Melva Herrera was in high school when she asked her parents for her social security card so she could apply for colleges and student loans. She didn’t have one.
“And me being kind of unaware growing up, it hit me that like, 'Oh, I'm undocumented.’”
She remembers her parents explained, “There just haven’t been any opportunities in terms of a pathway for citizenship.”
Herrera’s parents brought her to California from Mexico when she was nine months old so that her father would have better work opportunities. Like many people brought to the United States as children without documentation, she didn’t have an option to become a citizen and remain in the U.S.
When people ask her why she didn’t return to Mexico to apply for a visa to come back to the United States, she says, “The United States is all I've ever known. If I were to go back -- you always hear about people being punished and having to stay there for years, and then they apply, and then they still get rejected.”
Herrera struggled after high school.
“Instead of looking to go to even a community college, I just went the route of trying to find somewhere I could work,” said Herrera. “I did that for a number of years, just kind of working and kind of just not being able to grow within that company because I didn't have any sort of visa or citizenship. So it was a little frustrating, and I'd get a little depressed from time to time”
In 2011, Herrera married her husband, an American citizen. That meant her husband could petition for her to receive permanent residence. But she still had to go back to Mexico.
In January 2016, she traveled across the border for the first time since she was an infant.
"So as President Trump was being inaugurated into office, I was in Ciudad Juarez, waiting to find out if I was being accepted for my visa. So that was a little scary being out there on the other side of the border, the unknown -- whether I can come back or not."
She received her green card, and in 2019 she applied for citizenship.
“At the ceremony, one of the words that stuck out to me is they found us ‘eligible’ to be here in this country,” said Herrera. “I'm one of those people who are eligible, who are being allowed to be here and to live here and to have these rights. Whereas, I’ve been here all my life.”
She says she felt like she’s been in a separate community from people who are citizens. Now she’s excited to grow into new opportunities and to vote. She says she’ll cast her ballot for former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.
“People just have no idea that the laws in terms of immigration are just very challenging…. Now my goal is to get that house, to have that American dream, as everyone says, get that nice car and that job and just be happy.”
Read other stories of New Americans in our special series.