For the first time since 1986, the U.S. Congress is poised to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
If the bill were to pass, Laura Tovar, a 22-year-old undocumented paralegal working at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, would be able to keep her recently acquired driver's license, her job and her plan to go to law school in the fall.
Irving Rodriguez, an undocumented Stanford University sophomore who is passionate about biology and immigration reform, would be able to put his degree and talent to use in the United States when he graduates.
Edgar Soto, a recent Henry M. Gunn High School graduate with no papers, ID or Social Security number, would eventually be able to obtain all these things and pursue his dreams of becoming an architect or police officer.
Above all, the proposed bill would create a 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, finally putting Tovar, Rodriguez and Soto on a path out of the legal limbo they have been in since coming to the United States as children.
The "Gang of Eight," the U.S. Senate's bipartisan immigration-reform team, filed the 867-page bill in April. As it is, the bill would strengthen the nation's borders, create a mandatory system to ensure employers verify employees' legal statuses and outline a path to citizenship with many criteria for the estimated 11 million immigrants currently living in the United States illegally.
Tovar's future has long depended on the promise and passage of immigration legislation. She found out she was undocumented in 2008, her senior year at Menlo-Atherton High School, when she needed a Social Security number for college applications and financial aid.
"My world turned upside down, honestly," she said of her discovery.
The California Dream Act -- which allows aspiring college students who are undocumented to apply for state and institutional financial aid -- had not yet passed. So a private scholarship helped Tovar pay for her four years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she majored in politics combined with Latin American studies and a minor in literature.
As graduation loomed last year, she was still without papers, a Social Security number, a driver's license or a work permit.
Her dreams -- to take the bar examination, go to law school and live without fear of deportation -- again hung in the balance.
Meanwhile in Chicago, Rodriguez, too, had to learn how to live without a driver's license, figure out how to pay for college and cope with the fear that speaking out about his legal status could lead to his parents' -- and possibly his own -- deportation.
"Several of my friends had their moms and dads deported," Rodriguez said. "They'd be left with nobody else to stay with. They'd basically have to move back, too, because they had no other choice.
"So I went through that, and I never really found a way to help impact a movement or do anything for the (federal) DREAM Act."
"DREAM" stands for "Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors."
His freshman year at Stanford, Rodriguez found out about "The Dream Is Now," a documentary and campaign dedicated to supporting the DREAM Act and comprehensive federal immigration reform. He got involved and became the campaign's campus representative for Stanford.
If the federal immigration bill does not pass, Rodriguez will face the same fate as Tovar did when she graduated from college. Rodriguez is eligible for a federal program that allows certain undocumented immigrants to apply for a work permit, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But the program is in jeopardy, as the House voted to cut its funding on June 6, and might not exist when Rodriguez exits Stanford.
Soto, who came to the United States four years ago, is starting classes at Foothill College this summer.
The likelihood of either of his career dreams becoming reality without an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws is small. But Soto hopes to carve out a life for himself in the United States as best he can under current limitations.
The same day Laura Tovar graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, last year, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Deferred Action allows undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as children to obtain work permits if they meet certain criteria.
Tovar, meeting all the requirements, submitted her application and was granted deferred action status in October.
This meant she could work full-time -- legally -- at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, where she had been interning since her college graduation. It also allowed her to finally apply for her driver's license; she took her driving test in late May and passed. Before, she was driving illegally to and from work, as using public transportation from Sunnyvale, where she now lives, would take almost two hours.
"Now that I have my license, I feel more secure," she said. "Before I was just scared to drive with friends or family members in the car. I offer to take them everywhere now. I'm not afraid anymore. I'm like, OK, there's nothing to hide."
Tovar, a soft-spoken, shy but eloquent 22-year-old who came to the United States illegally 10 years ago, said that growing up, she always thought she was "the same as anyone else."
"And then I wanted to work, to apply for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and financial aid. The college adviser would tell me, 'You cannot apply for FAFSA, you cannot apply for this scholarship because you don't have a Social Security number.'
