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Atlantic: Living the DREAM: Undocumented Youth in America

Author: Julia Lurie
April 9, 2012

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They can't open bank accounts, apply for drivers licenses, or go to public universities. But more and more young undocumented youth are "coming out" and finding ways to thrive, writes Julia Lurie in the Atlantic.

When he reaches for his earliest memories, Nico Lopez recalls clenching his small fists around his seat belt buckle and straining to listen to the smiling flight attendant's directions for take-off. As he watched Guatemala City disappear beneath him, he pulled his feet onto the seat, wrapped his arms around his knees, and quietly began to cry. It was 2001, and Nico was seven years old.

Now a tall, quietly confident young man with dark hair and green eyes, Nico will soon graduate with honors from a public high school in Stamford, Connecticut. Despite having grown up in a neighborhood where gunfire is likened to the doorbell ringing -- you hear it all the time and don't really think much of it -- he is the leader of the student government, often the only non-white member of his AP classes, and, in his spare time, an English tutor for recent immigrants.

You know how the rest of the American dream story is supposed to go: Nico receives a merit-based scholarship to college and finds a job that helps him support his mother, who has worked as a housekeeper for the past 17 years. He gets married, has second-generation kids, and serves as a shining example of how any American can succeed if he tries hard enough.

Except Nico isn't technically American. He overstayed his tourist visa as a seven-year-old and is now one of over 2 million immigrant youth who entered the United States as minors and now live here illegally. Federal law prohibits Nico from going to college at a public university, while, somewhat counterintuitively, Connecticut state law gives Nico access to in-state tuition though not financial aid.

As a result, Nico's choices lie along a cruel spectrum. On one end, he could adopt the tricks of the trade of living as an undocumented person in America: he could find a low-paying job that pays cash under the table, have a friend at the DMV make a license for him, go to doctors who don't require social security numbers or insurance cards, and sweet-talk bank tellers into opening accounts. Like the vast majority of undocumented residents, Nico could squeeze into America's shadowy corners, away from the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On the other end, Nico could join the small but quickly growing group of students who are "coming out" as undocumented. Among the first to emerge was Lorella Praeli, a confident, articulate young woman who graduated summa cum laude from Quinnipiac University last year. In November of 2010, Lorella decided that if she, as a high achiever with a tight circle of family and friends, didn't come out, she didn't know who would. On a Thursday afternoon, she told journalists and cameramen the story of how she immigrated to the U.S. and made her way through college, and proceeded to organize Connecticut's first "coming out" rally three months later.

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