When the twins were 13, the family moved to Colorado, where an uncle and aunt had relocated. Amina and Fatimah, who is older by an hour, have never been back to South Africa. Today, if they left the only country they know, they would not be able to return for a long time. Their life in Colorado is filled with anxieties over their status.
They attended middle school in Thornton, a Denver suburb, then graduated as Boulder High Panthers. Since then, they've knocked around Boulder County, collecting credits at Front Range Community College and pondering their increasingly uncertain futures. Neither one has a Social Security number or a driver's license.
Amina just married a Colorado native and filed for a Green Card, which grants legal status. But she says, "I have this gut feeling that something will go wrong." Even marriage isn't a sure bet these days.
At 24, Fatimah is down to a few options: Get married, join the military or find a business to sponsor her for a Green Card. She wonders why some Americans can't understand what it's like to flee violence and find a new home, then be ordered to leave. "I would ask them, ‘Why don't you go to a country you have no idea about?' " She'd like to start her own business, would love to be able to travel. "We need some kind of opportunity, some kind of pathway to allow us to at least just get started," she says.
Karen wonders why the system would give three children from a mother's womb legal status, but leave one child -- her -- an "undocumented" refugee?
Karen's mother, who is El Salvadoran, gave birth to two boys in that country. When El Salvador was torn by revolution, she took the boys to Mexico, where they had other relatives. There, she met a wealthy Mexican, who fathered Karen but split without giving his daughter anything but the right to a Mexican passport.
Karen's mother continued her journey north and was granted political asylum in the U.S. She was allowed to take her two sons into the U.S. because they were considered war refugees, but not Karen. Karen had to stay with a grandmother in Guanajuato while her mother worked on bringing her to the U.S. Her mother settled in Colorado and married an Anglo from Kansas; they had a baby girl. Then her new husband sold some of his dead mother's jewelry to bring Karen across the border.
Karen was 7 when she got to Colorado. She went to school in Weld County, northeast of Denver, and "didn't even think of my situation until I was 16." Getting a driver's license is a rite of passage for American teenagers. But her mother told her "casually, like she was saying the sky is blue, ‘You can't get a license,' " Karen recalls.
Karen thought her mother was being overprotective. "When I'm 17, then?"
No, not then, either: "The law won't allow it."
Despite her frustration, Karen did well in high school; her guidance counselor said she would have been eligible for a number of scholarships for people who are the first in their family to attend college. But because of her status, she wasn't qualified. She lied to her counselor, to her family, maybe to herself about her college dreams. "I said I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Karen says. "Then I started to get a little heartbroken."
Now Karen is 21. Even though she was officially adopted by her new step-dad, she has no path to citizenship under current law because she is already an adult. Her 16-year-old half sister, who is a U.S. citizen, sits by her side on the porch of their house on a leafy Boulder street. Karen talks about making her living by cleaning houses. A lady at church got her started, and she's been word-of-mouthed around town, so she has steady work, although not enough to save much money.