The Invisibles

Douglas McGray is a contributing writer for West and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

"I'll be there in five minutes," Thi says.

If you spend any time around college students, you expect this kind of phone call--and you know it really means 15 minutes, maybe 20. But sure enough, five minutes later, I spot Thi hustling up the sidewalk from UCLA's main library, a stuffed messenger bag swinging at her side. She is wearing dark, low-cut jeans, retro sneakers and a trim, arty T-shirt with big aviators hanging from the collar. "Hey," she says, a little out of breath. She is pretty and record-store cool, with heavy black hair that falls across her eyes.

Thi is a senior now, which means she spends a lot of time hustling across campus. She has to decide on a subject for her documentary film class, finish a deep stack of books, find time for clubs and volunteer work, make some headway on her thesis (examining the concept album as a narrative form) and figure out what to do with her life once she graduates. Maybe a PhD in English? Or in education? An involuntary wince says it all: Can't we talk about something else? Just thinking about the question stresses her out, typical for a UCLA senior on a warm fall afternoon.

But Thi is not a typical college senior. Only a few students on campus see the kind of uncertainty she does when they look ahead to graduation. These students--Thi, Martha and about two dozen other confidants in an unlikely campus club--share a secret. It is the kind of secret that has roiled Congress this session, that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters to march on downtown Los Angeles and across the country, and that pokes at a fundamental question: What does it mean to be American?

Thi's secret is older than she is, and for most of her life, she barely understood it. It took her nearly 20 years to figure out what was set in motion the night her father took off his glasses so he could pass as a poor farmer, and shuffled, squinting, to the bank of the Saigon River in Vietnam. There he met a fisherman, who helped him into a damp, dark space hidden beneath the floor of his tiny boat. As he lay on his back, squeezed between two other men, the fisherman set out for a bigger boat, bound for international waters. Thi's father still has no idea where that boat was meant to take him. Getting out was good enough. And out was as far as the ship got. After a week of violent winds and nauseating swells stranded them at sea, a huge German navy vessel appeared, and its crew helped Thi's father and the other refugees aboard.

Thi was born on a snowy day three years later in a small town outside Stuttgart. Her father, who had refugee papers, worked in a factory, and her mother had followed him from Vietnam. Now, all of a sudden, they were a family, with a curious new member: a German daughter. Her parents spoke to her in Vietnamese, but she giggled in German with her friends--Katrina and Monika and the twins across the street. She thought in German, even dreamed in German. By the time she was old enough for kindergarten, with a little brother to baby and boss around, the Vietnamese her parents spoke was a foreign language.

Thi was a few weeks into first grade when she heard her parents fighting in the other room. They seemed to be arguing about a trip. A few days later, it all made sense. "We're going on vacation," Thi's mother said. "Tell your teacher you'll miss some class." She doesn't remember touching down in Los Angeles. She doesn't remember the airport, or what she thought of the palm trees, or how they got to her aunt's home in Orange County. She doesn't remember celebrating her seventh birthday just a few days after they arrived. She does remember getting dropped off at a school where nobody spoke German, and beginning to think that this was a strange vacation.

But she took to her new surroundings quickly. In second grade, her teachers switched her from ESL classes to the gifted program. By the time she entered junior high, she had lost her accent and forgotten all her German. (When I ask Thi if she remembers her address in Stuttgart, she says "something-strasse?" badly mispronouncing the German word for street.)

Her parents tried to enroll her in Vietnamese language classes at a local Buddhist temple. "They tried at least five different times," Thi says with a laugh. "They finally gave up when I was in high school." Instead, she studied the violin, played trumpet in her high school band and, later, picked up classical guitar. She played soccer and field hockey and ran track. She took all honors classes and got As and more As. She went through a black sweatshirt phase during her sophomore year when she slouched and sulked and worried her parents, but by summer vacation she was done with that and on to other things. She discovered "Catcher in the Rye" and surrounded herself with literature--Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell. She landed an internship at the local police station, where they liked her so much that they hired her to work after school.

Kids have a keen understanding of belonging (and an even keener understanding of not belonging), but citizenship is more complicated. By high school, Thi knew she needed papers to be an American, and that she didn't have them. But she thought the problem was temporary. Her parents had applied for political asylum years ago, and her father always said it was only a matter of time before they all got green cards.

