Young undocumented immigrants face dead end after high school

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Sue France/Boulder Weekly
This woman is one of many undocumented immigrants who grew up in Boulder, but is now considered a criminal.

“Monica,” who declines to give her real name, was born in Mexico.

As a child, her family lived in tight quarters at her grandparents’ house in Zacatecas. When her father began to beat her mother, her mother decided to leave, and so she took 12-year-old Monica and her two brothers to the only place she felt safe — to live with her sisters in the United States.

Boulder County, to be specific. Young, undocumented immigrants like Monica can enroll in K–12 schools without consequence, so Monica attended Casey Middle School and Boulder High School. She tried to fit in, acted like a U.S. citizen, and earned a 3.5 GPA.

But she dreaded graduation, because most colleges don’t accept undocumented immigrants, and employers cannot legally hire someone without a Social Security number. “Graduating from high school, I wasn’t excited at all, because I was going to become a criminal,” Monica told Boulder Weekly.

She was about to enter no man’s land, where the society in which she was raised and educated was about to cut off all opportunities because she was born in Mexico.

Monica heard that the Community College of Denver was more flexible than many colleges about admitting undocumented immigrants, and she enrolled there before she graduated from high school, so that she could secure resident tuition before a new law took effect requiring undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition. By starting her college career early, she was “grandfathered” in and can still pay in-state tuition.

She is one of the lucky ones. But like other undocumented immigrants, she can’t qualify for any financial aid, and her family is poor. She started studying early childhood education, but has since given that up, because she can’t legally get hired. “Even if I did get a degree, I wouldn’t be able to use it,” she says.

Monica does have a job, but she declines to say what it is, maybe because, like many others, she is getting paid under the table and doesn’t want to jeopardize that opportunity or her employer. She still has no Social Security number, and, as an undocumented immigrant, she can’t get one. In addition, Monica is unable to get a driver’s license. “We can’t even get a library card,” she says. She gets her boyfriend to check out books for her.

One of her brothers, who is 18, is about to be deported. He was arrested for a crime she doesn’t disclose, and he is being detained in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility.

Her other brother, who is 17, dropped out of high school. “He decided he didn’t want to continue with it because he knew he couldn’t do anything with it any way,” she says.

Monica is part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants who find themselves with nowhere to go.

A sob story, right? Their parents shouldn’t have brought them here in the first place, agreed? They should just go back to Mexico and enter the country legally! The law is the law, after all. Why should American taxpayers bear the financial burden of their illegal presence in the United States?

It is a bit more complicated than that.

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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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Maria’s story

Another
local undocumented immigrant, who wants to be identified only as
“Maria” for this story, went to Boulder High with Monica. Like Monica,
Maria is from Zacatecas and came to this country with her family when
she was 12 years old. She, too, attends CCD. Maria got certified at the
Boulder School of Massage Therapy, but she can’t get licensed because
of her undocumented status. She tried to apply to the CCD nursing
school, but couldn’t get in without a Social Security number. “It
becomes challenging, finding ways to get through the system,” she says.

Maria,
who has a 7-year-old sister who is a citizen because she was born here,
doesn’t want to return to Mexico because of the violence there and
because she would risk never being able to get back across the border
to see her mother and her sister. “This is my life,” she says.
“Everything and everyone I know is here.”

Maria
says she and others like her live in constant fear of being discovered.
She says she is even careful about crossing the street, because if she
were ticketed for jaywalking, it could mean deportation. “It’s the
little things, like not being able to drive,” she says. Those who do
drive without a license are likely to flee the scene of an accident for
fear of being discovered.

Maria
told Boulder Weekly that one of the biggest misconceptions about
undocumented workers is that they don’t pay taxes. She says they are
consumers, too, and they pay sales and property taxes, not to mention
those who pay income tax, even though they don’t enjoy the same
benefits that other taxpayers do. “But I don’t want to be looked at as
a victim,” she says.

Emily
Gendler Zisette, like Blum, acts as an ally for undocumented young
adults like Monica and Maria. As a labor and human rights activist, she
has seen the inside of a Tijuana deportation shelter and a local
detention center for undocumented immigrants.

“I still have nightmares about screaming children trying to see their parents through Plexiglas,” Zisette says.

She
explains that she felt obligated to get involved, because as a U.S.
citizen, she couldn’t stand idly by and allow her own elected
government to treat fellow humans in this way. “This is a crisis of
morality,” Zisette says, calling it an “epidemic of silencing. … This
is just as important as health care. This is just as important as gay
marriage.”

Maria adds, “Living so oppressed in a country that’s all about freedom, it’s all lies.”

And
they both say U.S. citizens need to raise the issue, since it is
difficult for the undocumented immigrants to speak out when they are
trying to keep a low profile. “We can’t straight up come out and say,
‘This is what we need,’” Maria explains.

Unfortunately,
Zisette says, most people aren’t aware of how they are affected by the
situation. “Everyone is touched by the broken immigration system,” she
says, adding that those who are opposed to legalizing this population
may not realize how their quality of life depends on undocumented
immigrants — and how much it would change if that population were
ejected from the country. “What allows me to live in luxury and buy
cheap things is the broken immigration system,” she says.

Zisette
urges people who are concerned about the situation to talk to their
friends and family — and more importantly, contact their elected
officials.

Zisette
and Maria say U.S. trade patterns with Mexico — whether it’s guns or
corn — are largely fueling the current situation, as are large,
multinational corporations. “It’s easy for people to blame someone
other than themselves,” Zisette says. “People have to start looking at
themselves and taking responsibility.”

Maria
says another big misperception is the idea that undocumented immigrants
take jobs away from U.S. citizens. Herndon explains that the “flow of
immigrant labor has always met the business demand. It’s just that the
flow has not been authorized.”

She
says undocumented workers’ contributions to the economy often go
unnoticed. “These people helped create the economic boom of the ’90s,”
she explains. “It doesn’t seem right to turn on them at this point. We
tacitly invited them. This is where they’re going to stay, and we need
a process for incorporating them into society. These are entrepreneurs
who are anxious to help grow the economy.”

And
Herndon, like the others, wants to get the word out about the no man’s
land for undocumented youth. “It’s a terrible situation,” she says.
“We’re setting them up for failure and setting the community up for
unnecessary failure, when these young people could contribute.

“The
average American voter has no idea that there could be a young person
who has been here since age 2, goes through school, is named
valedictorian, and then is stuck.”

info.

Boulder VOICE is hosting a free screening of the film Papers at 6 p.m. on Dec. 5 at Boulder High. The
feature-length 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.