by Fernando Sacoto
I considered myself to be an “American” the day that I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for this country, even though I was undocumented. The day my children were born, I embraced this country even more, and I was sure I wanted to obtain the American dream for my family.
I was born in Ecuador in 1967, the tenth of eleven brothers and sisters. My father was a crop and livestock farmer who took great pride in raising livestock and taking care of his land. My mother was a housewife. In Ecuador I went to elementary school and as I graduated from high school I was certified as an electrician. After high school, I tried to become a pilot in the Ecuadorian Air Force, but I was disqualified after my vision test.
A few months later, I joined the Ecuadorian Army, and completed one year of mandatory training as a reserve 2nd lieutenant. I wanted to become an officer in the Army, but I was discharged because of my height. I also couldn’t register in colleges there because I was late for registration and there were no more openings. I also had to manage paying rent, food and other necessities which made it harder for me to attend college. Due to these circumstances, I went to work in a hotel cleaning bathrooms and making beds.
I did this for 8 months, working 100 hours a week and making 34 dollars a month. One day, I asked my parents if they could borrow $2,500 from our neighbor so I could open a liquor store in Quito, the Capital of Ecuador. After consulting with my father, he advised me to go to the United States to find a better life. At that time everyone was immigrating to the United States. Many of my friends had family members that traveled to the United States and improved financially very quickly. They had new houses, new cars, and were able to send money to family members in Ecuador. I realized that if I could make it there, I would help my family and have a better future. I left Ecuador without permission in September 13, 1988.
Throughout our trip, from Ecuador, Colombia, to Panama, to Guatemala, to Mexico, the human traffickers, or coyotes, would threaten to take us all to the authorities, forcing us to give them more money. At one point, one of my friends and I decided to break off from the group, making the dangerous journey over the border, hiding from helicopters and searchlights. Eventually we were picked up by car in the middle of the desert, hiding in the car of a coyote. I woke up in the trunk of a car, in a hot parking lot in Los Angeles. From there, I made arrangements to fly to New York, where I went to live with another friend in New Jersey. I worked in a restaurant, preparing food, and later worked as a busboy. The hardest part of working was trying to learn English, and interacting with people who only spoke English. I wanted to go back to Ecuador so badly. This was so different to the environment I was used to, but I had to stay to repay the money that my father had borrowed. If I didn’t, my father would lose his property placed as collateral.
My English improved, and I was promoted to waiter. I soon realized that to continue working, I had to obtain a driver’s license, and buy a vehicle. So in 1989, I began a series of attempts to become a legal resident.
Once, I saw a lawyer in Long Island City, and paid his office $1,800, with the assurance that if I left my passport with them, I would be given a legal residence. Although I received some paperwork, a record of arrival in the U.S. when I called the office to check on the progress of my application, I found that their phone had been disconnected. Another man charged me over $5,000 for a similar guarantee, and I was cheated as I had been before, with no further progress towards citizenship. Unfortunately, I did not learn that this latest attempt was fraudulent until much later, when the wheels had been set in motion for a much more complex turn of events.
One day, out of curiosity, I stopped at a U.S. Army Recruiting Office. After learning more, and passing Math and English exams, I decided that I wanted to become a soldier. I showed my recruiting officer all of my Ecuadorian paperwork. All that was left was for the recruiting officer to verify my immigration status with Immigration Services, but for reasons I cannot explain, he did not follow up. We went to Newark, New Jersey, and I signed up for a 5 year enlistment.
Only weeks into my basic training did I learn that my latest attempt to legalize my status was in fact fraudulent. I now realized that I was doing something illegal, but I stayed quiet, and continued my 8 weeks of basic training. I decided to stay quiet because my dream was to make a career of the army. I was very proud to serve in the best army of the world and I was ready to defend the country that gave me the opportunity to have a better life. After graduating Advanced Individual Training in May 1991, I finished 5th overall in my class. I made it to the Commandant’s List which included the ten best students of each class.