Still, the delay was beginning to annoy her. Getting her driver's license had been a huge hassle. And now her friends were starting to talk about college. There was no way her family could afford the out-of-state fees that California universities charged undocumented residents ($18,168 this year for tuition alone), especially with no access to financial aid. Thi's mother was a manicurist. Her father rarely brought home much income. They lived in a mobile home in Orange County.

When graduation day finally came in June 2001, Thi donned a cap and gown over her jeans and T-shirt and took her seat in the crowd. Her mother and brother looked on proudly from the audience, but not her father--which didn't strike Thi as unusual. "He isn't the type to participate in things," she told me. When they got home from the ceremony, though, her father was waiting for them in the living room, grinning. He had spent the afternoon in immigration court, where a judge heard the family's final asylum appeal. Their case was closed. "Good news!" he said, waving a pile of papers.

Thi sat down and read them, but they didn't make sense. The court decision seemed to say one thing, and her father was saying something else. That did it. She was fed up. She took the file, the car keys and the address of their lawyer's office, and set off for Los Angeles. She finally found the lawyer on the 10th floor of a downtown high-rise and asked him to explain--to her, not to her parents--her immigration status, and what this final decision meant.

The judge ruled that her parents wouldn't have to return to Vietnam, the lawyer explained, but he ordered them deported to Germany. However, because they had never been German citizens--only refugees--Germany was unlikely to accept them. That would cancel the deportation order, but still not make them U.S. citizens. Her parents could stay in the United States indefinitely, but they would have to work under the table. As for Thi, he added, her situation was a little different. Because she was born in Germany to Vietnamese citizens, and Germany has never granted birthright citizenship, she was stateless. There was no country where she could legally live, vote or work--not Vietnam, not Germany and not the United States, her home for the last 12 years. Thi was shocked. She started to cry. "Grow some balls," the lawyer said. "This happens to people."

When she got home, her parents were waiting. "When are we going to get our green cards?" her father asked eagerly.

"Never," she said, and locked herself in her bedroom.

Ageneration ago, colleges and universities across the country might have considered kids like Thi to be foreign students. But even in California, the matter never really came up. Until the 1980s, illegal immigrants were mostly migrant workers, far more likely to have children waiting at home in another country than waiting at school for a ride home from softball practice. The undocumented American, born in another country but raised here from a young age, is a modern phenomenon.

In the 1980s and 1990s, California legislators, voters and judges began to wrestle with the problem, writing, unwriting and rewriting the rules that guard access to higher education. In 1985, a landmark court decision welcomed undocumented California children to college, offering equal access to in-state tuition, state scholarships and loans. Five years later, the courts rethought that decision, determining that undocumented residents must pay out-of-state costs, and do it without financial aid. Four years after that, Proposition 187 barred undocumented immigrants from college altogether, but the courts intervened, and the measure fell apart. Finally, in 2001, the same year Thi graduated from high school, the California Assembly revised the rules one more time, with a law still known by its bill number, AB 540. Beginning that year, undocumented California students who attended at least three years at a California high school, graduated and were accepted by a California college or university would no longer have to pay nonresident fees. (The bill also applies to legal immigrants and refugees still "in the process" and U.S. citizens who spent one year of high school outside California; undocumented immigrants are a small minority of the students who qualify.)

Texas passed a similar law that year (which included access to financial aid). And seven more states have followed, including Kansas, Oklahoma and Washington. Legal activists have asked courts in Kansas and California to strike down these laws with little success: The Kansas case was dismissed in July and the one in California hasn't gained much traction. In fact, even some longtime border hawks have come to support measures like AB 540. They believe these kids ought to be special cases. After all, unlike their parents, undocumented children never chose to break immigration laws. They came like luggage.

I interviewed more than two dozen undocumented students in the University of California system, and no more than a handful had suspected that their parents were moving them to the United States. Most of the children who did know had objected strenuously, and those who didn't felt betrayed when they found out the truth.

Plus, most of the teenagers who apply to college under AB 540 assimilated so long ago that they barely remember it. State law may require undocumented students to spend three years in a California high school before they can claim residency, but that is an almost meaningless technicality, given the English fluency and academic preparation that California universities expect. I had trouble finding undocumented college kids who came to the U.S. after elementary school, and few of the ones I met had an accent. In fact, during several months of visits to UCLA's campus, I never heard undocumented students speak to each other in anything but English. Speaking another language would just be, like, weird.