"I would run to Mom and ask, 'Why do I not have a Social Security number?' And then it's like, 'Oh yeah, you're undocumented.'"
Tovar said her parents decided to leave Mexico because they felt unsafe there.
"It was the corruption that was going on. There's not a lot of security; the police don't do much around that area," she said. "My family felt very insecure."
Tovar's family paid someone to bring them -- her father, mother, 10-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother -- across the Mexico-Arizona border.
She said her family drove to the border and stayed in a small house full of strangers -- other immigrants waiting to cross the border.
"Our time came when my mother said, 'It's our time to cross.' I remember hiding in the bushes with my two younger siblings and mother. My mother and the other people that were with us were telling us that we needed to stay quiet. I thought that we were playing hide and seek. I remember not taking it too serious. I remember seeing a big border right in front of us. I remember jumping through the border into the other side. My brother asked what we were doing, and my mom told him that we were looking for rabbits and that he needed to stay quiet so we wouldn't scare them away."
Once they crossed the border, Tovar said she and her family hid inside a fruit truck for two hours, standing upright in between boxes of fruit. She remembered being scared of getting separated from her family, who were hiding elsewhere in the truck. She was surrounded by strangers.
"It was ... a very risky experience," she said. "My parents were very brave to put us in that type of situation. They cared about our future! We had left everything behind -- my teddy bear, friends, family, our home."
Once in the United States, Tovar and her family stayed with relatives in Redwood City. Tovar started school at the McKinley Institute of Technology, a public middle school in Redwood City that offers bilingual programs. She ended up moving to Adelantes School, a dual Spanish-English immersion public school in Redwood City, where she finished sixth grade. She then transferred to the Girls' Middle School in Palo Alto to be at the same school as her younger sister. She went there on a scholarship provided by the school.
Like many other young immigrants, Tovar faced a huge language barrier in her new schools.
"There wasn't anyone that I could relate to in the school or that even spoke Spanish other than my Spanish teacher," she remembered. "I didn't know how to get around or how to talk to professors. It was difficult."
Tovar had to repeat seventh grade because of her difficulty learning English. But once she was ready for high school, she applied to many private schools in the area. She said that she had eventually come to like the atmosphere at her small, private middle school and wanted the same for high school. She was accepted at a high school with that kind of environment -- Notre Dame High School in Belmont -- but her family couldn't afford the tuition, so she went to Menlo-Atherton.
M-A is where she realized what that 2002 trip across the border meant for her future: Without a Social Security number, she was blocked from applying for Cal Grants and other state aid. She said she ended up applying for more than 20 private scholarships and was eventually granted one by the Peninsula College Fund.
Tovar thrived in college -- taking on three concentrations of study, getting interested in going to law school, starting L.E.A.D (Legal Education Association for Diversity), a club whose mission is to help minority students get the resources and information they need to go to law school and, as a result, make law schools more diverse. Tovar was inspired to create L.E.A.D. her senior year, after she approached multiple UCSC advisers for help in the law-school application process. She said they all responded in the same way: that they did not know how to help an undocumented student from her background pave his or her way to law school.
Tovar was also involved with Students Informing Now (SIN), a UCSC student activist group that provides information, resources and support for undocumented and documented immigrant students. She first got involved with SIN her sophomore year, in 2009, and it wasn't until then that she felt comfortable enough to publicly state her legal status as undocumented.
Sophomore year of college was also momentous for Tovar in another way: Her mother, who had married an American citizen in 2008, had to go back to Mexico to request a waiver as part of her application for residency.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows immigrant-visa applicants who are spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens to apply for provisional unlawful presence waivers. These waivers permit applicants to leave the United States, go back to their country of origin and obtain a waiver of inadmissibility ("It's like you're saying, 'Sorry that I entered the U.S. illegally,'" Tovar explained), which is necessary to apply for an immigrant visa.
