BOULDER– As the immigration debate rages across the nation and heats up in Colorado, undocumented youth here, frustrated by a sense of powerlessness to change their situation, have formed a political advocacy group called VOICE or Voices of Immigrant Children for Education Equality. Here are some of their stories and thoughts on immigration policy reform.
Maria, 22, left Zacatecas, Mexico, at the age of twelve to join her mother who had been working in the United States for four years.
“It wasn’t the country that I was looking forward to. I mean I just wanted to go to my mom, even if it meant leaving all my friends behind,” said Maria.
Upon arrival in Boulder, Maria enrolled at Baseline Middle School and almost immediately began working along side her mother and sister at a small catering business, mostly to spend time outside her overcrowded apartment, which housed 14 people.
By sophomore year at Boulder High, Maria’s work had replaced school and she nearly dropped out after she stopped attending class for a couple of weeks. However, when a “tough love” ESL teacher called her home to convince her to stay in school, she began to see the value in education.
In the following years, Maria began taking Advance Placement classes and getting As, and although Maria only had two hours of free time after school each day until she started work, she began entering the gym after class to lift weights.
“I feel Hispanics often aren’t expected to succeed in school and women aren’t expected to lift weights. But I’ve always been rebellious and so I made a point not to fulfill all those expectations of failure,” said Maria.
Unfortunately, Maria’s optimism was short lived. Even though she was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 2006, she soon became painfully aware that without papers legitimizing her status in the country, she really had no roads open to the success she had planned for herself.
“I had done everything right but suddenly I was watching the doors close all around me,” said Maria.
After taking a few classes at Front Range Community College and then receiving a certificate in sports massage therapy, Maria still feels relatively hopeless for her career options in this country unless laws are changed at the federal level, but she does have hope things will change.
In the 2008 election, Maria first became involved in politics through voter registration campaigns.
“With Obama we first started feeling things could actually change…I mean working for a political campaign to register voters? We just wouldn’t have done that before,” said Maria.
By connecting with a few other friends in similar positions, Maria began to organize with other human rights activists in the Boulder area and eventually they formed VOICE to advocate for undocumented youths who came here as minors.
Since that point, she has been heavily involved in the fight for immigration reform – doing everything from demonstrations in Denver to meeting with lawmakers to promote tuition equity – a bill that narrowly failed in the 2008-2009 Senate session but would have allowed in-state tuition for undocumented Colorado high school graduates.
“I have so many friends who should be able to go to school but can’t… I want to say it’s injustice, but really it’s mere stupidity not letting kids go to school,” said Maria. “It’s nonsense it hasn’t happened yet.”
Since Maria cannot pay the astronomical out-of-state tuition for schools in Colorado, she is moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico where if she takes part-time classes, she is eligible for in-state tuition. She plans to enter as pre-med and eventually she hope to attend medical school.
However, if the laws don’t change and Maria cannot find a legal path to citizenship in the coming years, she says will have no option but to leave the country, her family and her friends behind in order to start anew in Mexico – a country that while engulfed in violence, at least will present her with something America cannot: opportunity.
Chih Tsung Kao
Chih, 24, was born in Taipei, Taiwan but left with his mother for the United States when he was just four-years-old.
After his mother moved to Virginia, Chih was dropped off at his grandparents in Boulder and lived with them until he was 13. When his grandparents moved to California, Chih moved in with his friend’s family who he considers to be his surrogate parents.
During his years at Fairview High School, Chih excelled in both athletics and academics; while participating in football, track and wrestling he also managed to graduate with a 3.83 G.P.A.
After graduation, Chih went on attend the Colorado School of Mines where he received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
Although Chih arrived legally with a student visa, since his mother had left and he was not fully aware of immigration law, by his junior year his visa had expired.
Chih tried a numerous methods to attain a pathway to citizenship – including entering the diversity lottery, attempts at adoption by his surrogate parents – but nothing worked and his status in the country became illegal.
“It’s discouraging when your friends all have internships and are building their careers and you’re stuck working at a bar,” said Chih.
After graduating in 2009, Chih has been unemployed while waiting for laws to change and so today he is boarding a flight and leaving the country.
“I just can’t wait around anymore for things to change and so I’m going back to Taiwan,” said Chih. “I’ve got to get my career started.”
Although Chih can speak “household Mandarin” he is illiterate in Chinese.
Chih’s extended family still lives in Taiwan and his uncle has a job lined up for him with a solar panel company.
Once Chih leaves the country, he will be barred from re-entry for 10 years under current law.
“It’s kind of scary thinking about making all new friends, especially in a new language and culture,” said Chih. “But at least I’ll have a chance to travel and explore and that’s something I can’t do here.”
When asked if he feels the country will pass immigration reform into law, Chih said, “The current atmosphere is discouraging… with the economy, health care, and the oil spill, the focus is always shifting elsewhere… it doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen.”
Julia, 23, grew up in a small farmers’ village in Zacatecas, Mexico where, according to Julia, NAFTA and other large-scale trade agreements with the United States, had left the town’s economy – based upon small-scale agriculture – uncompetitive and destitute.
After being subjected to domestic abuse from her husband, Julia’s mother, knowing that her parents could not support her, felt she had no choice but to go to the one person who said they could help her – her sister in Colorado.
The family – which included her mom and six and seven-year-old brothers – tried three times to get across the border. During their first attempt, they were attacked by thieves and had what little money they carried stolen from them. Then, after Julia’s aunt wired them more money, they were caught by ICE and driven back to the border and left there. Finally, on the third attempt, the family successfully walked the many miles across the desert to a church, where a van picked them up to drive them to Las Vegas, from which they would drive to Boulder.
Julia enrolled in public schools and eventually graduated from Boulder High School in 2005. She began working when she was 14, working to help support the family and her younger brothers when they needed help.
However, while her friends with legal status in the countries made plans for college and jobs, Julia felt isolated and depressed as she watched her dreams become unobtainable.
“It’s impossible to get documentation. Once you are eighteen you kind of become a criminal,” said Julia. “It means being scared every freaking day that you may not be here the next day or that your mother might not make it home.”
Even though Julia is breaking the law just by living in her home, she has always followed the straight path by working hard every day for low pay, attending Community College of Denver and by turning her frustrations into political action through VOICE.
However, Julia maintains that for others in her situation, especially young males the pressure of illegal status is often too much to handle and that the pull of drugs and crime can corrupt otherwise good kids.
“The kids don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially the boys. If we had something like the DREAM act it would be a different story for so many kids. They would have a reason to be good and stay away from the trouble,” said Julia. “All of us want to succeed in life but we don’t have the resources to do it. So boys will turn to crime to feel successful if they aren’t going to be able to make the life you want through legal means.”
When asked why she does not return to Mexico, Julia responds, “Sometimes I feel it’s hopeless but my family needs me here so I’m staying… I have to keep faith that things will change so that I can keep going through.”