Even though the state allows some undocumented kids to apply to college like any other California resident, hardly any do: Two to three million undocumented immigrants call California home, but no more than a few hundred go to college. In 2004, 719 students were enrolled under AB 540, but fewer than 100 were undocumented, when the UC system last gathered statistics.

Most undocumented kids grow up in poverty, with all the pressures and dangers that come with it. Most of them attend struggling city schools, where teachers and guidance counselors often discourage them from preparing for college, under the mistaken belief that only citizens can apply. They are barred from financial aid and campus jobs and live in households where the cost of a UCLA education might support their entire family for four years. The children who thrive despite those odds are some of the smartest and hardest-working students in their schools.

The factors that conspire to keep these kids from college don't disappear when they arrive on campus. If anything, they intensify. Many kids save enough cash to pay for a quarter or two of college, only to drop out when bills overwhelm them. They may struggle to feel as if they belong, not because they lack citizenship, but because of their socioeconomic status.

Jeff Cooper, an administrator at UCLA's Academic Advancement Program, discovered these issues soon after the first AB 540 students arrived on campus in 2002. His education began with Natalie, a tall, poised premed freshman who turned down a $60,000 scholarship from her Ivy League dream school (tuition was still too expensive). She appeared in his doorway and promptly broke down in tears.

Natalie had earned a private scholarship that would pay for a good chunk of her first year, but UCLA's financial office refused to honor it. Or rather, staffers there cashed her scholarship check, making it state money, which they said she was ineligible to claim as an undocumented immigrant. Cooper called administrators at the finance office, and persuaded them to refund Natalie's donor. Then he called the donor and arranged for her to write a check directly to Natalie. And then it occurred to him that if something so simple could be so hard, UCLA's AB 540 students probably ought to know each other so they might benefit from shared experience. After making a few inquiries, he got an e-mail list that would reach most of the school's undocumented kids, and sent an invitation to meet at his office.

Natalie came. So did a boy named Alberto and his friend, a girl named Lucia. Alberto and Lucia had known each other for weeks, staying up late talking the way college kids do, without guessing that the other was undocumented. Students who attended the meeting told me that, until that day, they thought they were the only undocumented kid on campus.

The group--today about 30 students--resolved to keep meeting. If archers and anime fans could have student clubs at UCLA, why not undocumented immigrants? They called themselves IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success) and gathered weekly, talking about all manner of frustrations: how mortifying it is to get carded at an 18-and-older show and have no ID. (Some kids carry a matricula consular, a Mexican ID card, but the bouncer never knows what it is, and then other people come over, and your new college friends are watching.) How frustrating it is when people make fun of you because you can't drive, when you can't get a license in California. How you hate lying about stupid things. How sometimes, even though you would never tell them, you blame your parents for coming here the way they did and making your life so difficult.

But the conversations usually turned pragmatic. Some administrative staff in the finance and registration offices were unaware of AB 540 and openly hostile to students whose files lacked a Social Security number, telling them that their admission must have been a mistake or that they didn't belong in college. Some IDEAS kids told Cooper, and Cooper told a vice chancellor, and the vice chancellor circulated a stern memo, and the staff got nicer.

The students marveled at how little their high school teachers and guidance counselors had known about applying to college under AB 540, how demoralized and alone they had felt; they wondered if they could volunteer to visit schools and college fairs just to let kids know all that is possible. (Now they get invited to visit schools as often as four or five times a month.) They learned about private scholarships that were available to them and began to put together an informal list. The few students who could afford to live near campus, usually because of those scholarships, turned their couches and floors into guest rooms for club members who rode city buses from Maywood, Anaheim and Pasadena. Politics was never really on the agenda--the kids wouldn't agree on much anyway. IDEAS was simply about surviving college and making it a little easier for the next class.

"IDEAS is a true community of scholars, bound together by their citizenship status," Cooper told me. "They look out for one another. I really admire them for that."

In the months and years that followed, similar clubs appeared at universities across the state. Many of them looked to IDEAS as a model, though none has grown as large, or as visible, within their mostly invisible world. Last fall, the club at UC Davis, still informal and nameless, voted to identify itself as an IDEAS franchise. When I arrived late for its first meeting of the year, a tall, fair-skinned girl was in the middle of a story about one of her housemates, who had told her he wished he lived in Southern California so he could join the Minutemen. He seemed to be fishing for her approval. "What could I say?" she asked.

