The Reality of Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

What life is like for undocumented young people.

Feb. 22, 2013— -- They are sons and daughters, gay and straight, performers and politics junkies. They grew up in the bustle of New York and the dry heat of Texas.

They are American.

And they are undocumented.

The trio of students who sit on stage at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Thursday night speak eloquently and with poise. They have been tasked with talking about their childhoods, and in many ways they sound like every other kid in America. They recall summers spent at camp and hours toiled away at unpaid internships.

But they are not every other kid. They are burdened with secrets and heavy family stories that tumble out as they remember moments in time.

Citlalli, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and grew up in a close-knit Texas community, participated in a prestigious summer program. A field trip to NASA should have been the high point, but it didn't work out that way. She was dragged into a roomful of counselors before the trip, questioned and left behind, bawling. She'd never pass the required background check and there was no way around it.

Francisco, a Mexican-born New Yorker, will graduate from Georgetown this May but his parents won't see him walk across the stage and collect his diploma. They are too scared to drive down for the ceremony, paralyzed by the fear that they will be stopped for a broken taillight, rounded up and deported.

German-born Kim, who traces her roots back to Kenya, was filling out college applications when her parents called her to the dining room table one evening. She was undocumented, they told her. Her mother and father had hoped to resolve her status before then, but a series of events conspired against them and it wasn't to be. She would not be able to check that box on the college paperwork.

These are the realities of daily undocumented life; the toll of growing up without papers.

Most challenging, Kim said as the others nodded in agreement, are "the psychological aspects of being in this country but not having the freedoms so many enjoy."

Citlalli was taught at a young age to keep her mouth shut, no matter what.

"I internalized silence," she said.

As a child, she once laughingly told classmates that her father had crossed the border without permission when they cracked jokes about people being "illegal." Why not? She didn't know any better. But her parents did and all of a sudden reality came crashing down and so did she.

None of their parents wanted it to end up this way. They weren't looking for handouts. Several filed applications for legal status before their visas expired and were told to wait. So they did. For years. But then September 11 left people suspicious and it all fell apart. The lawyer Kim's parents used told them he had been "robbed" and that their application files were "lost."

"The system just didn't work for them," she said.

Of course they follow the immigration debate swirling in Washington right now about how to reform that system; its outcome could alter their lives. But they're not interested in being political pawns or bargaining chips. And they bristle at the idea that DREAMers are somehow superior to the parents who brought them here.

They have benefited from deferred action, a program put in place by the Obama administration to grant two-year, renewable deportation reprieves to some undocumented young people, but it's not enough, they say. Their parents continue to live in fear.

"The overarching theme is family unity," Francisco said.

He would know. He recently traveled to California to visit a sister he hadn't seen in 14 years. Air travel simply wasn't an option.

"This pathway is just about feeling human," Kim said.

Their families have carved out lives in this country. They've bought homes and paid taxes. They've celebrated milestones the American way. And while that American way is varied and nuanced, these three young people wouldn't know how to be Mexican, how to be Kenyan.

Francisco recently filled out an application to work in Italy. He couldn't say he was American because he doesn't have the papers to prove it, but Mexican?

"I struggled to write it," he said.

And America, for better or worse, has formed these people, molded them into complex young adults who are not afraid to speak publicly about undocumented life. Young adults who guard family secrets because they are afraid. Young adults who sit in classrooms at one of the nation's elite universities and belong there.

"I wouldn't be Kimberly," Kim said, "If I wasn't in America."