Cross posted from The Globe And Mail by Joanna Slater who is The Globe and Mail’s New York bureau chief.
In the wee hours of Jan. 2, a college student named Angy who lives in Queens posted a long list of resolutions for 2011 on Facebook. Donate blood. Try bungee jumping. See a drag queen perform. Be a better me.…
For a 20-year-old young woman, none of it was particularly unpredictable, unless you read further. … Take a plane for the first time. Learn to drive. Get a passport.
Brought to the U.S. by her mother at the age of 3, Angy is part of a shadow generation that is American in every way except one. For years, the closest thing to official identification she possessed was the student card issued by her high school.
Nearly two million people in the U.S. share her story. Arriving illegally in the U.S. as children, they have grown up and, in many cases, thrived in a place where their future options are severely limited. They face a stark choice: Return to countries they don’t know, or spend a lifetime hiding in the place they call home.
Angy is one of a growing group of young activists – “this generation’s civil-rights pioneers,” says one immigration advocate – who have agitated for a third option. With demonstrations, hunger strikes and sit-ins, they pushed a small but powerful piece of legislation to the forefront of the U.S. political agenda late last year. Known as the Dream Act, it offered a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as children.
The bill came tantalizingly close to becoming law before foundering in the U.S. Senate. Now, young people like Angy are back in limbo, but they are done with hiding. “[They] aren’t going anywhere – this is their home,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates more liberal immigration laws.
The movement received an unexpected boost this week. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist named Jose Antonio Vargas confessed – in a first-person essay splashed on The New York Times website – that he had entered the U.S. illegally from the Philippines at the age of 12. A former reporter for The Washington Post, Mr. Vargas, now 30, said he was exhausted from years of concealing the truth. Inspired by the Dream Act activists, he revealed his story.
But it was people like Angy who pioneered the notion of “coming out” about one’s immigration status.
A pale young woman with long curly hair who loves to write poetry, Angy takes pride in her Colombian heritage, but New York is her home.
It was only in high school that the walls began to close in. Her friends secured driver’s licences and chatted about where to fly on spring break. Her teachers began grooming her for college, but how would she get financial aid?
These days, she works at a publishing company to earn money to pay for her college courses. Her last name is withheld here because at her job, only two people know her situation.
Overall, though, she is done with the shadows. One afternoon in March, she went to her college in midtown Manhattan, stood in a crowded hallway and took off her jacket – exactly what her mother had pleaded with her not to do. She wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “undocumented” in red capital letters, defying people to react.
A few days later, she found herself at the front of a large auditorium at another university for a poetry reading at an immigration conference. Sitting straight up, hands in her lap and long, dark curls over one shoulder, she looked both nervous and dignified. Other poets delivered rhythmic paeans to the immigrant experience. Angy, in her quiet way, bared all:
I’ve been here since I was 3.
Growing up I thought I was the same.
My friends and I experienced the same pain,
Worrying about parents, girls we didn’t like
and kissing boys in the rain …
The time has come to fill out college applications.
I’d be the first in my family.
I have all the right qualifications,
But it’s time that I start paying attention –
I take a look at my reflection …
It’s my 18th birthday:
I’m an “illegal” adult.
I wish to be considered equal some day…
To fully appreciate the potential of the Dream Act, it helps to start with one person’s story. Angy’s journey began in the foothills of the Andes in western Colombia, in a town called Armenia. Her mother was the only child of poor farmers and remembers going to school barefoot. She became pregnant at 20 and named her infant daughter after a song she loved, despite speaking no English – the 1973 hit Angie by the Rolling Stones.
Rejected by her family and by the baby’s father, Angy’s mother sought a way out of both the poverty of her surroundings and the simmering violence of Colombia’s guerrilla war. When Angy was 3, they boarded a plane bound for the U.S., carrying two doctored American passports, secured for a hefty fee.
In the years that followed, Angy’s mother cobbled together a life for herself and her young daughter in New York, cycling through a series of under-the-table gigs: waitressing, bartending, babysitting, construction, dancing at a club, working as an aide for the elderly.
Angy remembers her mother “doing all these crazy jobs and coming home tired.” She told her daughter it was because they didn’t have “papers.” It wasn’t until years later that Angy would understand.
She entered public school in kindergarten and before long she was equally comfortable in English and Spanish. At Francis Lewis High School in Queens, she excelled in class and volunteered in her spare time. She nurtured her love of animals – the family’s modest apartment in a public-housing project became home to several rescued pets, and she became a vegetarian.
Slowly, however, she started to grasp the ways in which her status would circumscribe her future. Her friends acquired driver’s licences, applied for summer jobs at McDonald’s and travelled to Canada on team trips. Angy couldn’t do any of those things.
Most undocumented youth experience similarly jarring realizations, says Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has surveyed more than 400 such people.
