Ky. voices: Alexis Meza recounts 13-hour walk across the desert toward her American dream

Alexis Meza is an intern with the Herald-Leader editorial board and a senior at Kentucky State University.
Alexis Meza is an intern with the Herald-Leader editorial board and a senior at Kentucky State University.

Thousands of unaccompanied Central American children are waiting in detention centers at the border for their fate to be decided. As I watch and read comments about this situation, I cannot help but think about a day in my own life that I will never forget.

It was Nov. 20, 1999, about 5 p.m. The air felt hot, but we knew it would cool down once sunset arrived and our 13-hour walk began.

The hot earth was the only smell as we stared at a never-ending desert. Tall grass, dead trees and animals — dead and alive — would be our companions through the night.

There were about 25 people in our group, all making a 180-degree turn in our lives.

The United States was the goal, the final destination, the place of better opportunities, where if you work hard, you can accomplish your dreams. I had no idea how far away from Mexico it was or where I was going. I was only excited to know that I would be reunited with my father after two years. This was the U.S. to me, and nothing else.

Leaving my family and friends in Veracruz a week earlier already felt like years. Uncertainty and hope filled our days as we made our journey. I was a week away from turning 9 at the time I crossed la frontera alongside my mother and my then four-year-old brother. The only thing we took from home was a small diaper bag with some limes, crackers and a blanket.

Walking was easy for the first few hours. My young body didn't think too much of it until tiredness became unbearable. There was no water to ease my thirst; all I could do was hold on to my mother's hand. The night was loud with animal howls and bright with moonlight. Twice, we ran as fast as we could to hide from the police. Bushes sheltered us from getting caught.

The fear of getting left behind was real. The coyote, who charged $1,000 a person to shepherd us, was not going to turn back or wait for anyone.

It's sometimes hard for me to realize that it really happened and that at a young age, I was already a survivor.

Fifteen years later, I look back at how my life changed because my parents were looking for a better future.

Assimilating to the American culture was easy for me. Of course, I was young and with ambition to fit in. I attended elementary school in Dallas, where I learned English. In 2003, my family moved to Lancaster, Ky., where I grew up. I was on the honor roll and in advanced classes in high school. I lived a normal American life — except I had a secret that I was not allowed to tell anyone.

Being undocumented brought many challenges. It was awkward when I had to explain to my friends why I didn't have my driving permit at 16, or why I wasn't applying for colleges.

I had always thought that I would have to return to Mexico to be able to attend college. During my senior year, I met Erin Howard, the Latino outreach coordinator at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. She told me of the opportunities I had to attend college here. That day, my life made another turn I do not regret taking.

In 2010, I moved to Lexington to attend BCTC. I became an advocate for immigrant youth, the DREAM Act and immigration reform. I co-founded Kentucky Dream Coalition and became active in my community.

I graduated from BCTC in 2012, and I am now a senior at Kentucky State University, pursuing a career in journalism.

After all these years, my legal status remains up in the air.

Even though I was granted a two-year work permit through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012, my future in this country is still foggy, and I could end up back in a place I haven't visited since I was eight. There is no "line" I can get into to fix it. My journey continues.

I think I can understand some of what these children are experiencing. I know the dangers and fear of the desert. Although I crossed the border with my mother, I had no idea what was waiting for me on the other side. I cannot imagine what it is like to be a child with no one to look after you and to come to a country that is willing to send you back to the life you are trying to escape.

I am an immigrant, but a Kentuckian at heart. I feel at home here, and I am giving back to my community by bettering myself.

My family left our country to survive economically. These children left, or were sent, just to survive. I believe they deserve an opportunity to live, to dream, find safety, love and a better future.