Young, All-American, Illegal

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


Taiwanese immigrant Chih Tsung Kao.
Ted Wood Photo; Istock

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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

"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.

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.

  • 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

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.

"I consider myself really lucky because I didn't have to walk or cross the river," says Maria today, as casually as if she were voicing a preference for Frontier Airlines over Southwest. "I was kind of like priority mail." She doesn't know how much it cost to bring her here; her face clouds at the question. "It was expensive for my mom, though."

The smugglers took Maria and her cousin to Boulder and left them with Maria's mother, other cousins and uncles. There was a king-sized mattress in each of two snug bedrooms -- one for the male cousins and one for the female cousins. They had to tilt the mattresses against the wall during the day to have room to move around. It was early summer, and she had never seen so much green. There were beautiful purple and yellow flowers in people's yards.

Maria enrolled in Boulder schools and struggled to fit in. By the time she got to high school, her English was good. Teachers told her she should be taking advanced placement college-prep classes, but she dropped out. A teacher called to tell her, "You're too smart to stop." She went back to school and took up weight training because it was the only available gym class. A notoriously hard-assed football coach ran the class and subjected her to hazing, but when she weathered it, he recognized that she was an athlete. Encouraged to go out for track, she took up pole vaulting and sprinting.

Still, at times Maria fell into despair. In her senior year, caught between the two worlds of achievement and hopelessness, she found herself in a room with George Garcia, at that time superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District. Garcia, who had come from a poor immigrant Mexican family, gave inspirational speeches every year to immigrant kids. Work hard and you can get anywhere, he told about 100 students gathered in that crowded room. Maria started crying.

Superintendent Garcia asked Maria why she was upset. Unable to hold back her frustration, she replied, "You tell me that I can do anything, but I can't." So Garcia asked the crowd of students: How many of them were in a similar situation? Maybe two-thirds raised their hands, Maria recalls. If that was true in fashionable, wealthy, ultraliberal Boulder, it was true in many places: Maria realized she was far from alone in her difficulties. That knowledge overwhelmed her, in a good way. "It's not just me," she realized. "I knew then I was not going to give up."

That year, 2006, Maria graduated from Boulder High School. A friend from the same village in Mexico gave a speech at the graduation ceremony, optimistically describing her journey to the podium. That girl ended up going back to Zacatecas when she hit the U.S. immigration wall after graduation.

Maria stayed to fight for immigration reform, for her own future. She earned a certificate from the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. She's considering moving to New Mexico, where she would be allowed to make a living with her certificate, get a driver's license and pay in-state tuition for more college education (all of which are difficult or impossible in Colorado). She's heard of others like her moving from Colorado and Arizona to places like New Mexico and Texas, where there are more opportunities. They are displaced people within U.S. borders.

Sitting in the Barnes and Noble in Boulder, near the Whole Foods market and the Vitamin Cottage that form Boulder's organic retail core, Maria can't understand why people would insist she leave the U.S. She wonders: How would this country be a better, safer or more just place without her and the thousands like her?

"Boulder is very much a part of me," Maria says. "I am American. I grew up here."

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

The twins, Amina and Fatimah, were just a year old when their parents came home and found their oldest sister under the bed, crying. It was 1988, the year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and South Africa was a violent mess. Car bombs routinely exploded any veneer of normalcy. International sanctions against the apartheid government strangled commerce; hand grenades and limpet mines assassinated children. Cape Town wasn't a good place for a young family.

The parents scooped up the twin girls and both of their siblings without stopping to file for political asylum. On a tourist visa, they sought refuge with relatives in Miami.

So the twins celebrated their second birthday in Florida. Over the years, their parents spent thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers. But when Mandela was elected South Africa's president in 1994, asylum seekers didn't seem as pressing of an issue to U.S. authorities. Under immigration law at the time, the twins' parents were able to receive Social Security cards and work legally. But they could never get the children naturalized.

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.

When Karen's abuela died in Mexico, her mother was so uncertain about re-crossing the border to attend the funeral that she decided not to risk it. Karen doesn't want to face the same intimidation. She says that she'll probably go "back" to Mexico to start the 10-year wait -- known as the "bar" -- to get a U.S. visa. (Anyone who leaves the U.S. after being here illegally cannot even be considered for a visa for a decade.) "I want to take the WANTED posters down," Karen says.

