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.
Coming out is a risky move: You're proclaiming to the world that you're breaking a federal law, and at any moment, you could be deported. But paradoxically, coming out can be a protective mechanism: You become part of an increasingly vocal group that will make it very well known if you're at risk of deportation.
Now, over a year after the first rally, a group of undocumented youth has formed Connecticut Students for a DREAM (informally known as C4D), the state's first and only non-profit advocating for their rights. The name alludes to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act proposed in 2001 to put students like Nico on a pathway to college and citizenship. (The act has failed by a handful of votes on four occasions, and in a re-election year with a Republican-dominated congress, it isn't expected to pass any time soon.)
It's not exactly easy for a young organization to advocate for individuals who make a point of concealing their identities, particularly when only a small proportion of C4D members themselves are out to the general public. But in the past months, the organization successfully lobbied for in-state tuition and helped terminate the deportation proceedings of a C4D member. And through a series of college workshops and open meetings, C4D is slowly building awareness among the state's 15,000 undocumented students.
It's 5:30 pm, and about 30 people, mostly mothers and their teenage daughters, sit in mismatched folding chairs at the Spanish Community of Wallingford, chatting in a combination of Spanish and English as they wait for a C4D college prep workshop to start. A PowerPoint is projected onto a whiteboard, and as four speakers walk to the front of the room, the crowd quiets. Lorella is the first to speak.
"How many of you are in high school?" About 10 people raise their hands.
"How many want to go to college?" About 15.
"How many of you have been told that you can't go to college because of your status?" Nearly everyone.
"Well, the four of us are undocumented -- we're either in college or just graduated. We call ourselves DREAMers.
"We're told many things because we're undocumented. 'You can't go to college, you can't work, you can't drive. You don't belong. You should go back to where you came from.' Well," she grins at the three other speakers, "obviously, that's not the case."
The speakers explain statistics they've reviewed many times before, pausing once in a while to repeat themselves in Spanish: Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. Of these 65,000, only five to ten percent enroll in college. One percent, or 650 students each year, graduates from college.
Lorella goes on to explain that the most recent version of the DREAM Act proposed a "pathway to citizenship" for immigrants who meet five qualifications: they arrived to the U.S. on or before their 15th birthday, have lived in the country for at least five consecutive years, have graduated high school or obtained a GED, have "good moral character" (read: no criminal record), and are 29 or younger on the date of enactment. These students would qualify for a six-year non-immigrant status, during which they would be required to complete two years in college or the military. After the six years, they would be able to apply for green cards.
Two thirds of the audience members have heard of the DREAM Act, but when Lorella asks how many have heard of the in-state tuition legislation, only one person raises his hand. Lorella looks dismayed. "That's why we're here," she says with a hesitant smile.
Most Americans of any educational background would have a hard time comprehending the fine print of current immigration policy. For undocumented students applying to college, the lack of clarity extends even further: Which box do you check when you're asked to name your residency status? What do you put on the line where you're supposed to write your social security number -- better to leave it blank or make one up? Do you have to tell the admissions office that you're undocumented, or do they just figure it out? And if you do tell them, can they report you?
The fact that Lorella and other C4Ders knew the answers to these questions when they were applying for colleges points to a rarely talked about divide among undocumented youth. Many of the students currently involved in C4D, like Lorella, come from middle class families with parents who emphasized the value of education. Lorella knew, when filling out her college applications, to leave the social security number space blank and check the "Other" box for residency status. She knew that, despite her lack of citizenship, she could still apply for a merit scholarship at a private university. For most undocumented youth, navigating these gray areas isn't so straightforward.
The story of Raul Garcia, a good-looking young man who's quick to smile and extraordinarily easy to talk to, is much more typical. When he was two years old, Raul's mother carried him over the U.S. border on her back. Unlike Lorella, Raul grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Hartford and got caught up with the wrong crew. In middle school, he started dealing drugs, carrying a freezer bag of cocaine and ecstasy wherever he went.
After graduating from high school, Raul stopped dealing and enrolled at a local community college using a fake social security number and much of the family's savings. He graduated with honors in communications in May of 2010, but the most meaningful part of his college experience was co-founding a program dedicated to tutoring high schoolers from Hartford's poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Raul's face lights up when he talks about this -- in an ideal world, he would devote his time to tutoring and mentoring at-risk teenagers.
Instead of turning his passion for mentoring teenagers into a career, Raul stands by himself in front of a 12-foot long printing machine for nine hours each day. A giant roll of paper spans the length of the machine, and onto it, Raul prints applications for things he can't apply for. "I have a lot of time to daydream," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. "In my head, I plan all these things I want to do. These fundraisers, these programs I want to start."
The printing factory was the only employer Raul could find willing to risk breaking a federal law by overlooking his status. Raul is slowly working towards a BA at the University of Connecticut, but because he can't apply for financial aid, he can only take one class at a time. He's wanted to marry Andrea, an American citizen and the mother of his two-year-old son, for years, but because he didn't come to the country with a visa to begin with, he would have to leave the country first and then prove that Andrea faces "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" without him there.
Perhaps more depressing than all this is the fact that Raul may be paying for his mistakes for a long time. Because he didn't know to leave the social security number blank on his community college application, for example, he may have unknowingly created legal barriers to his eligibility for the DREAM Act if the act ever passes. Because his parents have no savings, and because he spent his high school years befriending drug dealers and not, like some C4Ders, befriending Americans who could help him pay for college, he pays for his college education alone. And because he now works, takes classes, and cares for his family, Raul hasn't made time to inform himself about opportunities for undocumented students.
When I ask Raul how he manages to stay positive while living with so many barriers to his success, his usual charismatic smile gives way to a tired, dejected look. "I have to put up a front," he says quietly, "But it's like a psychological prison."
Realistically, Raul may already be a lost cause -- in fact, he is seriously considering leaving Andrea and his son to make a life for himself in South America. But his situation is still better than it was 10 years ago because he is part of a community of students who are getting sick, as Lorella puts it, of "viviendo en las sombras" -- of living in the shadows. The budding movement's literature circulates among friends, and every two weeks, new people crowd into C4D's office for meetings. Its members drive long distances without licenses to speak at workshops in the hopes of motivating just a few high schoolers to envision lives beyond rock-bottom wages and the overbearing fear of deportation.
Perhaps the best representative of this burgeoning movement is someone like Nico, who's not well off but has done well at school and is still figuring out what he will do after graduation. As Nico's friends find out the colleges they've been admitted to and the financial aid packages they've received, Nico has resolved to work as a groundskeeper at a nearby office building for as long as it will take him to save up for college.
The sun sets outside as I sit with Nico in the office of a local non-profit where he spends his afternoons doing homework. When I open my laptop to show him a list of scholarships he's eligible for, I offhandedly point out that my desktop background is a picture from a trip I took to Guatemala, Nico's country of birth. His face lights up.
We spend the next half hour looking through pictures of my trip, suspended in the absurdity of the situation: I'm an American citizen showing Nico pictures and telling him stories from my travels. And he, who has virtually no recollection of this place -- who later tells me that seeing them was the highlight of his day -- can't work or drive or travel or get healthcare or pursue an education in America. All because of his affiliation with this place -- a place that he doesn't remember but that we insist he call "home."