April 4, 2019
On Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park — Chicago’s Little India — sari shops glimmer and portly uncles slurp chai in restaurants. Ritu Patel’s family lived nearby in the 2000s. Her dad worked at a gas station and her mom at a Dunkin’ Donuts. The Patels’ story is a quintessentially American story of migration — except that she didn’t find out that she was undocumented until 2011, at age 16, when she had to submit paperwork for her first job.
Over the years, Patel managed to piece together her parents’ story. Her father arrived first, on a valid visa. Once he got settled, her mother joined him. Two or three years after that, in 2001, an aunt and uncle flew with six-year-old Patel to Canada. Though her memories are fuzzy, she recalls staying in a basement for a few weeks and being smuggled across the Canada-United States border in the back of a truck, to her parents, whom she no longer recognized.
“Next thing I knew, someone was picking me up and hugging me and I was like, ‘Who is this person?!’” she said.
Patel’s parents were farmers in Kadi, Gujarat, known as ‘cotton city’ for its cluster of cotton mills. In the 1990s, India’s economic reforms may have made conditions worse for Indian farmers. So Patel’s parents journeyed to America in search of a better life.