She'll wait for her sister to graduate high school, to help her navigate through senior year, then make her move, she says. She doesn't speak much Spanish, and may just go to Australia instead. "I don't feel useful here," she says. "I want to work with kids, with orphans. Here, there is only so much I can do."

Karen describes the time her mother asked her, "Do you hate me because of the way I've done things?"

Karen told her mother, "There is no way that you are not my hero."

The Boulder nonprofit group VOICE (Voices of Immigrant Children for Education and Equality) tries to help undocumented young people in the Boulder area. At a meeting on a summer afternoon in a downtown house, the new Arizona law hangs like a pall in the room. Fighting for immigration reform in a recession feels like applying for a job with 11 million applicants.

Erika Blum helped to start VOICE. Her husband, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Colorado, was born in Nicaragua and emigrated in the 1970s. If her husband tried today to retrace his steps to citizenship and scholarship, he told her recently, "I'd be working at McDonald's."

Blum's awakening to advocacy began at her son's soccer game a few years ago, where she met Maria and her little sister. Blum was shocked by Maria's story. Once she opened her eyes and looked around, she realized young people like Maria were all over Boulder: Children effectively orphaned -- from their families and their roots -- by politics.

Blum joined the fight. Every year since 2001, sympathetic members of Congress have attempted to pass the DREAM Act (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which was originally co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill. The DREAM Act would grant people like Chih and Maria and Karen and the South African twins a path to citizenship if they meet some basic criteria -- like arriving in the U.S. before the age of 16, going to school or joining the military, and possessing "good moral character." As President Obama said in a speech in June, "We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they've grown up."

But Congress has failed to pass the DREAM Act -- which astounds Blum. "These kids challenge even the most anti-immigrant people because they didn't choose to come here," she says. The proposed law is still alive and may yet become a part of election-year calculus. In late July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would consider bringing DREAM to a vote before the end of the year.

Laurel Herndon is an immigration lawyer in Boulder who works with many of the VOICE kids. Her own children, now adults, attended University Hill Elementary School, where many Hispanic kids in Boulder end up because of its two-way bilingual program. She is incensed at the casualties caused by our current policies. "If we can't come to grips that these kids who grew up here are part of us, we're really in trouble," Herndon says. "There are a lot of kids in deportation right now who committed no crime except they were brought here when they were 4 or 6 or 10."

Herndon says that immigration law is convoluted, surpassed in complexity only by tax law. Nor is immigration a new conflict. This country's history is filled with dark moments of fear and anger toward immigrants, from the Alien Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The law has become studded with inequities, exclusions and exceptions like "barnacles upon barnacles." Not surprisingly, Herndon says, the system favors white Europeans and the wealthy.

Modern-day anti-immigrant activists cast the DREAM proposal as "yet another attempt to enact an amnesty for illegal aliens," in the words of the right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). That group's president, Dan Stein, thinks DREAM would "reward illegal immigrants and pander to the illegal alien lobby." Critics like him also point out that DREAM would allow these young people to jump to the front of a long line of immigrants who legally applied for status and are patiently waiting their turn.

But for kids like Maria and Karen and the South African twins and Chih, who came to the U.S. before they could ride a bike or fully comprehend the concept of a border, there is no line to stand in. Theirs is a Kafkaesque world of ICE agents and 10-year "bars" to re-entry, and seemingly no way to get there from here.

  • 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

When Chih was 9, his mother returned to Boulder from Taiwan, bringing his younger brother and sister. During the five years she was gone, she tried to apply for visas. In the middle of that process, Chih's father was arrested -- Chih suspects for drugs -- and his father and mother divorced. Chih's mom re-entered the U.S. illegally through Canada and soon moved to California with Chih's siblings, because she had more relatives there. Chih still liked the Colorado snow, liked living with his grandparents. He stayed.

While Chih was in middle school, a friend's father advised that if his grandparents adopted him, he could become a U.S. citizen. But Chih's grandparents weren't sure what to do. Chih's mother was in distant California, his father behind bars, so they were not much help. Chih tried to raise the subject several times, but the Chinese Confucian ethic prevented him from questioning his elders when they demurred.