Thi probably wouldn't have come to UCLA had it not been for IDEAS. After she graduated from high school, she lived at home and took classes at a community college. She earned lots of As and won admirers among the faculty. She became president of the honor society. And with AB 540 on the books and a college degree suddenly within reach, she sent out her applications. She got in everywhere: Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Cruz, Irvine.

But she narrowed her choice after a UCLA reception welcoming community college transfer students. The annual event, run by Cooper as part of the Academic Advancement Program, invites minority and first-generation college kids from UCLA to talk about their experience on campus and mingle with transfer students and their parents. One UCLA student spoke, then another. "And Lucia started talking," Thi says. "I was in shock. I couldn't believe she was talking about what she was talking about." Lucia, a high school valedictorian, stood in front of an audience of more than 1,000 kids and parents and told them how she was succeeding as an undocumented undergrad.

Each time I visited campus, one of the girls in IDEAS pulled me aside to tell me that Lucia was her hero, and she was making a similar impression that day. Thi started sobbing. She was embarrassed--she likes to think of herself as something of a tough girl, definitely not the type to cry in public. But she couldn't stop.

Later, during a financial aid workshop that drew most of the crowd, IDEAS held its own workshop for undocumented students. "One of the girls from my community college was there," Thi recalls. "I was like, 'Hey! It's you!'" She didn't know how she was going to pay for tuition, but by the time she got home she had decided: She was going to UCLA.

"Are you downstairs?" Martha asks with forced chipperness. "I'll be down in 10 minutes." Five minutes would have meant 15; 10 meant she was asleep when I called. I sat in my car and watched the faded sky bleed pink at the horizon. The sun would be up soon.

Martha is a senior, like Thi, and one of IDEAS' directors. She lives on a quiet, narrow street parallel to a wide, busy one in Huntington Park, with her mother, stepfather, two baby brothers and sister, a senior in high school. ("She gets straight As!" Martha told me.) They share a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a sand-colored building with dark brown shutters and heavy iron bars over the windows. It is crowded, but better than last year, when Martha's parents rented space to a young woman and her newborn. It got so hard to study that Martha began staying on campus for weeks at a time. She had nowhere to live--any number of friends would have taken her in, but she didn't want to impose--so she slept in the 24-hour library, curling up on one of its narrow, scratchy couches, and showered at a campus pool.

Martha is a chemistry major. She tries to recruit new freshmen in IDEAS to hard sciences--especially the girls. The last time I saw her, she flew into the IDEAS office at the student activity center still wearing her white lab coat. Clutching a pair of lab goggles, she grinned at no one in particular. Another student burst out laughing. "Martha," she said, "you're the only person I know who is still smiling when she gets out of lab."

Her grades are nothing like they were in high school, but they are about as good as she can hope for, commuting four to five hours a day, working regular double-shifts at a fast-food restaurant and balancing family duties (cooking, cleaning, baby-sitting).

Martha scampers down a flight of stairs and across the street. "Ready?" she says. She has a warm complexion and lots of wavy brown hair, which reluctantly concedes to a ponytail. She is wearing dark jeans, cuffed at the bottom, and an aqua sweater that sparkles at the neckline. We get in her car--her new car, a '95 sedan with a cracked windshield--and she flips open her cellphone.

"Hey Esmeralda, I'm leaving now, I'll be there . . . oops," she says, and then switches to Spanish. She snaps her phone shut and laughs. "I forgot I was calling her house, not her cellphone," she says.

Martha still remembers her last day of school in Mexico. She was wearing a frilly white dress, like a flower girl's. It was the last day of fifth grade. Usually her mother picked her up from school, but her mother was late, and the sun seemed to get hotter the longer she waited. She wasn't supposed to cross the street, not without a grown-up holding her hand, but there was a big fountain over there, close enough that she could hear it splashing. She thought about it. Then she waited for a break in the cars, ran across and jumped into the water. She flailed and kicked and plunged beneath the surface, and thought about the whole summer stretched before her. Just then, her mother drove into view. Martha stood and faced her, dripping in her white lace, and imagined the spanking she was about to get.

A few weeks later, Martha's mother told her she was leaving her husband, Martha's father--for a while, anyway. Martha was glad, even though she loved her father. Sometimes it was OK when her parents fought, but sometimes it was different, and those times scared her. Martha's mother said they were going to stay with her grandmother in Los Angeles. This was exciting news! Martha loved her grandmother. And maybe she could learn enough English to sing along to the Carpenters, her favorite of her father's music. She packed her three prettiest Barbies, but left her roller-skates. They were her most cherished possession, but they were heavy. And she would be back soon.

