MILWAUKEE — Eduardo Parea grew up in a rural farming community in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. But at age 15, having just completed the ninth grade, he knew his education and life options would be limited from there.
"I didn't really see no future because we didn't even own a farm, and there was no way for me to continue my education," Parea said. "So I saw no future for myself. If I wanted something better for my life, I knew I had to migrate."
So, he decided to get on a bus from his hometown to the U.S. border, eventually ending up in Milwaukee, where his brother was already living. He said he didn't know if he'd be able to return or if he'd ever see his parents again.
He also didn't qualify for a work visa and didn't have the means to obtain a tourist visa, so he came without one. But, nonetheless, he was sure migrating was the right choice.
"The moment I made the decision of coming here and when I arrived here, I considered Milwaukee my home," he said.
He didn't attend high school in Milwaukee because he wanted to make money to send home to his parents. He started as a dishwasher and took English classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) when he wasn't working. He went on to earn his GED through an MATC program.
Parea, now 47, has been living in the Milwaukee area for more than 30 years. He works in construction and home remodeling. He also got married and is now the proud father of four kids.
As he became more established and built a life in Milwaukee, the fear of being deported at any moment began to set in. In Wisconsin, undocumented immigrants can't have driver's licenses, so just driving to work and back every day can cause anxiety.
In the early 2000s, he began the citizenship application process. But because he had been undocumented in the United States for more than a year, he would've had to move back to Mexico for 10 years before being able to potentially gain citizenship. With his family in mind, he didn't go through with the process.
"I had two kids at the time, six and seven, and I wasn't going to leave them behind," Parea said.
So he stayed in Milwaukee, trying to put aside the uncertainty of living as an undocumented person, working to support his family, and contributing to the country he now calls home.
"I pay taxes when I purchase a car, when I buy a house, I pay my property taxes, I'm paying my income taxes every year. So I have the same responsibilities and obligations of any other citizen. I have to obey the law; I have to respect the traffic laws and everything else. So, I just don't have the same opportunity," Parea said.
However, by moving to the U.S., he's ensured that his kids have the opportunities he didn't. His two youngest are still in school; his two oldest are now college graduates.
"I am very proud of them, very proud of them," Parea said. "My wife and I did everything that was in our hands to give those kids an opportunity."
When his oldest daughter turned 21, she became her parents' sponsor, and Parea and his wife began applying for citizenship again. He said it's been a four-year process.
"Which is a very long time, very expensive, very uncertain. But I think we're in the final stretch, and we're waiting for an interview appointment in Juarez," he said.
And as he waits to hear about his own fight for citizenship, he's also helping others as they work to gain citizenship.
Parea is heading to D.C. with Voces de la Frontera on Monday night. There, he and others will advocate for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers who helped during the pandemic.
Christine Newman-Ortiz, Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera, said the pathway to citizenship their pushing for could impact five to eight million people.
"That's absolutely necessary because they have been working through this pandemic. And even through their taxes, because even if you're undocumented, you're still required to pay and report your taxes, but yet you don't qualify for many of the benefits that have been very helpful for families here in the United States," Newman-Ortiz said.
This story was originally published by Sarah McGrew on Scripps station TMJ4 in Milwaukee.