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Thursday, December 3,2009

Young undocumented immigrants face dead end after high school

By Jefferson Dodge

Local legal assistance

Laurel Herndon, an attorney for the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Center in Boulder, says the U.S. government estimates there are between 12 million and 15 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and 65,000 graduate from high school each year, only to enter a purgatory in which they feel they can neither return to Mexico nor become productive, law-abiding citizens. For many, English is their primary language, and they have become acclimated to the U.S. culture. Even if they have maintained ties with relatives in Mexico, many are reluctant to return, given the drugrelated violence there in recent years and the fact that most of their closest ties are in the United States. Even if they were to return to Mexico, Herndon says, there is no legal way for them to then become U.S. citizens, unless they are rich or have some extraordinary athletic or musical talent that would help them pull strings. They are a growing stranded generation that Herndon calls “blameless,” because they were brought to this country by their parents as children, for reasons beyond their control.

Herndon and her staff — which includes one other attorney and an intern from the University of Colorado School of Law — offer legal advice to undocumented immigrants at the rate of $35 per hour, significantly less than the rate charged by other attorneys.

And they speak Spanish. Whereas many Mexican immigrants seek out “notarios,” notary publics, for advice on how to fill out forms and other matters, notaries don’t always have the legal expertise necessary to give them proper direction, Herndon says.

A couple of months ago, one local woman called Herndon’s office in a panic because her husband, who had a valid entry card, was turned away when he tried to return to the U.S. at the Mexican border because something was entered incorrectly on a U.S. computer system.

Herndon and her staff helped track down the mistake and secure his return.

Another man, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby in 1964, had always been told by his parents that he was born in the U.S. and only recently found out that he was not a U.S. citizen. Since he was under the impression that he was here legally, he missed the window of opportunity to apply for amnesty in 1986 under a bill signed by former President Ronald Reagan. (That bill offered amnesty for a limited time to undocumented immigrants who could prove that they had been in the country for at least five years and could demonstrate that they had no criminal background, among other conditions.) So Herndon’s Immigrant Legal Center helped him gain citizenship under an earlier law, showing that he had been in the country continuously since prior to 1973.

The number of undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school each year, too young to have qualified for amnesty under the 1986 law, grows each year, adding fuel to the fire that has burned under the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Various versions of that act have been under consideration by Congress since 2001; similar legislation has been introduced five times.

The most recent version, proposed this spring, says undocumented immigrants between the ages of 12 and 35 can gain residency if they meet several conditions, such as arriving in the U.S. before age 16, having lived in the country for at least five years, having earned a U.S. high school degree or GED, and completing at least two years of college or U.S. military service within six years after the bill is signed.

But some say that bill has stalled, and that it represents a narrow approach to a bigger issue: What about all of the other undocumented immigrants who are already in the country and playing a significant but almost invisible role in the U.S. economy?

Comprehensive legislation

That question has driven U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, to propose a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include the DREAM Act and more. Gutierrez has said his bill, which has not yet been drafted, will include a pathway to legalization for all undocumented workers and strengthened border control.

“The idea is to have a comprehensive solution, rather than doing it piecemeal,” Herndon says. “Let’s let good people get right with the law. To have that many people hiding in the shadows who don’t have access to the economy and the community is not good.”

Erika Blum, a local volunteer advocate and mentor for undocumented immigrants, says she participated in a massive conference call with Gutierrez recently — about 60,000 people gathered at “house parties” around the country to listen to his remarks on his proposal. It is part of a grassroots effort to build support for the legislation once it is introduced. Blum expects that the path to legalization in the Gutierrez bill may require undocumented immigrants to pay a fine, have no past criminal record and/or demonstrate English language proficiency.

Blum says she knows one undocumented immigrant who doesn´t even speak any Spanish.

She also says most people don’t realize the societal drains associated with having such a large population of undocumented immigrants. The way these people are treated in the U.S. has negative effects on everything from law enforcement resources to public health to the economy, she says.

Blum joined with other advocates and young undocumented immigrants last spring to form a local group called Boulder VOICE (Voices of Immigrant Childrenfor Education) in an effort to raise awareness about the dilemma faced by undocumented youth.

The group is hosting a free screening of the film Papers at 6 p.m. on Dec. 5 at Boulder High. The featurelength documentary is about the challenges faced by the 2 million undocumented children who were born outside the U.S. but raised in this country. The event will feature opening remarks by Boulder County Commissioner Cindy Domenico, poetry by Ana Cruz of Denver and performances by recording artists Molina Soleil and Aju. A discussion on immigration issues will follow the film. Snacks will be provided, and childcare is available by e-mailing bouldervoicegroup@gmail.com. The event is being co-sponsored by El Centro AMISTAD, the City of Boulder Human Relations Commission, Reform Immigration for America and Herndon’s Immigrant Legal Center.

Herndon says her advice to the undocumented youth she encounters is to “find each other and try to get their stories out, which is what they’re doing with this screening of Papers.”

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i am in the same position only my story is a little different. i entered the us legally my little sister and i after out parents passed away i didnt know that i was UNDOCUMENTED untill i graduated high school now i am in a big mess cant get a job no I.D no nothing... it want my choice to come here if i had somewhere to return to i would but i cant cause all i know is here my life my childhood everything is here.



Thank you for this in-depth and really insightful article. The situation of undocumented youth is totally unacceptable. How can we reject such passionate and amazing people? People on whom our future depends? We really need to change our immigration system and recognize youth like Maria and Monica, as well as their parents, and give them a way out of the shadows.



I understand the situation.  The problem I have with giving them legal status is that when they achieve that they can sponsor family members to be here legally.  If they could not do this then I would be much more accomadating to their situation.  Until that happens no legalization.