In 1989, when I was 4 years old, I arrived in the United States, along with my mother and brother. After spending the first seven months of my childhood in U.S. detention, I lived undocumented for the next two decades.

Then, on a cold morning in March 2009, a group of ICE officers came to my home. “Don’t worry, I just have to go with them for a while, but I’ll be back,” I told my family, including my wife and our 2-year-old son. I didn’t believe it, but those were the only words I could mumble while trying to remain calm as our world was falling away from underneath our feet.

My biggest fear was playing out in real time: I was being separated from my loved ones.

I was quickly escorted outside my home to a van, but before getting in, ICE officers pulled out cuffs with long chains, and in front of my family, they handcuffed my hands to a chain around my waist and placed me inside. This was the beginning of a weeklong ordeal that threw me into the belly of the racist, inhumane and insensitive profit-over-people immigration enforcement system, where the government pays private prisons per ICE detainee.

I was placed in a detention center in Cambria, Pennsylvania, and then transported to another detention center in York, where I spent 23 hours of each day in a small cell with another ICE detainee named Julio. He was born in Honduras and was separated from his wife and three kids, including a newborn. Like my family, Julio came to this country to escape poverty and political turmoil. We had hopes and dreams to work hard, provide for our families and contribute to our communities.

The hour that we had outside our cell quickly turned into service consultations for me as the other ICE detainees found out that I spoke fluent English. I was approached with basic questions such as “how can I use the phones here to get in contact with my family?” Many hadn’t had the chance to communicate with their families since being detained. There were questions with more urgency such as “I’m diabetic, and I want to ask the guards if they can provide me with small snacks in between meals,” to “I’m in pain, and really need to see a doctor, but none of the guards have listened to my pleas.”

These are simple, dignified things that everyone should have access to. Instead, the current immigration system is built to treat Black and brown immigrants with brutality.

During that horrible period, I was only able to speak once to my wife for a couple of minutes. My family had reached out to our church and neighbors and to the local immigrant rights organization, CASA, which provided legal representation. My family also connected with my college professors, who wrote support letters about my good character and kicked off a petition that collected numerous signatures calling for my immediate release from detention.

It was this level of community organizing and movement building that placed just enough pressure on ICE officers and won my release. I was lucky and grateful for the opportunity to return home. It still breaks my heart to think of those who were never able to go home and see their kids again.

My experience reflects what’s wrong with our policies. Instead of working to update our immigration laws and help families thrive, our current system puts fathers like myself and Julio behind bars. Instead of being stuck in prison for days, I should have been at work to provide for my son and wife, help my mom, and continue contributing to my community.

With help from community groups, I was able to adjust my status in 2011 and became a naturalized citizen in May 2015; I was elected a council member for the city of Hyattsville this year.

Citizenship is a vehicle that empowers and provides venues for greater contributions of immigrants. In fact, over 70% of Americans overwhelmingly support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And creating a path to citizenship through reconciliation — like grassroots groups have been advocating for — would boost the nation’s GDP and create about 400,000 new jobs.

Waiting for decades and living in limbo is not good for families nor our nation. Members of Congress need to deliver on their promise to help families like mine.

Rommel Sandino is a member of the Hyattsville, Maryland, City Council and an organizer with Community Change Action.