I Lived in Terror as an Undocumented Youth. Now Second Lady of Pennsylvania, I’m Standing With U.S. Dreamers

Gisele Barreto Fetterman, second lady of Pennsylvania, at her citizenship ceremony. (Instagram)

As a girl, my mother’s parting words to my brother and me were the same every morning. “I love you. Have a great day. Be invisible.”

We were undocumented immigrants from Brazil living in a small apartment in Queens. My mother worked multiple jobs—a domestic worker by day and coat check assistant by night, her Walkman playing an endless loop of English lessons.

When we weren’t in school, my brother and I earned extra cash by rolling newspapers, which turned our fingertips black. We all worked hard, studied diligently and paid taxes; it hurt knowing that this country didn’t want us. But we heeded our mother’s advice to stay invisible, knowing that one misstep could cost us our lives.

We could not return to our home in Rio de Janeiro—a city that always ranks extremely high on the violence index. We knew many ordinary people who just did not make it home.

When I was 7, my mom, determined to shield my brother and me from harm, left behind her life, advanced degrees and a thriving career as a nutritionist and educator to be a domestic worker in America.

Today, I’m an American citizen, the second lady of Pennsylvania and the founder of three nonprofits that support underrepresented communities. But I still know in my bones the terror of living in the shadows.

Gisele Barreto Fetterman with her husband, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. (Instagram)

It’s the feeling carried by the more than 1.2 million Dreamers living and working among us. More than 500,000 Dreamers are essential workers, sharing the burden with citizens carrying this country through the pandemic and recession, according to New American Economy. Yet they’ve endured years of whiplash as our nation’s leaders promise permanent protections but never follow through. 

This limbo state is untenable and government’s lack of response unconscionable. Yes, the Biden administration is trying to safeguard DACA, but this band-aid solution only helps some Dreamers.

Only bipartisan legislation will give these deserving American residents real security. It’s time for the Senate to step up: Pass a version of the Dream and Promise Act, which has already cleared the house, and stop using Dreamers as bargaining chips.  The constant wrangling has disrupted the lives of our neighbors and friends. It hurts our businesses. Worse, it demonstrates an utter lack of humanity.  

It’s time for the Senate to step up: Pass a version of the Dream and Promise Act, which has already cleared the house, and stop using Dreamers as bargaining chips. 

Including Dreamers should be a no-brainer. The vast majority of Americans support Dreamers, including 68 percent of Republicans. Dreamers are gifts to our society: multilingual, culturally fluent and American-educated. They make up 62,000 essential health care workers—doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who have been pushed to the brink, risking their lives to care for those sick with COVID-19. They work all along our food supply chain, from picking our fresh produce to packaging our meat. They teach our children and provided crucial ESL support to our state’s most vulnerable students during the pandemic. They also give much more than they take—contributing more than $492 billion in taxes, supporting necessary social services.

But not all contributions are monetary. Anyone who has lived undocumented in America walks through life with an immense reserve of empathy. When my family first arrived here, we shopped for furniture on the curb and became expert dumpster divers. Coming from a country with so little, we were shocked by how much perfectly good food gets wasted every day in America.

I knew there had to be a better way, and decades later, I co-founded 412 Food Rescue, a volunteer-run tech company that partners with restaurants, universities and wholesalers to rescue this surplus food and deliver it to people in need. My commitment to the underserved runs deep; I founded Free Store 15104, where families can receive donated necessities such as diapers, formula, clothing and food. I also co-created For Good PGH, a nonprofit that runs multiple entrepreneurial and mentoring programs for women and teens.

Now that I’m the mother of three children, I have an even deeper appreciation for the sacrifice my mother made to protect us. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or Brazilian. Parents are driven by deep love and fierce protective instincts. They will do anything to shield their children from danger. 

In August 2018, USCIS estimated there were 699,350 active DACA recipients residing in the United States. Immigration researchers estimate the population to be between 690,000 and 800,000 people. (Susan Ruggles / Flickr)

I often think of these lines by the poet Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

What American parent who saw the jaws of their home closing in wouldn’t have done exactly what my mom did—scoop up their children and run.

As a society, it’s our job to do right by Dreamers and give them security here. They deserve to live free from the shadows, safe, protected and finally, visible.

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Gisele Barreto Fetterman is the Second Lady of Pennsylvania, wife of lieutenant governor and Senate candidate John Fetterman and the founder of three nonprofits, 412 Food Rescue, Free Store 15104 and For Good PGH.