"You want coffee?" Martha asks. "I need coffee."

She pulls into a gas station on Atlantic Boulevard next to a taco truck. She never drives on Atlantic except to buy gas and coffee. On a residential road, she is invisible; on the highway, she is anonymous. But a big, hectic surface street makes her heart quicken. It's too easy to get pulled over, and if a cop catches her driving without a license, she'll be back riding the bus. (Impound fees can run close to $1,000, and that is tuition money.) Her mother forbade her from driving her classmates to and from school--she thinks Martha is exposing herself too much, driving almost an hour out of her way every day--but Martha does it anyway. They are IDEAS kids, and she feels responsible for them.

Martha pulls up in front of a small wintergreen house, and Esmeralda steps out, wearing a tailored wool coat. "She looks nice today," Martha says, a bit maternally. Esmeralda is a sophomore. Her parents brought her to California from Mexico when she was 4 months old. She was valedictorian of a huge high school in southeast L.A., where she learned admirable Spanish. (Her brothers, though, are hopeless.)

"How many hours did you work this weekend?" Martha asks.

"Nineteen," Esmeralda groans.

"Twenty-one," Martha says. "I was in physical pain by the end of it. Then I had to go home and write my lab report. I was up until 5, and my alarm went off at 6. I fell asleep doing my hair."

Esmeralda had to drop out of school for a quarter last year, when she couldn't pay her tuition. When it looked as if it was going to happen again this year, Martha pleaded with her boss to take on her friend, and now they're both in the burger business, with Esmeralda at the drive-through window. She tallies all the orders, and the change, in her head. "The register is kind of pointless," she says, sleepily. "I mean, it's just math." They both earn minimum wage.

As we drive up the narrow residential streets to their next stop, Martha ducks to look out my window and spies an ancient purple Volkswagen--a classmate's car. That classmate's mother brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2. She did the academic decathlon at Esmeralda's school and took 11 AP classes. Her father is a U.S. citizen, but he prefers to keep his wife and daughter illegal. And he did not think his daughter should go to college, even after she got into UCLA. He refused to contribute to her education, she was ineligible for financial aid, and she has resisted working under the table--she just doesn't feel right about it.

A few hours before the classmate's freshman deposit was due, she gave up hope that she could convince her father and called her social studies teacher--her favorite teacher--at home. In tears, she told him that she didn't think she was going to college, and she told him why. She asked him if he had any advice. He told her to get a pen and write down his credit card number. He told her to call UCLA right away and pay the deposit. Then he gathered contributions from her other teachers and wrote a check to pay for her first two quarters. She made it through one more, with a loan from her boyfriend she had no way to repay, and then dropped out.

"We have to get her back in school next fall," Martha says.

We ride on to Maria's house: "There it is," Esmeralda says, pointing to a small white one in a row of small white ones atop perfectly manicured lawns. "We hate her," Esmeralda says, "she has her own room." As soon as we pull up, Maria comes flying out the door and flops into the back seat.

"Happy Pi Day," she says. (It is March 14, or 3.14.)

"That's right!" Esmeralda says. "My little sister made a button that says Pi Day Is Here."

"Pi is so cool," Maria says. "How many digits do you know?"

Maria has a quick wit and talks faster than anyone I've ever met. She is a math major, born in Peru. In second grade, her parents told her the family was going on vacation to Disneyland, and if she were good, they would go shopping for Legos. Secretly, they had other plans.

"My little brother has pink eye," Martha says.

"Ew, gross!" Maria says. "Hey, remember when Thi poked her eye, and we thought she had pink eye?"

"She did it to herself?" I ask.

"Thi doesn't need anyone else," Esmeralda answers. "She pokes her own eye." The girls dissolve into giggles.

They take turns gossiping and nodding off. When they get to campus, most of their friends will still be asleep. But if they leave any later, the highways become impassable. Martha used to leave an hour earlier, at 5 a.m., before the early mornings wore her out. We are already stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Still, it is better than the bus, which is how all of them commuted to school last year. The bus takes hours to cross the city, and if you get carsick, as they all do, you can't use the time to study. But that is only part of the problem; after all, the car ride takes nearly as long.

"On the bus, all men are evil," Esmeralda explains. When any of the girls boarded the bus before sunrise, and returned home late at night, she was usually alone with a bus full of men, on a slow tour through Compton and Watts.