Through Tovar's stepfather, her mother, brother and sister were able to apply for green cards and obtain residency. But because Tovar was older than 18 years, she was ineligible.
Her family returned to Mexico to go through the waiver process, leaving her alone for a year. (Until March of this year, immigrant-visa applicants who are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen could not begin the waiver-application process until they left the United States, and many immigrant family members became separated for long periods of time.)
And as graduation quickly approached and most other seniors were making post-graduation plans, Tovar said she feared that after graduation, she would be back at square one.
"I thought to myself, it was so hard just to get to this level, getting to college and be able to pay for tuition and stay here. Then, I asked myself, 'Now what?'"
With no Social Security number, papers or work permit, a college diploma would mean nothing.
She said she considered "doing what everyone else does," getting fake identification so she could work.
"I was just thinking of extreme circumstances. I needed work. I didn't have any other options."
But with the announcement of the Deferred Action program in June 2012, she could legally work at Community Legal Services.
Tovar also plans to take the LSAT in October and hopes to go to the Santa Clara University School of Law or UC Hastings College of the Law, a plan contingent on the existence of deferred action and the passage of the Senate's immigration bill.
But Deferred Action is true to its name -- it's a two-year postponement of action on her illegal status, a temporary bridge over the seemingly insurmountable mountains standing between Tovar and her dreams. After two years, she will need to reapply.
"There's no guarantee that Deferred Action is still going to be around two years from now," she said. "If it ends, I don't know if I'm going to be able to work and practice law in a few years."
When asked what she would do if Deferred Action ends or the bill doesn't pass, Tovar sighed and paused, searching for a response.
"I don't know what I would do," she said. "I don't want to go back there (to Mexico). My life is completely different. I grew up here. My family is here; they're resident citizens."
Edgar Soto became the first in his family to graduate from high school on May 29.
Soto's mother, Theresa Canares, spent most of the graduation ceremony at Henry M. Gunn High School walking around the perimeter of the event without regard for her high heels, searching for her son so she could place a lei around his neck. She finally found him as he was about to walk on stage and receive his diploma, clearly excited.
Just four years ago, Soto was with his older brother and sister-in-law somewhere near the Mexico and U.S. border without food or water, hoping to get to the United States.
Soto was born in Hidalgo, Mexico. His mother moved to the United States when he was a child to escape Soto's father, who he said was abusive. Soto and his older brother stayed with his father, who made them work in construction starting at 8 years old, he said.
"One day (my brother) told me, 'Let's go to the United States' (to be) with my mom. And I said yes, because my father ... it was bad."
He said he also has a difficult relationship with his older brother, miming punching with his hands, explaining that their father taught them to fight instead of communicate with each other.
On a recent afternoon, two weeks before his graduation, Soto sat on a bench at Gunn, telling his story. One of the most striking things about Soto is the contrast between how he expresses himself in English and Spanish. When he speaks in English, his words are disjointed, confusing, unsure. In Spanish, he is eloquent, smooth and confident.
He remembers his journey from Mexico to the United States well but had to switch between his still-broken English to Spanish to fully explain what happened. He said he and his brother paid a coyote to take them across the border.
"We tried six or seven times (to cross), but once we crossed. After we crossed, the coyote abandoned us. He left us alone in the middle of the desert," he said in Spanish.
Soto said they walked three nights and two days without food or water. They stumbled upon a train and decided to climb on top of it -- not knowing if it might take them back to Mexico.
They eventually found themselves in Arizona.
"We see everything in English," he remembered. "We say, 'Oh yes, it's the U.S.'"
They slept in the back of a church that night. The next morning, they met a man from El Salvador who took them to his home and let them shower, change clothes and eat. Soto called his mother, who he hadn't spoken to in 13 years and was living in Palo Alto with her second husband.
Soto's stepfather drove from California to Arizona to pick them up. It was the first time they met.
"He's a Mexican like us," Soto said of his stepfather. "But he's a good person. My real father, he was aggressive ..." he trailed off, searching for the right words to express himself in English. "I come here. ... It was difficult to change my life."
