Status Affects Young Illegal Immigrants' Choices
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The DREAM Act is stalled in the U.S. Senate with very little chance of revival, and come January there will likely be less support in the new Congress.
The bill would allow hundreds of thousands of young people an opportunity to become legal citizens if they serve in the military or attend college, in part because almost all of them find themselves in immigration limbo through no fault of their own.
They were brought to the U.S. as minors, usually by their parents, and grew up immersed in American society. As they get older, many find creative, if challenging, ways to get an education and work around a lack of documents most of us take for granted, like Social Security cards and drivers' licenses.
But their lives are inevitably restricted by the fear of a knock on the door and by the knowledge that many of the people they live, work and study with don't want them here.
Later in the hour, Michael Wilbon joins us to talk about his long career as a sports journalist for the Washington Post and his decision to leave the paper for ESPN-TV.
But first, if you're young and undocumented, how does that change your choices and your life? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we begin with Citlalli Chavez, a graduate student who joins us from the studios at NPR West. And thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. CITLALLI CHAVEZ (Graduate Student): Hi. I'm here in L.A., and I'm a graduate student at UCLA. I completed my undergrad in political science, and I'm hard-working and I'm undocumented.
CONAN: And is - that seems to be - for a lot of people, that would seem to be very difficult, without documents.
Ms. CHAVEZ: It is. Like you said, we have to be extremely creative in how we pay for our education. I'm actually sitting here very worried because my fees are due tomorrow. I have to pay the school $4,300, and to be quite honest, I don't have that money together.
So I'm actually going to have to take next quarter off, work harder and earn up for the following quarter, because with the recent fee increases in California, it's nearly impossible for us to continue our studies.
CONAN: Obviously those fee increases affect you and everybody else in the University of California system. But it is particularly difficult for undocumented because - where have you gotten the money in the past? Have you been working?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Yes. I've applied to private scholarships. I've also had to work, you know, at low-wage jobs at restaurants and whatever it is I could find, and then also through student organizations I've earned up some money through fundraisers and other creative fundraising events so I could gather the money. But you know, it has been a community effort to be able to pay my studies.
CONAN: And again, that's not a situation you alone are in, but it makes it more difficult. And have there been choices in your life where you said, well, maybe I shouldn't do that because I might get caught?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Yes. I mean, we face these challenges every day. The fact that I'm on this national radio show right now could potentially put my stay here in this country in danger.
Every single day, when we tell our stories at public events, we are putting ourselves at risk. But we find that this risk is necessary because we need to change this policy in this country.
CONAN: You've decided to come out and explain that. But before that happened, did you tell people about your status?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, in high school I was quite ashamed about my status. But it was when I came to college that I met other students in the same situation and realized that if I didn't speak out, my story wouldn't get out there, so no policies would change.
I think that if we hadn't spoken out, this legislation wouldn't have got in through the House of Representatives last week. So it's been a necessity to share my story and tell the American public that we are talented, we are hard-working, we love America, and we just want to be given the opportunity to give back to our country.
CONAN: Do you remember what life was like for you in Mexico when you were little?
Ms. CHAVEZ: I don't. I came to this country when I was five years old. I could slightly recall just visiting a beach with my grandmother when I was young. But other than that, I've been here ever since.
CONAN: When did you realize that you were different from other kids?
Ms. CHAVEZ: My realization came when I was 16 years old, and I realized that I could not get a drivers' license. All of my other high school friends were about to get one, and you know, I approached my mom, and she told me that I did not have a Social Security number.
So I think that's when it really dawned on me, the restrictions I would face because of my status.
CONAN: So to this day you don't drive?
Ms. CHAVEZ: It's difficult for me to say this, but I want to be honest. I do drive, and I want to point attention to the fact that I can get insurance. So I pay $80 a month. I'm responsible. I don't - I mean, in case I get into any type of accident, I want to make sure that, you know, anything I cause is covered.
So I pay for this. Here in California we're allowed to obtain insurance premiums, even though we're not allowed to get a license, which is - you know, it just goes to show you how broken our immigration system is.
CONAN: Now, you also know that there are any number of people, maybe the majority of people, around you in your life who would say: You're here illegally. This is terrible. You need to go home.