The men leered at Martha. They groped her legs and snapped pictures of her with their camera phones. Once, a filthy, drunk guy took a firm grip and started sloppily kissing her. When she broke away and swore at him, the other passengers berated her for the rest of the ride.

"That's why I started wearing hooded sweatshirts," says Maria.

"It's not like I dress like a hoochie!" Martha objects. "I just wear a nice shirt, nice pants."

Maria shrugs. "It kind of sucks that you can't wear a skirt. On hot days, you get to school and everyone else looks so nice."

"No skirts on the bus," Martha says.

"No skirts on the bus," Esmeralda says.

They are quiet for a while. Esmeralda slouches lower in her seat and shuts her eyes, pulling her jacket over her like a blanket. Maria stares out the window.

"Hey, look," she says, pointing to an office building with the numbers 1964 mounted in huge numbers above the entry. "That's the year the Beatles played 'The Ed Sullivan Show.'"

"Maybe every day, everyone should be responsible for sharing one interesting thing," Esmeralda suggests.

"OK, what's your thing?" Maria asks.

Esmeralda thinks for a moment. "I could talk about Noam Chomsky's work at MIT," she suggests.

Maria screws up her face. "That's boring," she says.

"Noam Chomsky is not boring!" Esmeralda snaps, in seemingly genuine horror.

When they finally pull onto campus and park, two hours after they left home, Martha has to hurry off and pick up some candy to use as a prop for a chemistry presentation. Esmeralda leaves to write an anthropology paper. Maria heads off to the public policy building to participate in an experiment. They pay cash for human volunteers--"they don't stick you or anything," she says.

Across campus, snooze buttons are snoozed, covers are pulled up over squinting eyes, groans are groaned and yawns yawned. The rest of UCLA is just waking up.

The first time I met Thi, and whenever I saw her after that, I asked her what she planned to do after graduation. It is a pressing question as state colleges and universities prepare to graduate their first real generation of undocumented students. Thi's answer has stayed more or less the same--graduate school and an academic career. What has changed is her tone.

Last fall, she sounded defiant. "Nobody wants us," she answered, when I asked her to explain her immigration status. Her classmates looked for a discreet spot on campus when I wanted to talk about these things--a noisy dining hall or an abandoned flight of stairs. Thi would talk anywhere, and laugh at me if I hushed my voice. The last time we spoke, she tried to strike the same pose. "Even non-AB 540 students will say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do after graduation,'" she said.

She tried to convince me that living a life underground wouldn't be terrible: "Maybe I can just videotape weddings and get paid in cash." But she shrugged her narrow shoulders, hugged her knees and looked straight ahead as she talked, not at me. Suddenly, I noticed how tiny she is. Somehow, I remembered her being taller.

Then she said it quietly: "I'm actually not graduating this spring." She told me she hadn't taken enough English classes to finish her major--she would be three classes short at the end of the year. But that didn't make any sense.

"How many English classes are you taking this quarter?" I asked.

"One," she said.

"How many are you taking next quarter?" I asked.

"One," she said, a bit sheepishly.

She had registered for two courses that would count toward her major, and six that would not. But she had a plan, she insisted. She would take a course over the summer and get a fast-food job. "I've never had a typical teenage job," she said. "This is an opportunity to do that." Then she would take her last English course in the fall--which, she said, would keep her on campus, where she could study for her GREs and spend more time with the professors who will write her recommendations. In other words, she is doing everything she can to stay in school, where she is a normal American kid with a normal American life.

"Have you told your parents?" I asked.

"No," she said, and laughed weakly. "Could you tell them?"

When I met Martha, she was fantasizing about medical school. She doubted that she could afford to stay at UCLA, but she was excited to become a doctor. She talked about med school less and less, though, until finally I asked her about it.

"I'm not going," she said, sighing. "I haven't told my parents yet. They think I'm registered to take my MCATs." She doesn't know what she's going to do. At IDEAS, Martha explains, graduation is the only topic of conversation that stays mostly off-limits. "It's too sad to talk about," she says.

Martha and Thi know a handful of undocumented students around the state who graduated last year. (Even though this is technically the fourth year that AB 540 has applied to the UC system, some transfer students came with a stack of community college credits and finished early.)

