Still, people keep coming to the U.S., one fraught way or another. If an immigrant's children are born here, the children automatically become citizens. But if kids are brought here, well, it becomes tricky. The kids can go to public K-12 schools, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in Plyler vs. Doe, which said that it was unconstitutional for Texas to pull the plug on public education for immigrant children. In the words of Justice William Brennan, our immigration policies "raise the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens" who provide "cheap labor" but are "denied the benefits ... of lawful residents."

With the access to education an additional draw, some 2 million or more undocumented young people now call this country home. About 65,000 graduate from public high schools every year. These cross-border children are indistinguishable from U.S.-born kids, tapping out text messages and watching gory horror movies and navigating the shoals of adolescence in status-conscious high-school cafeterias.

But under current law, they have no status; they must leave or go underground when they turn 18. Abruptly, after their tenure as legal youth, they become adult outlaws: They're denied most grants and scholarships, and many colleges won't accept them. As Chih discovered, they cannot get Social Security numbers and must work in the shadows of their adopted communities. They live in fear of being discovered, many of them driving without licenses or not driving at all. They cannot travel freely: A simple jaywalking ticket could lead to deportation to countries more foreign to them than snow was to 4-year-old Chih.

In the Red/Blue hues of an election season, immigration politics provoke contradicting claims of peril and unvarnished power plays. Undocumented people don't vote, but the prospect of Hispanic votes, especially in the West, represents a tantalizing prize for those who call for liberalizing reform. On the other side of the argument, hard-line Tea Party protesters rally for tougher enforcement and higher border walls. And Arizona has a new law encouraging police to ferret out undocumented people with the blunt force of "reasonable suspicion" -- an unconstitutional crackdown, according to a federal judge's ruling that is currently being appealed.

With a long border with Mexico and a coastline facing the Pacific Rim, Western states grapple with the situation in various ways. A few allow undocumented teens to get drivers' licenses; some allow for in-state college tuition rates; some send traffic scofflaws straight to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In Colorado, agents tried to deport a highly sought-after Hispanic police academy graduate, as well as a student caught urinating in public.

There is undeniable power in the stories of these young people. They have not all led perfect lives, but few have committed the kind of adult offenses that typically warrant such harsh treatment. They come from "mixed status" families, where their sisters, half-brothers, cousins, even parents have different citizenship rights. They are kids who earn straight-A grades, or average or below-average students, athletes and nerds, typical young people who dream of becoming teachers or social workers or engineers or health-care professionals.

Those of us who are citizens hardly notice their plight, as they go to school with our children, work at stores where we shop, serve at restaurants where we eat, give valedictorian speeches at graduation ceremonies. Most of them just want to walk down the street without fear of being sent  "home" to a place they never knew, to a country whose language they may not speak or a culture in which they don't feel they belong.

Unless you are Navajo or Lakota or a member of any of the other tribes that were this country's original inhabitants, they are a lot like you: Fellow immigrants, trying to plot a course through this alleged land of opportunity.

Twelve-year-old Maria* was finally – ¡por fin! -- going to see her mother again. She sat quietly in the back seat of a Chevy Blazer, crossing from Juarez to El Paso, Texas. She and a cousin were with a U.S. couple -- paid human smugglers -- and their two children. The smugglers told Maria to memorize their names and where they were from: Colorado. Maria had to pretend that they were her real family. She spoke no English and was a little scared.

It was worth being scared, though. She hadn't seen her mother in four years.

Maria's family's journey began when her grandfather left northern Mexico's Zacatecas for California in the early 1980s. At home the crops were failing and there was no work. At first, he returned after each work season with money and treats for the family. Then, in 1986, President Reagan offered a big amnesty for immigrants and he could stay in the U.S. permanently. Maria's mother, a single mom, left Maria and her older sister with a grandmother in 1996 and went to California, then to Colorado. She worked at Wendy's and McDonald's and managed to save enough in two years to send for Maria's older sister. Two years later, there was enough money to hire the smugglers to retrieve Maria.