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I would answer to that is: I have displayed all my life in this country that I follow the rules. I mean, the fact that I'm in a graduate program, despite all of these challenges, goes to show you how hardworking and dedicated I am, just like all of the other students that are part of this movement.
And the fact that I am an avid learner and I contribute back to my community, I encourage others to vote, I am very committed to ensuring that more people also get the chance to go to college - I would say that I am American, and I actually think that most of us display more American traits than people who are born here in this country, because of our actions.
CONAN: Yet what are you going to do if the DREAM Act does not pass? And political analysts say it doesn't look like it.
Ms. CHAVEZ: That's a very difficult question because I'm very optimistic. The way we've been working these past three weeks has been incredible. We've been phone-banking since 6:00 a.m. every single day. And I'm going to remain optimistic, and I just want to say that should it not pass, it just goes to show you how American democracy is really at danger because we've done everything this democratic system has asked us to do.
We've educated our community. We've signed petitions. We've organized marches and rallies. We've encouraged others that can vote to vote so they could elect officials that could support us. So I'm very optimistic, and I know Republicans this weekend will reflect upon the fact that this is what we need to do in this country. We need to pass the DREAM Act.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Our number, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Leo is on the line, calling from Idaho Falls.
LEO (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Leo.
LEO: Hi. You know, I have kind of a similar situation, came to this country when I was four years old. And this is the only country I've ever known. I grew up, and I always - my mom never really focused on the fact that we were undocumented, but you know, pretty much as I grew up I figured out that we were.
You know, I went through high school, actually went to college, got a Bachelor's degree, was planning on going to medical school, and that's really as far as all the financial aid and everything that I would have to do, at that point I could not do.
So at that point I just went out and started working with my Bachelor's degree. And doing that, I've since become a citizen. In fact, I became a citizen when - right after I finished college. But again, it would have been nice to have been able to go on and do that.
But I'm kind of one of those that did live in the shadows for most of my life, kind of just hanging in the background, never tell anybody that I was undocumented. And most people wouldn't even figure it.
CONAN: And how did you become a citizen, Leo?
LEO: I became a citizen through a marriage to a wonderful woman.
CONAN: And that has worked out for you, and obviously - I don't know if you have children, but they would be citizens too.
LEO: Yes, all of my children are citizens. And it was - you know, it's one that - I love my Mexican heritage. I love my American heritage, which I consider myself to have, because I grew up here and am very patriotic and always have been.
It's just, it's an interesting conflict that we have within ourselves to grow up in this situation because, one, we want to be citizens. At the same time, you know, the system kind of forces you to live like that, live in those shadows for a while, and at least for myself, to truncate my own progress because I could only go so far. And I was lucky to be able to go as far as I did though.
CONAN: And I wonder if you have any advice for Citlalli Chavez, who's speaking with us from our studios in Los Angeles and does not have citizenship.
LEO: You know, for those who don't have citizenship, it's one of those that - my greatest advice would be find a way to become a citizen. Come out from beyond - you know, from in the shadows.
And I should have come out earlier in life, essentially, but I, you know, I didn't. And at one point I was married and had young children and still was not a citizen.
But - and I think, you know, we do have broken immigration policy and everything else, but I think we just need to continue to stay engaged in the debate, and I think the DREAM Act would be a great step in the right direction.
CONAN: All right, Leo, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
LEO: Thank you.
CONAN: And Citlalli Chavez, as you look ahead to the future - and again, political analysts say this bill is not likely to pass - what are you going to do?
Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I want to pursue a doctorate degree, but that's very difficult because of the funding situation. My next option is going to be maybe applying to a private doctoral program, and hopefully I get some funding that way.
Other than that, I mean, our futures are really in limbo. I mean, a lot of us are getting older. You want to start working, contributing. It's just a very difficult situation. That's why it's very important that this bill passes next week.
CONAN: Citlalli Chavez, thanks very much for your time. Good luck to you.
Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Citlalli Chavez, a graduate student, she mentioned, at UCLA, joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California.
The young men and women in the United States illegally come from all over the world. In a few minutes, we'll talk with a student originally from South Korea, and a tutor from Pakistan brought here when she was six months old.
If you're young and undocumented, how does that change your choices and your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
A remember, in three weeks, on January 6th, we'll be talking about how our world will change when there are two billion more of us, sometime around mid-century. Can we feed and house that many? How can we balance growth with environmental sustainability?
