Despite my greatest fears, I "came out" to my Advanced Placement English teacher in the summer after my high school graduation. As a recent graduate, my excitement about my future was crushed by political realities. I was too ashamed and afraid to say the words in person, so I wrote in an e-mail: "I am an undocumented student. I can't go to college because the barriers are too great."
Growing up as an undocumented young person, there were strict rules I had to follow for my safety: Don't talk about the past. Don't make trouble. Don't ask for help. And most of all, don't get involved in politics. Doing any one of these things could have put me at risk for deportation.
I started taking risks once the highly polarized debate in Congress forestalled any progress on creating a rational immigration policy that would help people like me. I first told that one teacher. She consoled me, and expressed confidence in my ability to pursue a quality education. More important, she taught me a lesson about the struggle for civil rights: Social change cannot occur if we are paralyzed by fear. It is crucial for the people affected by an issue to speak out.
In 2007, I joined thousands of other immigrant youth calling on our elected officials not only to pay attention to our communities but also to treat us as human beings. I called on my senators and representatives for the first time in a coordinated action. My braver counterparts testified before Congress - at great risk to themselves and their families.
Throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth just like me have been speaking up. Though we lack the right to vote, we engage in the political process in other ways: through the power of storytelling and community building, with demonstrations, hunger strikes and other nonviolent actions. And our risk taking has been paying off.
With creativity and persistence, the undocumented-youth movement won the biggest victory in immigration policy in more than 20 years: a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. With deferred action, the Obama administration will stop the deportations of those who meet narrow qualifications.
I do agree with many others who say that, while a step in the right direction, deferred action does not go far enough. We need a long-term solution. We need a humane immigration process that provides a road map to citizenship for the millions of people already contributing to the United States.
With elections next week, this is an opportunity to define the immigration debate beyond "aspiring citizens" and "criminals." While President Obama upholds deferred action, we've also witnessed under the Obama administration the highest number of deportations on the false premise that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency targets only the "worst criminal offenders."
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, intends to end deferred action and supports a version of the DREAM Act that benefits only immigrant youths who serve in military. This characterization of good immigrant/bad immigrant is a grossly narrow and unrealistic portrayal that leaves too many people out of the discussion.
We need a government that sees all new Americans as part of this country's social fabric. We will hold our next president, whether a Democrat or a Republican, accountable not only to protect DACA-eligible youth but also to champion a broader, more humane and comprehensive immigration policy that respects the dignity and worth of all.
I plan to submit my DACA application. Then I can finally use the bachelor's degree I earned in my field of study - political science - instead of being forced to join the underground economy.
For my family, my hope is that the deferred-action policy illustrates the power of every person to bring about change.
For immigrant communities, my hope is that one day soon we can live free from fear.
Catherine Eusebio is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and a community advocate in the East Bay.