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?"


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.

Anonymous says:
Aug 17, 2010 12:01 PM
Good tell them to take the excellent education they recieved here while making it a burden for american kids to learn while making American kids parents paty for their health care and everything else and take it back to where ever their parents came from and make that a better place to live.
Your welcome If this country keeps handing out freebies I may need a place to be an illegal alien and get all my stuff for free. Do you think they'll print everything in english for me ?
Anonymous says:
Aug 17, 2010 02:50 PM
If you'd read the article at all, you'd realize that most of these kids' parents have citizenship or other alien statuses that require them to pay taxes and contribute to society in precisely the same ways you do. That means these kids are no more a burden to the American taxpayer and school system than are American-born children, none of whom pay the taxes that fund their own schooling. These mixed-status families are far more common than you'd like to think. But I suppose you have to grossly oversimplify other people's situations in order to sleep soundly with such hardness in your heart.
Anonymous says:
Aug 19, 2010 10:33 PM
That excellent education is an investment of my hard-earned tax dollars. Don't kid yourself and think that we as Americans will tolerate our investment leaving the US and contributing to other countries instead of our own American communities.

If you don't support these students staying here and giving back to us because of the humanity of it, fine! Who cares?! But we cannot deny the economic imperative of passing the DREAM Act to allow these students a clear way to give us a return on our investment.

This is just my critical thinking here! No higher education needed for me to come to this conclusion!
Anonymous says:
Oct 05, 2010 12:27 PM
Such callus thinking is impossible for me to fathom. What country would you suggest these people belong to? They were raised here; this country is what they know. The only thing un-American about Chih Tsung Kao is his paperwork.
Anonymous says:
Aug 17, 2010 12:47 PM
Thank you thank you and thank you for writing on this issue. I have been working with undocumented students since 2005, have been active in raising awareness about the DREAM act. This is such an important, timely, and devastatingly tragic issue, we need immigration reform now and we need to be fair to the bright young minds that can help our country be better, stronger, and more diverse.
I commend you HCN for your coverage.
Anonymous says:
Aug 17, 2010 08:10 PM
I'm about as liberal as they come, but have no patience with sob stories about illegal immigrants. He got a multi-year free education, courtesy of the rest of us, and now is whining about how unfair life is? He knew this was coming, so why didn't he learn Taiwanese and prepare to leave? Infuriating.
Anonymous says:
Aug 18, 2010 12:36 AM
Open societies thrive. Closed societies wither.
Witness the USSR. Great Wall of China. Hadrian's Wall. Berlin Wall.
Islamic countries prospered in commerce, art, technology and science as open societies. But as gated communities they actually went backwards.
The US functions as an enabler of human nature-- inalienable rights, free speech, equal protection. Human nature would not stop without US. To the degree we frustrate or try to control or pervert human nature, we are a failed state. Prohibition is an example. Attempting to achieve peace by force is another.
As an open society, extending recognition of human rights to all, we offer everyone an incentive to defend us. As a gated community, we have no viable defense.
Within a week of the five-billion dollar border wall's construction, tunnels, ladders and doors appeared in it, cut with twenty-dollar acetylene torches, and chained with padlocks on the Mexican side. Inalienable rights is a fact of Nature-- not amenable to legislation.
These children have the same rights as any children anywhere to live on earth and be cared for and educated in whatever land they find themselves. Their presence enriches us all.
Like the thirteenth-cntury Iranian poet, Saadi, wrote, '..if one aspires to greatness, be liberal-- grain does not grow unless it is sown...'
Attempting to hoard all the goodies to oneself will leave one with nothing.

Anonymous says:
Aug 18, 2010 06:23 AM
"Liberty and justice for all" difficult those words are to recite for "illegal" children of any age...lip service is given to family, but when push comes to shove, the children get shoved out...sent to a country they don't know. Would we do that to our own flesh and blood? NO...we'd think it was why do we do that to thousands of children who were brought here, not by their own choice?? What a waste of talent...a brain drain...all so someone can feel good about getting rid of "them"...people have lost the ability to stand in another's shoes, lost the virtue of compassion, lost the ability to think for themselves & have come to mouth whatever is the slogan of the day without thinking of the ramifications behind it...lost the ability to see what one's actions cause another...

We are truly Ugly Americans.
Anonymous says:
Jan 15, 2011 03:40 AM
If anybody is allowed to stay in
the U.S. illegally then shouldn't
everybody in the world be allowed
to come here for a better life.
Just do away with any immigration
controls. There should be no fees, no forms to fill out and
no waiting.
Anonymous says:
Jan 18, 2011 12:54 PM
This people are not asking for anything, They just wanna fit in because this is place where they are raised & this is what they call thier home, Compare this people who are citizen here but menace to the society. This people given thier rights will contribute a lot to this country & society & not gonna be a burden unlike others.