Boulder Daily Camera- December 2, 2009
Young Boulder immigrants, supporters ask for reform
By Erica Meltzer, Camera Staff Writer
Karina was 12 years old when her mother left her abusive husband in a tiny Mexican village and fled with her children to the only place where she had any family to help her.
The family's new life in Boulder meant difficult adjustments, but Karina learned English, made friends at school and earned good grades.
But instead of seeing her opportunities expand as she grew up, Karina — like many children brought to the United States illegally by their parents — has seen them contract.
“You want to get a driver's license, and you can't because you were born in another country, and you don't have papers,” she said. “Everything asks for a Social Security number, and you're just ... stuck.”
The 23-year-old Lafayette woman said she had a 3.8 grade-point average in high school, but without a Social Security number, she couldn't go to college or qualify for financial aid.
“My senior year, I realized I would never be able to reach my goals,” she said. “I wasn't excited about graduating at all.”
Karina, like all the undocumented young people interviewed for this article, asked to be identified only by her middle name. They fear deportation to countries they barely remember if their identity and immigration status are known.
Officials estimate there are around 2 million undocumented children born outside the United States but raised here. They cannot get driver's licenses. They don't qualify for in-state tuition at public schools or financial aid. They cannot work legally.
“There's a real closing down of opportunities at a very important time in their life, when they're making decisions about the kind of adults they're going to be,” said Laurel Herndon, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Center of Boulder County. “I think that bodes very poorly for the community.”
Herndon said children in these circumstances have almost no way to become legal residents. Those who came in on visas might be able to get green cards if they marry a U.S. citizen.
Those who come in without visas would need to go back to their native country and wait 10 years before even applying to return. The average wait for a Mexican citizen with an adult sibling sponsor is 30 years, Herndon said. Without an immediate relative who is a citizen, there would be no way to return.
“There needs to be a path for them to register regardless of family connections, regardless of how they were brought into the United States,” Herndon said. “I can't think of any other area of law where we hold a parent's actions against the child.”
Boulder VOICE — Voices of Immigrant Children for Education — is sponsoring a free screening of “Papers,” a documentary portraying the lives of young people in such situations, this weekend. Young immigrants and their supporters said they hope people come to the movie, think about their position on immigration and push for reform that provides a path to citizenship.
Twin sisters Amani and Sarah, 23, were brought to Florida when they were younger than 2. Their parents fled increasing violence in apartheid South Africa.
They considered requesting political asylum, but relatives discouraged them, saying it was better to stay under the radar.
"They're remorseful,” said Amani. “They've tried their best to get us our papers. They've spent tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys. The situation in South Africa was very dangerous. They couldn't have stayed."
Both sisters, who moved to Boulder when they were teenagers, were accepted to four-year public universities in Colorado, but they can't get in-state tuition.
Sarah takes a few classes a year because it's all she can afford. Amani has an associate's degree from a community college.
"Even if we saved up and got the degree, we couldn't use it," Amani said.
Maria, who also came to Colorado from Mexico when she was 12, wants to go to medical school. She studied to be a massage therapist, but stopped when the law changed to require background checks for licensed therapists. She considered nursing school, but faces the same obstacle.
For now, she's taking pre-med science classes at a community college.
"People who drop out and go to work are thinking about their situation a lot more rationally than we are," she said.
Trying to be practical, Karina started a program in early childhood education at a community college, even though she really wanted to study archeology. She gave it up because she realized she wouldn't be able to work in a licensed day-care center.
"I think all of us go through periods of depression," she said.
At an age when their peers have graduated from college and are starting their careers, these young women work in food service.
Going back to their native countries is not an option, they said.
"All my family, all my friends, everything I know, is here," Maria said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.