Lucia, who inspired so many of the girls in IDEAS, lives at home and volunteers at a Latino advocacy organization--otherwise she is unemployed. Alberto, who graduated with a degree in political science and American government, has worked on construction sites near campus. He still stops by to see professors and visit the IDEAS office, and stay connected to his dream of law school; he is an unabashed constitutional law nerd. He fits right in with his backpack and preppy clothes, but when I met him his hands were nicked with scrapes and cuts. He could marry his girlfriend, a citizen.

That is an option for Thi and Martha too. "My lawyer said I would have a green card within six months if I got married," Thi says. "But I decided I can't marry someone to have that define who I am. If I wasn't in this situation, I wouldn't even think about getting married yet. So I scrapped that idea."

Martha is just as adamant--and she has been fending off marriage proposals for years. "I guess I'm a lucky girl," she jokes. Truthfully, it gets a little annoying. "I don't even like to tell guys about my situation, because they think they have to rescue me, or they think I want to get married." She would rather spend her whole life undocumented than marry for citizenship. "It seems like prostitution. I really frown on it."

Five years ago, as AB 540 first appeared in the California Assembly, members of Congress confronted much the same issue because of a girl named Theresa. Theresa's parents, Korean citizens, brought her to Chicago when she was a toddler. She grew up to be an honors student and a concert pianist, recruited by Juilliard. When she asked her parents for her Social Security number so she could finish her Juilliard application, her parents told her she was an illegal immigrant.

The family approached their senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, for advice. He was stunned to learn that kids such as Theresa existed. Together with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, he introduced a bill called the DREAM Act. The bill recognized that kids such as Thi and Martha grew up as Americans and may not even remember another home. It offered them conditional resident status when they graduate from high school; if they graduate from college or serve in the military, that conditional status becomes a green card.

When Durbin and Hatch introduced the DREAM Act in 2001, it provoked the kind of deep disagreement that seems to follow each new immigration proposal. Eventually, though, the bill had collected a staggering 47 co-sponsors, nearly half the Senate, including immigration hawk Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho; likely GOP presidential candidates John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and their Democratic counterpart, New York's Hillary Clinton; Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman; California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The bill has enjoyed unusually broad support for an immigration measure for several reasons.

Only the most extreme immigration hard-liner would blame a toddler, or even an adolescent, for the choices their parents made. Some strain to make the case that offering opportunities to kids such as Thi, Martha or Esmeralda is akin to rewarding their parents, but that is just a polite way to argue that punishing children will discourage illegal immigration--not exactly a crowded bandwagon, when there are other ways to address the problem. Besides, there is something undeniably American about kids who scrap their way out of a bad situation with talent and hard work.

In 2003, the Senate's right-leaning Judiciary Committee voted 16-3 to bring the DREAM Act to the rest of the Senate. But the Senate's Republican leadership refused to schedule the DREAM Act for an up-or-down vote. The bill had Republican dissenters, and Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, appeared fearful of dividing his party and alienating right-wing activists.

Again this year, the Judiciary Committee endorsed the DREAM Act, voting to attach it to the Senate's sweeping immigration reform bill. But before Congress left for recess earlier this month, that bill bogged down, perhaps indefinitely. Even if the measure ultimately passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with a tougher House bill on immigration. Just before legislators left town, however, a bipartisan group of House members reintroduced their version of the DREAM Act. Compared with the nightmarish task of overhauling America's immigration system, and determining the future of 12 million illegal residents, offering green cards to a few all-but-American college kids hardly seems controversial.

This winter, at UCLA's request, IDEAS organized a career counseling session for AB 540 students. Alberto and another recent graduate spoke, along with a representative for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If students were looking for encouragement, they were not going to find it here. "There is no shame in going back to your humble beginnings," Alberto said. The other presenter, a first-year student at Loyola Law School, pointed out that he might never be able to practice.

"The priority is to get the knowledge, to get the education," MALDEF's representative said. "Nobody is going to be able to take that away from you. Whether you have a certificate that says you're a lawyer or not, you'll be a lawyer."

"Actually, you do need to take the bar exam to be a lawyer," the law student said.

"At heart," the woman from MALDEF clarified.

"Oh, OK," he said, amused. "A lawyer at heart."

Martha wasn't scheduled to speak, but she didn't like the way the conversation had turned. She stood up.

"I came here and spent thousands and thousands of dollars, overcame so many obstacles," she said. "I know it seems like you're going to be poor your whole life. But our education has to be worth more than money." She told students to find ways to apply their education, even if they can only volunteer. "I want to feel like I'm useful."

It is not a satisfying ending. But she has done all she can. Her future now is out of her hands.

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