Soto moved in with his mother and stepfather on Emerson Street in Palo Alto and attended JLS Middle School, which has an English Language Learners program. But Soto said his first two years were difficult because he didn't pick up English easily. The grammar was hard, he said.
He went on to Gunn, where he continued to struggle with his English, said Rick Jacobs, a teacher who spent three years with Soto in Gunn's English Learner Program.
Jacobs said he has recommended "over and over" that Soto enroll in an intensive English program for his first year at Foothill College next year.
"He understands that's what he needs to do," Jacobs said. "If he doesn't, he won't be able to do much more than work in a restaurant."
Soto said some classes at Gunn have been hard, due to his problems with English.
But he has high hopes for himself, especially to help his mother, who works at a local catering company.
"(My mother) works hard," Soto said. "I want to give a little bit. I want to learn English and be better than my father and my brother. My mom, she gave me a better life."
He said he's not sure what he wants to study, but one of his dreams is to be an architect.
"I want to make a new world," he explained. "I want to do a different world."
"I want to study and help people who need help," he added. "I want to increase my level because my mom doesn't finish middle school, and my father either. I want to be the first one who helps others."
Soto said he's enrolled in three smaller-unit classes at Foothill for this summer -- "The Road To College Success -- More Than Just Books," "Introduction to College" and "Lifelong Learning Strategies" -- to prepare for the fall. He will pay for his Foothill tuition in part with a $3,000 Gunn Foundation scholarship he was awarded this year. The scholarship is need-based, given to graduating seniors whose annual family income is less than $100,000, to help them pay for their next step in education. Soto also received a financial aid package under the California Dream Act. He could also benefit from Deferred Action but until recently was unaware about the legislation and is unsure how to apply.
When asked what he thinks about the debate over illegal immigration, Soto again switched to his native language.
"Can I say it in Spanish?" he asked. "If (immigrants) want to make their dreams come true, they need to believe in themselves and believe that they can do anything they want."
Irving Rodriguez is a rising sophomore at Stanford University.
He's on a full-ride scholarship, studying physics and considering adding a minor in economics. He's a member of Stanford's club soccer team, Stanford Coaching Corps and the Society of Physics Students.
He's also in the United States illegally -- and he's broken through the fear to state that publicly.
"My name is Irving Rodriguez, and I am an undocumented immigrant," he posted on his Facebook page on April 23.
This was the first time Rodriguez, one of fewer than a dozen undocumented students at Stanford, publicly announced his illegal status.
He did so immediately after attending a screening of "The Dream Is Now," a documentary that tells the stories of four Dreamers, each of whom utters the same line: "My name is 'blank,' and I am an undocumented immigrant."
The documentary is linked to a campaign of the same name that supports comprehensive immigration reform.
A conversation at the screening with one of the film's Dreamers, Alejandro Morales, inspired Rodriguez to publicly come out as undocumented and also to commit himself to the Dream Is Now campaign as its Stanford campus representative. The campaign coordinates documentary screenings across the country, lobbies Congress and serves as a resource on immigration legislation.
"At that point, I think it impacts the community more if you're able to be a leader through that way and not just an ally," he said of his decision to announce his status on Facebook. "It's much more powerful if you're a Dreamer."
He added that he hadn't been publicly open about his status before out of fear for his parents.
"I didn't really know what the consequences of publicly saying I'm an undocumented immigrant would be. With the whole campaign and the way the (federal immigration) bill is looking now, I just realized it's better for all of us if I stand up and say, 'Yeah, that's part of my identity, and that's who I am.'"
Rodriguez, now 19 years old, was born in Coahuila, Mexico, which borders Texas. He remembers an early morning in July 2001 when he was 8 years old: He was awoken by his mother and got on a Greyhound bus instead of going to school. He thought they were going to visit his father in Alabama, as he had done with his mother and two older siblings many times before.
