Traveling as an Undocumented Immigrant

Aug 25, 2016
10:29 AM

Editor’s Note: Originally published at Juan’s Medium page on August 24, 2016.

Earlier today I walked into Tallahassee International Airport, approached the TSA counter, handed my documents and boarding pass, and was allowed to go through screening and on to the gates to catch my flight.

If you think that this is a daunting and tedious process, don’t worry, you are not alone.

However, let me share with you what it’s like to travel as an undocumented immigrant — someone who does not possess a legal status and has no way of currently adjusting in situations like these.

For the past four years, I have been living with a temporary protective status known as DACA, a program that grants certain undocumented immigrants like myself a driver’s license, a work permit and a two-year deportation deferral.

Because DACA is temporary and not a law, I must pass a background check, get fingerprinted by the federal government, and pay a fee of several hundred dollars every two years. Meaning that, just like my status, all of my documents are also temporary.

This is what a temporary Florida driver’s license looks like:


Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles has been responsible for printing the word TEMPORARY on every single driver’s license I’ve ever had.


Due to Florida’s insistence on marking the driver’s licenses of DACA beneficiaries, as well as other classification of immigrants, the result is often an awkward and inconvenient explanation for anyone who dares to present this as a form of identification.

For example, a friend might ask me: “Why is your license temporary?” That would set off a long and often uncomfortable conversation about how and why I am undocumented and not “an illegal.”

However, presenting a temporary driver’s license to a federal agency like TSA sets off a chain a nerve-wracking chain of events that puts your immigration front and center — reminding you that you are still deemed inferior to people whose driver’s licenses are not “temporary.”

Here is what TSA agents have had to say about my valid state-issued driver’s license:

TSA Agent: ID Please.

Me: [Hands Over Florida driver’s license]

TSA Agent: This is a temporary ID. Do you have a passport?

Me: No.

TSA Agent: Well we have changed the rules regarding temporary IDs. I will have to call my supervisor and put you through secondary inspection.

This is the same routine that I have been subjected to three straight times out of Tallahassee’s airport. Once, when flying out of Jacksonville, the TSA shift-supervisor tried to ask me “how long” had I been processing my immigration paperwork and why “did it take so long.” To avoid the possibility of another kind of TSA inspection, I laughed and replied that the “line” immigrants have to wait in is really long.

I have yet to be provided with an explanation as to TSA’s alleged “rule change” on temporary IDs. All I can assume is that they are not reading the Real ID Act, misinterpreting it, or worse — profiling individuals and asking for foreign documents for no reason whatsoever.

(Fun fact, if you are from Venezuela like I am, it is nearly impossible to obtain a passport — but that is a story for another time.)

DACA may not be perfect, but it is a huge step forward for thousands of young undocumented immigrants who have been able to work, travel and complete their education thanks to this immigration relief program.

We must continue to organize and fight against the violence and injustices that immigrants face on a daily basis — yes, even at airports.

Immigrants pay taxes, pass mandatory background checks and are still doubted when they present their state-issued IDs. Another example of how our immigration system is broken and why it is in desperate need of reform.


Follow Juan Escalante @JuanSaaa.