still unable to do many of the things her friends and fellow students could. "It was frustrating because I knew I was capable of all of this, and all that separated me from everyone else was a piece of paper," Poly told me.
While Poly was successful in college, she still struggled with her status. She was scared to explain why she couldn't take certain trips or apply to internships, fearful of some sort of reprisal. Her junior year, she was selected to be an orientation leader, and had to decline due to her immigration status. "It was especially hard because I thought the director would think less of me as a leader," Poly said. "Overall though, it was a relief to be able to talk to people about it."
Her senior year of college, Poly was recruited by Teach for America, think tanks, and top corporations. But every time they got down to the question, "Are you authorized to work in the US?" Poly was forced to tell the truth. She recalls a final round interview with a high-profile news organization, when it seemed she was going to get an offer. But the interviewer asked the big question and immediately wrote Poly off. Faced with waiting tables or cleaning houses, Poly was frustrated. She'd always been committed to social justice and development and had always wanted to be involved in helping others. "It does make me sad to think that I did spend my entire life focused on wanting to make a difference in the US, and wasn't really granted that opportunity," she lamented.
Undaunted, Poly decided to try her luck. She took an unpaid internship with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC, and and worked freelance for a friend's digital advertising company to make ends meet. During her time at her internship, she spoke to a variety of businesspeople in Brazil, who told her how things were changing and urged her to move back. Poly had been waiting for years on changes in federal legislation, for bills like the DREAM Act to allow young people like her to become permanent residents, and therefore to be able to study and work in the US. But after years of broken promises and failures, Poly grew despondent, and began to seriously consider moving to Brazil, even though it had always been her last option, a Plan C of sorts. Poly explained her rationale: "For me it was a question of 'Do I want to build a career and do something I can love?' or 'Do I want to live in the shadows, but still make good money, whether it be cleaning, serving, babysitting, etc.' I've never been one to want things but rather, be somebody. And having grown up 'American,' without fully ever being American, made me value citizenship and embrace my nationality much more than my peers."
So after she finished her internship, she returned to Connecticut and told her parents about her decision. They were upset, but understood her perspective. Poly bought her ticket a few months in advance, and called her aunt in São Paulo three weeks before she was due to arrive. At 22, it was the first time Poly was leaving the US, and was the first time she would return to the country of her birth.
Her aunt and uncle took her in, and Poly lived with them for six months while she got on her feet in São Paulo. There, she had a different problem than in the US - plenty of places wanted to hire her, but told her she was overqualified or that they couldn't afford to pay her. She began teaching English at a school, and also began teaching private classes. One of her students mentioned her company was a hiring an SEO assistant fluent in English with on-the-job training, and asked if she'd be interested. Thus Poly began a successful career in online marketing, and worked at the advertising agency for two years. After that, she moved on to do SEO for a popular jobs website, and recently began doing SEO consulting. (She also has another very exciting project on the way, but she can't discuss it publicly yet). In addition to her new career, Poly began blogging when she moved back to Brazil, and with the blog found some of her closest friends. She even inspired others to move back to Brazil, which Poly counts as a personal achievement.
In São Paulo, Poly has flourished. Besides her career, she also is studying for an MBA, and may do a short term study abroad for her program. She recently traveled to Europe for the first time with a friend, and has taken advantage of cheap airfare to travel all over Brazil, including Brasília, the Northeast, and Santa Catarina. She has new friends in São Paulo, as well as Brazilian friends who used to live in the US and Americans living abroad. With this diverse group of friends, Poly says they really understand her experience.
While living in the US, Poly had been very politically involved. She went to every Mayday parade, immigration marches, and didn't miss an opportunity to write about immigration issues. She even appealed to her senator before deciding to leave the US, though he told her that he unfortunately couldn't help her. In São Paulo, Poly found herself growing more distant from the reform movement, though she had friends back in the US who were still very active. Plus, her parents continued to wait on the green card applications. "I think when I left the US, I felt towards the US a lot of frustration, discouragement, and sometimes even hate. Today, I guess I am more indifferent to it all. I've been able to adapt, have come to love living in Brazil, and could never imagine moving back to the US, so I really just don't care much anymore. Sometimes I feel a little disappointed because it almost feels as if I 'gave up' on the changing immigration law cause, which I was really active in, but I suppose it was a lost cause after all, at least for the past few years," Poly told me.
Though she loved her life in Brazil, Poly wanted to go back to the US to see her family and friends. Her brother was graduating from high school and her friend was getting married, so Poly decided to go and apply for a tourist visa. At the consulate, she found more disappointment. She was told she could only apply for a tourist visa in 2018 (a decade after she left the US), but could apply for immigrant status at any time, either through her family, work sponsorship, or marriage. Since her parents were still waiting for their green cards and the other two prospects were not viable, Poly had no way to return.
But a few weeks ago, Poly received exciting news. Her parents finally received their green cards, and they will return to Brazil for the first time in nearly two and a half decades this December to reunite with Poly and their families. Poly is ecstatic about the reunion, and about her parents' victory that took years. Still, she has no plans to return to the US, at least definitively.
When I asked her what advice she'd give to Brazilians in her situation, she said, "If the US doesn’t want you there, screw them and come to Brazil. If it worked for me, it can work for you...I think more than anything, the US is missing people with a diverse mindset, who are qualified, ambitious, hardworking and honest young people. But today, I really just want to tell everyone to come to Brazil and make up for the lack of qualified labor we're missing out on here so the US could feel how much we actually do make a positive difference when we're in the classroom and the work force!"
Read more about Poly's journey at Disseram Que Eu Voltei Americanizada.
I've been friends with Poly for a few years now, and couldn't believe I hadn't told her story yet. But I think it comes at a good time, when more and more people are beginning to see that legislation and the work of our legislators can actually have a life or death impact on people, and can definitively change people's lives. California passed its own version of the DREAM Act this week, which will allow students in Poly's situation to apply for funding to attend public universities. Rhode Island passed a similar version of the DREAM Act in late September. Also, in a funny coincidence, friend of the blog Felipe Matos is spearheading a nationwide coming out day for undocumented immigrants today.
The national version of the DREAM Act bill, which would grant residency to eligible immigrants, was reintroduced in the Senate in May, and was defeated by Republicans. President Obama has expressed his support for the bill, but has so far been unable to make inroads into any sort of concrete immigration reform.