Eventually, when Chih was 13, his grandparents sold their Boulder restaurant and moved to California. Chih stayed in Boulder several more years, living with an Anglo friend's family. When he was 17, his own family moved him to Southern California, so that he could establish California residency, with the goal of enrolling in the University of California system, preferably at Berkeley or UCLA. He lived in El Monte and attended Rosemead High School, which was basically half Hispanic and half Asian.

In metro Los Angeles, Chih didn't fit in; it was a culture shock after Boulder. "I felt weird there," he says. "There weren't any white people." He returned to his surrogate family in Boulder and spent his senior year at Fairview High, playing cornerback on the football team. He also ran track and wrestled. His mother married a U.S. citizen living in Virginia, and she and Chih's sister also became citizens. Chih tried to get his new step-dad to adopt him, too, but he hadn't lived with the step-dad, wasn't even all that close to his mother after so many years apart. "For reasons unknown," Chih says with a resigned shake of his head, that second possibility for adoption -- and citizenship -- also fell through.

As Chih applied to colleges, he knew that many would exclude him, but he "jumped through a loophole" that allowed him to pay in-state tuition at the Colorado School of Mines. His grandparents cashed in some of their retirement money to help him, and he tended bar at a friend's Denver bar and grill to make rent. He joined a fraternity and was elected treasurer, but he couldn't sign on the bank accounts, so he settled for being the pledge coordinator and scholarship chair. He made the college football team as a freshman and still proudly wears the bulky "Orediggers" championship ring from the team's big season that year, even though he didn't play in the games.

Civil engineering was a demanding major, and because of his status, Chih couldn't qualify for financial aid of any kind. During his junior year, he fell into a funk about his bleak prospects, started drinking, gained weight, and watched his grades crater. He worried that he was just wasting money going to school. Then he pulled himself together, started working out again, became a "gym rat" and played intramural sports. The two matching tattoos on his ripped triceps are the same lions that guard the Forbidden City in Beijing.

But after college, Chih discovered that he couldn't work as an engineer, and he was unwilling to spend his life trapped in the service sector.

On a sweltering July day, Chih sits at a table at the Glacier Ice Cream store on Baseline Road, near where he has lived for 20 years. Wearing a "Hang Ten" T-shirt and a backwards Colorado Rockies cap, he looks exactly like the fraternity boy and jock he once was.

He went to elementary school a mile from this spot, middle school a half mile from here, high school three miles from here, and college 20 miles from here. Had his first kiss, his sports successes, his first MIP (minor in possession of alcohol -- another Boulder rite of passage), just up the road.

And Chih is done hiding. "It's gotten worse," he says. "I'm not trying to be negative, but it's pretty trying to run into brick walls all the time. ... I can't do anything. I can't contribute to society due to this lack of status. (Most) people don't really understand how much they do in their life depends on these documents."

He's made a decision. His "uncle" -- really some sort of second- or third-cousin once removed -- has offered him a job and a place to live in Taiwan. He thinks he'll face mandatory military service there, as well as the confounding challenge of being a foreigner in the land of his birth.

Most of Chih's Colorado friends think he's just going on an adventure, and some are envious. Only a handful know the real reason he's leaving. "We don't talk about it much," he says with another self-effacing shrug.

Later, in his bedroom, he stuffs mementos into a suitcase, trying to put a good spin on the next turn of his life's wheel: A flight from Denver to L.A. and on to Taipei. "This is an opportunity for me to start a life for myself."

He spins the white football signed by his Oredigger teammates, packs it along with the two snowboards he may never use again but refuses to leave behind.

His surrogate family hosts a sort of last supper the night before the flight, with his friends and a high school guidance counselor gathered in stunned disbelief.

He tries to put on a brave face, but the enormity of it all hits him.

"Yeah, it sucks," Chih says, bowing his head in resignation. "This definitely sucks."

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

* With the exception of Chih, none of the undocumented people in this story wanted their full names used, or in some cases even their real first names, because it would heighten their risk of arrest and deportation.

Daniel Glick is the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth, and a co-founder of The Story Group, a Boulder-based independent multimediajournalism company.

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

For more information:

The DREAM Act -- online community of undocumented students

Colorado College 2008 report on immigrants in the Rockies (download PDF)

Migration Policy Institute

National Immigration Forum

Reform Immigration for America

Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition

Center for Immigration Studies (curbs on immigration)

Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) (curbs on immigration)

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


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