It's a joint event with National Geographic, and we'll be joined by a live audience. If you're going to be in Washington, D.C., that day, join us. Again, it's January 6th. For information and free tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put tickets in the subject line.
Right now, we're talking about life in America when you're young and undocumented. Millions of young adults came to the U.S. with their parents and grew up as illegal immigrants. Many go to high school, to prom and to sporting events. Some go on to college. At any time, if discovered, they are subject to deportation.
If you're young and undocumented, how does that change your choices and your life? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now is David Cho, a senior in college. He is with us from the studios of member station KPCC in Pasadena. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. DAVID CHO (Caller): Thank you very much. It's my birthday today.
CONAN: Hey, happy birthday.
Mr. CHO: Thank you.
CONAN: I understand you came to the United States when you were nine years old. Have you always known that you were undocumented?
Mr. CHO: No, I did not. I found out about my status at the beginning of my freshman year at UCLA. So I've been here for about eight to nine years, thinking that I was like all my U.S. citizen friends, thinking that I was able to drive, work legally upon graduation. But it wasn't until my freshman year at UCLA when I found out about my status.
CONAN: How'd you find out?
Mr. CHO: Well, my parents told me that our visa had expired due to our sponsor mismanaging our paperwork. And it wasn't until I was filling out my application to UCLA when they asked me to write down my Social Security number, and I asked my parents what my Social Security number was, and that's when my parents told me about our status.
CONAN: And how did that change things?
Mr. CHO: Well, it completely changed my life. I came here thinking that I was going to give it my best, and I graduated from my high school with a 3.9 GPA. And it was a horrifying experience for me to realize that I was considered undocumented when I just wanted to give back to this country.
And to this day, I'm working so hard to prove to the American people that I am capable of giving back. I currently have a 3.6 GPA at UCLA. I'm the first Korean-American and actually the first undocumented student to ever become the drum major of the UCLA Marching Band in UCLA history.
CONAN: And you know, by being on this program and speaking out, you're putting all that at risk.
Mr. CHO: That's right. I'm putting everything at risk because I believe the greater risk is to remain silent in this face of oppression and injustice. As we speak, there are thousands of students who are suffering and who are shackled by our broken immigration system.
We came to this country as young children, and we realize that we're undocumented, but we only wish to give back to this country. And the DREAM Act will help us fulfill that goal and help us fulfill that American dream.
CONAN: Here's an email that we had from Wayne(ph) in Krakow, Wisconsin, writing when Citlalli Chavez was on the show. What this young lady and others like herself seem oblivious to and self-immune to is the simple fact that they are criminals, just by virtue of the fact that they are here illegally.
The U.S. has a system in place for becoming naturalized. It is not up to those who would like to circumvent this system to redefine it. Do you consider yourself a criminal?
Mr. CHO: No, I cannot agree with that at all. Imagine if a person is driving in a car and you have a child in the back. If you're speeding, will the cop give a ticket to the driver or the child? It doesn't make any sense for us to punish the kids from the fault of their own parents.
We have not made any choice to be here, and we're just suffering under a broken immigration system. We feel like we're trapped inside this invisible prison cell because there are these invisible bars in front of us that limit us from doing the things that we want to do.
We are American in every way but papers. We just want to give - we just want a chance to give back to this country.
CONAN: Are your parents criminals?
Mr. CHO: Yes, they have broken the immigration system, but we were here actually legally for about eight to nine years. However, it was our sponsor that had mismanaged our paperwork, and that's how it got complicated, and that's how our visa had expired.
CONAN: Well, presumably - well, but they could have gone through the courts. They could have done a lot of other things. But it would have risked losing and then being deported.
Mr. CHO: Well, they did, but the topic of today is to discuss the DREAM Act and...
CONAN: No, the topic of today is to discuss your lives and how they are restricted by your status. And we're interested in your stories. The DREAM Act would obviously give you a path to citizenship. But again, it's not going to pass. It's not going to pass this year, and you look at the political calculations, it's not going to pass next year, either.
Mr. CHO: Like Citlalli, I feel that I am very optimistic, along with thousands of students and along with some of the senators who will support the DREAM Act. And I know it will pass next week because it is the only immigration legislation right now that has some kind of chance to actually fix our broken immigration system. And it will happen.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Fritz(ph), Fritz with us from Jacksonville.
