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Voices: Our Immigration Journey Out of the Shadows

Claudia Victoria Lemus, a University of Texas student who is interning at NBC News Washington. Courtesy of Claudia Victoria Lemus

It's been 14 years, but the memory still haunts my sleep.

"Please take care of my little girl," my mother cries to the smuggler carrying one of my baby sisters across the Rio Grande. "Mama, Mama please don't leave me," I hear her cry.

It was the year 2000. I was only 7 years old when I was brought to America on my father's shoulders. I was only 7 years old when I witnessed the most impactful act of love as my parents risked our lives to get us to the land of dreams, to America. It has been 14 years, yet I still remember like it was yesterday, my mother's trembling hand as she held on to my father, the fear in her eyes as she carried my other sister in her arms. It is burnt deeply into my memories.

For my parents, it was all or nothing. Separating our family was never a choice. They could not fathom sending us to America alone, or worse, leaving us behind in Mexico. This decision resulted in a chain reaction of struggles for our family. But the land of dreams, to them, was absolutely worth every sacrifice.

At the time, I was the oldest of my sisters, yet I was too little to understand the significance of the gargantuan move. It was not until I was thrown into a world in English when I started elementary school that the change hit me like a bucket of ice water to the face.

"In the shadows or not, America became home. The Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner became the hymns of my soul and my existence. Red, white, and blue were my colors."

Although not easy, I picked up the new language and before long English competed with my Spanish. Little by little, memories of the country where I was born faded as new ones from the country raising me moved in.

In the shadows or not, America became home. Soon I became entwined in the fine threads of the American culture. The Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner became the hymns of my soul and my existence. Red, white, and blue were my colors. I did more than my best in school and made college my ultimate dream.

For many years, I believed I was just like the other kids. I, like my friends and classmates, was an American. Unfortunately, that illusion collapsed before my eyes when college application time came around my junior year in high school. For the first time, I asked my parents for my Social Security number. Déjalo libre, leave it blank, they told me. Quickly, I realized what not having a Social Security number meant: no college applications, no financial aid, no ID, no driver's license. Nada.

The world "illegal" had never read so real or mean.The darkness of the shadows looked darker than ever. I wanted the light. I cried for the light every night. But no tears could change the fact that I was undocumented, that I was an "illegal."

I now realized why my parents earned the little they earned all along and why my father worked long hours in the sun mowing lawns and trimming people's gardens for such little pay. Now I realized why we spent Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, selling trinkets at local flea markets to boost our income.

I understood why my father had looked so pained every time I suggested jobs for him to apply to; it's not that he didn't want to, it's that he couldn't. To earn a living the right way, he and my mother had to work in the only jobs they could. Our family's unlawful status became my deep dark secret and one that consumed me for many months after. La Migra - Border Patrol - became my biggest nightmare. Every day I feared coming home from school to find my parents gone.

Despite fearing I would never live my dream of going to college, I got accepted into the University of Texas-Pan American in 2012 and received scholarships for my academic merits. Thanks to President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), I was able to obtain a work authorization permit and ID to get a job. I got one, with fair hours and normal pay. I was able to obtain proper identification and a driver's license. I was able to travel past the imprisoning check point in Falfurrias and experienced life beyond the Rio Grande Valley. I was able to step out of the shadows and into the light for the first time. But my parents, whose sacrifices led to my liberation, remained in the dark.

It has been two years since I first obtained my DACA and I recently went through the process of renewing it. It's amazing how in these two years my life has completely changed. Today, my career as a journalist is just beginning to bloom. I went from Mexico, to South Texas, to Washington, D.C., where I'm doing a fellowship and interning at NBC.

I am a semester away from graduating with a bachelor's degree and soon I'll pursue a graduate education. My life has changed for the better, and in turn I know I have helped changed my family's future. Yet in the back of my mind, it has always killed me to think that my parents' lives will remain the same because a long-awaited immigration reform has not yet come.

That changed Thursday night. After 14 years of struggling in the shadows, my parents - whose younger children were born in the U.S. - will finally have a chance to step into the light thanks to the executive actions President Obama announced.

"I had a dream that my family could live the American dream in the light, and together, give back to the country that’s given us so much. Fourteen years after waiting - those dreams became a reality."

For the first in a long time, my father will be able to get a real job and perhaps pursue the higher education he has always dreamed of. For the first time in a long time, my family will no longer live in fear of being separated at any moment.

For many years, I had a dream that one day my siblings and I would not live with the fear of coming home to find our parents gone and our family fall apart.

I had a dream that one day my family could feel safe and secure in the presence of law enforcement instead of feeling threatened by men in uniform.

I had a dream that my family could live the American dream in the light, and together, give back to the country that’s given us so much.

Fourteen years after waiting and believing in the greatness of America, thanks to President Obama and all those who listened to our shadowed cries, those dreams will soon become a reality.

Gracias, President Obama.