Being excluded from teenage rites of passage is a signal “that the futures they dreamed of, that they had prepared for, will not be theirs,” he says. One of his respondents told him, “It’s like waking up to a nightmare.”
For Angy – a gifted student, winner of a borough-wide essay contest and president of the school’s Latino student organization – the real blow was financial. She was nominated for a national scholarship that, if she won, would pay for all four years of college. Halfway through the process, she realized she wasn’t eligible for it. Other forms of aid were also out of the question.
Still, she persisted, believing that someone would decide she deserved help. In the spring, she received an acceptance letter from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, an event greeted with joyful “screaming and crying” at her home.
A few weeks later, Angy went to John Jay for a daylong orientation session. She decided to go to the financial-aid office to plead her case. When she arrived at the front of the line, a woman gestured at a keypad and told her to enter her social-security number.
“I wasn’t even a person,” Angy recalls over a lunch of Korean dumplings. “I didn’t have a name, just a number.”
When Angy replied that she didn’t have one, the woman pointed to the line of students behind her. “You’re wasting my time,” she recalls the woman saying. “You don’t qualify for financial aid, so if you don’t have the money to pay for school yourself, then don’t bother coming.”
The rest of the day went by in a blur. Angy registered for classes, but with each course she added, the total at the bottom of the screen rose to a sum further beyond her reach. Later that afternoon, she walked the few blocks to Central Park, sat down on a bench and cried for hours.
Whatever it takes
A mix of improvisation and luck allowed Angy to take some classes that fall. Her mom handed over what she could from her savings, and she also got a small scholarship from the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the immigrant-activist group where she’s now a key member.
Two years later, Angy is working almost full-time to pay for school, taking classes when she can. She plans to major in criminology and minor in creative writing. Her friends are halfway finished while she’s still earning first-year credits, but she says, “I’ve learned the hard way not to compete or compare myself.”
There have been small victories. A few months ago, she went to the Colombian consulate and applied for a passport using her birth certificate. With that shiny maroon document she immediately walked across the street to a J.P. Morgan Chase bank branch to open an account – another first. “It was amazing,” she gushes.
She knows, better than anyone, that the path ahead is murky. Her mother continually apologizes to her for putting her in this position. “I always tell her that I don’t blame her, I never have,” Angy says.
Back in Colombia, her cousins’ lives could not be more different than her own – some have slipped into prostitution, or into the drug trade. Unlike them, she says, “I’m going somewhere. Slowly, but I’m going somewhere.”
Angy has three younger half-siblings, two brothers and one sister. All were born in New York and are therefore U.S. citizens. When her brother turns 21 in five years, he could attempt to sponsor her, but she hears that for siblings the process is uncertain – a friend is trying it and was told it could take a decade or more.
They have a dream
In the meantime, there is the Dream Act. If passed, it would provide a way for people like Angy to become permanent legal residents, provided they complete two years of college or serve in the military, and pass a medical and criminal check. Late last year, the measure had majority support in both houses of Congress, but failed to gather the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster in the Senate. Since then, more Republicans have entered both houses.
Proponents reintroduced the Dream Act in May, but the chances of it passing now are “extremely low,” says Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, a conservative immigration-advocacy group that worked to scuttle the bill last year.
Yet even Mr. Beck agrees that in his personal view these young people have “compelling” stories: “If you’re going to have an amnesty, they are the people who should get it.”
In a sign of the widespread sympathy for those who would be eligible under the Dream Act, U.S. immigration authorities have for the most part (though not always) steered clear of moving to deport them. Earlier this month, the country’s top immigration enforcement official, John Morton, wrote a policy memo that gives agents the ability to delay or cancel deportation proceedings for undocumented youth who arrived in the country as children, particularly if they are pursuing an education.
But the broader political pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. “Life is going to get much tougher” for young undocumented people, Mr. Beck predicts. Congress is considering a measure that would require employers to verify their employees’ eligibility to work through a national online database. At the state level, Alabama recently passed a law that bars undocumented students from public universities.
Mr. Gonzales, the sociologist, notes that “at this current time, there are very few options, beyond the pursuit of higher education,” for such young people. But his research has also shown that the ones who do manage to attend college often suffer worse disappointment: Their education does not, in the end, offer an escape from low-paying, clandestine jobs.
Some of the young people he spoke with ended up doing the same type of work as their parents, even though they spoke fluent English and had spent far more time in school.
Angy tries not to think too many steps ahead. She is working full-time this summer to save money. She still can’t afford to take a regular course load, but this fall she plans to take three classes. Every two weeks, she helps to host a support group for fellow undocumented youth.
She keeps plugging away at her list of 2011 resolutions, some serious, some less so. She and a group of friends recently saw their first drag performance. Angy still hasn’t been on a plane, but she’s hopeful. One day she’d like to see Italy.