FRITZ (Caller): Hey, how are you today?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
FRITZ: Well, I just wanted to make a comment. I heard the topic was about undocumented students and their path afterwards, after school and such. Myself, I was an undocumented student. I went through high school and pretty much all of grade school when I came from the Bahamas.
But after high school, I pretty much was kind of shot down. I had nowhere else to go. I couldn't go to college, couldn't get a job, couldn't do anything, not until a recruiter, a military recruiter came in and, you know, found out what my situation was.
And, you know, within moments, within days of me, you know, stating okay, yeah, I have interest of going into the military, took me into the immigration office down in Miami, Florida, where I was, you know, processed and such.
And, you know, I walked out, you know, like three, probably about three weeks later, I got my residency, which was, you know, which granted me the ability to hold, get a job and/or just do anything I wanted to, at least, you know, to that extent.
But then I went ahead and joined the military. I did two tours and since have gotten out in 2006. But shortly after I was done with my two tours, you know, all my paperwork just came in and I got my citizenship shortly thereafter.
As soon as I got out, I mean, the world was just opened up to me because really when you get out of high school and you have absolutely no choice, the choices that you are, you know, left with is working under the table, you know, for next to nothing, if any, or a life of crime and/or, you know, just trying to find groups of others who are like you, you know, in the same predicament, and that usually turns to gangs.
I was raised on the streets in Miami, and thank gosh my mom held on to me and was able to give me a dream, which translated, you know, through the military that - you know. And now I'm actually, you know, a business owner and a student and, you know, I'm just trying to catch up for the time lost. You know, that's - I believe that's the case with a lot of people these days. But if you have anything, I'll take the comments off the air.
CONAN: All right, Fritz, thanks very much for the call. The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship not just through college, as our guest David Cho would hope to do, but also through the military, as that caller did and managed to succeed, even though the DREAM Act is not the law of the land.
David Cho, if - you're scheduled to graduate fairly soon. What are you going to do if your status is not changed?
Mr. CHO: That's a difficult question. I don't know. Maybe I'll have to continue to tutor high school students because that's the only way I can find any funding for myself or my family. So I wouldn't know.
CONAN: Well, happy birthday, again, and good luck to you.
Mr. CHO: Thank you.
CONAN: David Cho, a senior in college, he joined us from member station KPCC in Pasadena.
Joining us now is Zeenat Bhamani - excuse me for mispronouncing that, Bhamani. She's a tutor in Los Angeles, with us again from the studios in Culver City, California, of NPR West. Nice to have you with us today.
Ms. ZEENAT BHAMANI: Thank you so much for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And like David and Citlalli, you were a child when you came to the country, six months old, from Pakistan. Over the years, has your family tried to get documentation to get this straight?
Ms. BHAMANI: Yeah, actually, my family has tried multiple times. We've tried through labor certification. We've seen if we can somehow gain political asylum. My family and I follow - we're part of a small sect of Shiite Islam. So we tried to use that route.
I filed for an I-765, which is employment authorization, and many other different types of forms, but they've all come up to nothing until 9/11.
CONAN: Until 9/11. What happened then?
Ms. BHAMANI: After 9/11, I don't know if you recall, but the INS asked all male citizens of Pakistan to register with what was the INS. A lot of people in my community were scared and didn't go. My dad, being the very innocent man that he is, actually went and registered out of fear for us. After that, he was - he went through a series of deportation hearings, through which we actually got out of, so he was granted permanent residency through a judge order after three years of court hearings.
CONAN: So what is your status now?
Ms. BHAMANI: My status is actually still undocumented. We filed for a permanent residency through my dad in April of 2005, but we have yet to hear much back.
CONAN: What do you tell people?
Ms. BHAMANI: I tell people exactly what I'm telling you. I tell people that I'm undocumented, that there - that if they do think that there are different paths to naturalization, that it's kind of much harder than people think it is, and there's not much of a path for me, so I'm part of a waiting game.
CONAN: And that must be difficult. How do you know who to trust?
Ms. BHAMANI: Before it was very hard. You know, my parents - I'm actually - you know, I've got it good. I'm Muslim, and I'm a female, and I'm undocumented in a post-9/11 world.