My first permanent duty station was in Nuremberg, Germany. This experience was different from the Army in Ecuador in many ways. In Ecuador I was abused physically and emotionally almost every day by the instructors. In the U.S. Army I was treated like a human being and was given respect as such. In the army I was working less hours for five days a week, compared to twelve hours for seven days a week in a restaurant. I was given the opportunity to travel and to live my everyday life as a free person rather than an immigrant worrying about my illegal status. I was able to feel protected and secure from being detained by immigration and deported. To make the U.S. safer, I provided administrative support to the troops that were coming back from Kuwait. I was the link between the families and the soldiers as I performed my duties to solve their problems and maintain them united.
After two years in Germany, I was reassigned to Panama for another two years, where I was assigned to the 308th Military Intelligence battalion. For my last year, I was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, in a cavalry unit. During my stay in the military, I received 3 Army Commendation Medals, 3 Army Achievement Medals, and 3 coins for my work.
While serving abroad, I was able to travel with my military ID card back to Ecuador. There, I married my girlfriend from high school, before I returned back to Germany. When I was reassigned to Panama in 1993 I took a vacation and traveled to Ecuador to see my daughter for the first time. She was already six months old.
The army life taught me to be determined and to fight in order to reach my goals. It taught me to be strong under pressure and to overcome all the obstacles that we face throughout our lifetime. One of the most important things is that I was able to learn more English at a faster pace since I was expected to know the language to complete my work. The army prepared me for the rest of my life because it taught me to never give up and work hard to accomplish everything I set my mind to.
When I left the army with the rank of Specialist, I was very sad and felt as if I had lost my way of life. I felt as If I had lost my career and everything I had worked for all those years. I had to start living life again as an undocumented immigrant and felt like I lost all the security I had once felt.
After my 5 year enlistment, I talked with a military lawyer, who informed me that due to my immigration status, It would be better for me not to re-enlist. This was my biggest disappointment. I couldn’t continue in the Army. I always wanted to make being in the military a career. After my honorable discharge in 1996, I transferred to the New Jersey National Guard, and was there for a year and a half, before I requested to be discharged.
I returned to New York, and worked in various restaurants for three years. I worked as a carpenter’s apprentice for two years, and learned a lot about the profession. In 2003 my brother and I opened our own business. Together we made our business grow and I was able to buy a house for my family. Together with another brother, the three of us, we bought three houses in Ohio. We worked on over 600 houses throughout the last 11 years I have been working with my brother. We provided the community with general contractor services, interior home improvement, and we emphasized work in roofing, siding, windows, doors, tile and seamless gutters. It was rewarding to see the happiness and excitement in the owner’s face as they see their dreams become a reality. The happiness they feel is transmitted to me, which makes my job worth it.
In 2003, I learned that because of my military service occurred during a “Period of Hostility,” I was qualified to become a U.S. citizen. Regardless of whether I was admitted as a permanent resident at the time, I was eligible for naturalization.
This time, I talked to a lawyer from Catholic Charities. After 17 years as an undocumented immigrant, I became a U.S. citizen. On April 17, 2006, I changed my status from an undocumented immigrant to a US citizen in a single day.
Since I became a citizen, I was able to get my driver’s license which made life a lot easier and helped to improve my business. I was also given the opportunity to vote and express myself politically. I was able to travel to visit my parent’s graves since they died when I was undocumented and was unable to travel. Now I am not afraid to continue working to provide a better future for my family as well as for myself.
My struggles and accomplishments allowed me to provide my family with a home, food, clothing, and most importantly the opportunity to obtain an education. My family and I are able to travel to Ecuador to visit family and friends and safely return to our home here in the United States.
I believe that almost all undocumented immigrants like myself have “earned” their citizenship through their work because they greatly contribute to the economy of this country. Most undocumented immigrants work long hours for minimum pay in order to sustain themselves and their families in other countries. They have children that are U.S. Citizens and have all the rights they deserve as such. They have built their lives here for many years and don’t have any other way of moving ahead in their own countries.