Young, All-American, Illegal

Undocumented kids thrive in the U.S. -- until they turn 18 and the law cracks down

  • Photo illustration featuring Taiwanese immigrant Chih Tsung Kao.

    Ted Wood Photo; Istock
  • Chih Tsung Kao and some fellow undocumented immigrants who prefer not to reveal their identities. All turned 18 in the U.S. and have no legal status here.

    Ted Wood
  • Chih Tsung Kao went to Boulder schools and then played football and got an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines. After graduating, he continued to go to the gym and to hang out with friends, but without legal status, he couldn't get a job in his field.

    Ted Wood
  • Ted Wood
  • Ted Wood
  • Snapshot from Chih's collection shows his life as a U.S. teen.

    Chih Tsung Kao
  • Snapshot from Chih's collection shows his life as a U.S. teen.

    Chih Tsung Kao
  • Young women who came to the U.S. as children and grew up as Coloradans have had to shift to living in the shadows because they lack a good path to U.S. citizenship.

    Ted Wood
  • Young women who came to the U.S. as children and grew up as Coloradans have had to shift to living in the shadows because they lack a good path to U.S. citizenship.

    Ted Wood
  • Young women who came to the U.S. as children and grew up as Coloradans have had to shift to living in the shadows because they lack a good path to U.S. citizenship.

    Ted Wood
  • Chih holds his Taiwanese passport, ready for his new life.

    Ted Wood
 

(This HCN magazine cover story is accompanied by an editor's note, "Recognizing Unfairness.")

Boulder, Colorado

He remembers wanting to stay here because of the snow. Chih Tsung Kao was only 4 years old and his mother had brought him from Taiwan to visit his paternal grandparents in this Rocky Mountain college town. The snow was marvelous, coating his new world with white frosting that tasted like sky.

Coming from the crowded and muggy China Sea island, Chih found Colorado intoxicating. His face glowed red with the cold.

Chih's grandparents had moved to the U.S. during the 1970s, working at a burger stand by day and serving Chinese food on the street at night. By the time Chih arrived, in 1990, they were running the popular Lee Yuan Chinese restaurant in the Meadows Shopping Center.

Chih's mother asked him, "Would you like to stay here?"

"Yes."

As hard as it was for his mother, she knew the opportunities for her eldest son would multiply if she left him here in Mei Guo, the beautiful country. She vowed to return with his brother and sister when she could.

So the snow-enthralled pre-schooler stayed.

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Chih flowed through the local public schools -- Eisenhower Elementary, Burbank Middle School, Fairview High School. By the time he finished second grade, he no longer needed "English as a Second Language" classes; his English was almost flawless. He played high school football -- cornerback -- went to prom, learned to skateboard and snowboard.

Almost everybody else in his extended family became a U.S. citizen, but Chih missed two chances to do that. Before he turned 18, that wasn't a big problem, since under U.S. law, he had the right to stay and go to school. He didn't think about it much.

After high school, with support from his grandparents and a lucky break, Chih enrolled in the Colorado School of Mines at in-state rates and earned an engineering degree. He worked at bars in Denver and restaurants in Vail to get by.

But now, at 24, Chih has hit a wall. Despite spending most of his life in the U.S., he has no feasible pathway to citizenship. He can't work as an engineer; he can't even get a Social Security card or a Colorado driver's license. He fears that his destiny in the U.S. will be an off-the-books life, mixing drinks or serving take-out Chinese food. He has no memory of the country that his passport says is his home. He speaks halting Mandarin and very little Taiwanese, and he can't read or write Chinese.

Recounting his story in early July, he talks of the mounting frustrations that led him to consider leaving this country to go back to Taiwan. He's close to surrendering. Like tens of thousands of others who came to the U.S. when they were young kids, he's another civilian casualty in this country's ongoing immigration wars.

"Immigration reform" returns cyclically to the national conversation, much the way unemployment, health care, energy policy and presidential elections do. We are a country of immigrants, we say, reciting it like a national mantra. But the kind and color and number we welcome change with the tides of world events: Wars, blights, currency fluctuations, trade policies, manufacturing trends, coups, and the relative strength of this or that country's economy.

People seek out new countries because life in their own has become untenable -- impoverished, hopeless or even terrifying. It is rarely an easy choice to leave one's motherland: Children and parents are yanked apart, families splintered, generations disconnected, traditions shattered.