"I was mostly puzzled at the suddenness, but I accepted it because I had no idea that would be the last time I'd be home," he said. "About halfway through the trip, I recall looking up to see (my brother) glancing through the window. I made it a habit to pick up cues from him when I was little. Our eyes locked, and I could tell from his expression that this would be a polarizing experience. Neither of us fully understood what was going on, but that exchange has stuck with me."
Rodriguez's father had been living in the United States since 1989, working at a restaurant. Rodriguez's mother decided to move the family to Chicago, where an uncle was living, after Rodriguez's paternal grandfather died in 2001.
His parents immediately tried enrolling him and his older sister and brother in school so they could learn English.
As an 8-year-old, he said, he found that picking up a foreign language was easier for him than his older siblings.
"In the end, though, we all managed," he said. "We had to. Language was just another obstacle."
He described his new life in the United States as "normal" and without problems until high school, when most of his friends were getting their driver's licenses. He told close friends about his illegal status but became accustomed to making up excuses for why he couldn't drive a car.
He said the "bigger emotional impact" for him was not his own struggles but rather other undocumented immigrants'.
In his neighborhood in Chicago, there were two high schools -- one more affluent and distinguished and another much less so. Rodriguez attended the former but lived in the same neighborhood as kids from the latter high school.
He said Dreamers in the neighboring high school were often racially profiled and insulted in school because of their status.
"They also had a tougher time going through high school because they missed out on the opportunities that make the experience more personal," Rodriguez added. "They couldn't get jobs, a driver's license, and had little to no help during the college application process. They even faced adversity back home because a few of them had close family members under deportation."
This inspired him to get involved with the Dream Is Now campaign, to fight for change on behalf of himself and others. He applied to serve as the campaign's campus representative for Stanford.
When he was offered the position, Rodriguez said he jumped up and down and accidentally knocked over a friend's laptop in the excitement.
"I've always wanted to help out on this issue but never had a concrete way of doing it," he said. "I felt really empowered when I found out that I could have a true impact, especially in communities I was involved in, not just nationwide but around people that I care about in Stanford and Chicago."
Depending on what kind of bill Congress passes -- or doesn't pass -- Rodriguez might graduate in three years with Deferred Action as his only option for putting his Stanford degree to use in the United States.
He received his Deferred Action papers this week and is waiting for his Social Security card to arrive in the mail. He said the first thing he plans to do with it is to get his driver's license.
"I like Deferred Action," Rodriguez said. "It gives us something at least that we can do. ... Go out and work and get driver's license(s) and use that for whatever (we) need for (our) daily lives.
"But it's not a permanent solution. It shouldn't be the only way that we have to get work authorization in three years."
He said the Senate bill is a crucial improvement on current policy like Deferred Action or the repeatedly proposed federal DREAM Act.
"(The bill) reaches a higher population, a broader population than just the 16-to-25-year-olds that are here now and looking for work and studying," he said, referring to the DREAM Act. "That way you can capture all the kids who aren't fortunate to be going to school because of their family situation, all the parents who are outside the window the DREAM Act offers."
For a 19-year-old whose own future is currently being heatedly debated in the House and Senate, Rodriguez holds a surprisingly reasoned opinion of the government's handling of immigration reform.
"My big thing with the government is that they never handle things with rational decisions. At least that's what it seems like to me. So if they actually sat down and started analyzing the economic costs and benefits of passing something like comprehensive reform, then they would pass it immediately."
For now, though, Rodriguez said he feels "the glass is half full." He's at home in Chicago for the summer, spending time with his family and doing some studying on his own -- he casually wrote in an email that he plans to learn a computer programming language and read up on physics.
He also plans to continue his Dream Is Now involvement by coordinating screenings in local churches and schools and keeping his community updated on the status of the federal immigration bill.
"If (immigration reform) doesn't get done this year, then in coming years the pressure is just going to be huge -- too big to ignore," he said. "At this point, I think it's only a matter of time."
This story contains 4664 words.
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