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Ms. BHAMANI: So my parents have actually always been afraid to let me talk about this, but I've realized that, you know, we as - as Muslims, we grow up to believe in the pursuit of intellect and in knowledge and in meritocracy so, I mean, that's what we're doing. So why not go ahead and talk about it? If I'm putting myself at risk, that's fine but also keep talking.
CONAN: Before you decided to come out and speak openly about this...
Ms. BHAMANI: Uh-huh.
CONAN: ...was that life in the shadows? Is that a fair description?
Ms. BHAMANI: Yes. That's definitely a fair description, if not right on the mark. In the South Asian community, talking about being undocumented is at least what seems to me a bit of a taboo. So coming out in front of my friends, in front of my community, in front of my colleagues is a pretty big deal and people - I do get very interesting looks sometimes.
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CONAN: And you're working as a tutor. This is private business, money under the table, that sort of thing.
Ms. BHAMANI: I am. I've actually been through a series of jobs. I've been an assistant to a real estate investor. I've been - I worked at a carwash as a cashier. I've dog-sat, house-sat, cat-sat. I've worked as a babysitter. And then for the past three years, my employment has consisted of actually me being a caregiver to elderly people in Bel Air. I actually quit that last summer and took my tutoring business, luckily, to a new level, and I actually have seven of my own clients now, six of which are paid.
CONAN: We're talking about what it's like to be young and undocumented. Our guest at the moment is Zeenat Bhamani. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller in. This is Sarah(ph). Sarah with us from Trumbull in Connecticut.
SARAH (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Sarah. You're on the air.
SARAH: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. First, let me say I have tremendous respect for the students and the young people that I've been listening to on your show with everything that they've given up and as hard as they've worked to get where they are.
But I would just like to comment as a mother and a small business owner and someone with two children, one in college and one in a private school. You know, we as taxpayers and - which funds the infrastructure that all of these people are enjoying, we pay a lot of this bill. And our kids are competing with the same demographic that I'm listening to for very limited scholarships and very limited funding through community grants and the same sort of thing.
And we're competing against people that are not paying taxes. And, yes, they're contributing - I can tell they're volunteering, and they're involved in their communities, but financially, their families are not paying - they can't pay taxes if they're not filing income tax. And they - you know, they're not paying their own taxes.
So, yes, they'd like to be a part of the, you know, being United States citizens, but we're feeling the losing end of this because we're competing with, you know, an entire gender of people that aren't contributing back financially.
CONAN: I think, Sarah, in fact, most people who do work that are undocumented in fact do pay income taxes and then don't claim some of the returns that they might be entitled to, but that's another situation. I'm not sure exactly what...
SARAH: If they're working under the table and they're receiving...
CONAN: No, I understand that.
SARAH: Taking jobs is another way of taking funding from someone who's trying to work their way through college, you know?
CONAN: Do you have any sympathy having arrived in this country at 6 months old knowing no other country really and having really nowhere to go?
SARAH: I absolutely do. You know, I have - the other half of my family is Navy, and they've adopted people from other countries and brought them in. And I understand how hard it is to grow up in - and you're surrounded and you are an American. You're growing up here. It's - our system is broken. I just wanted to comment that, you know, there's no quick fix to this and, you know, if we make it okay for this to happen, then we're going to have another whole series of people that just think that they can continue to grow up and propagate in our society without contributing back to, again, I refer to the infrastructure of...
SARAH: ...everything that makes America so great.
CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call.
SARAH: And I hope that there's people in the public office listening as well. It's definitely a tough situation, but I just wanted to comment as, you know, a parent trying to come up with that same tuition money, working those same jobs, but I have to pay tax and I have to compete against five other people for those extra jobs, and some of them will work less because they're not on the books.
CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much. And, Zeenat, I wonder if you have a response.
Ms. BHAMANI: I actually do. I found it odd that Sarah said that because my dad, even while we were undocumented until I was 18, paid his taxes regularly. I also pay my taxes. There's a thing called a tax identification number, which isn't hard to come by. And the difference is that, I think that if Sarah would notice that I could be Sarah's daughter's or her son's friend, and she would probably have no idea.
I believe in competition and, like I said, meritocracy. And if I were an American citizen with American citizen children, I'd still want them competing against the best of the best to raise the standards of education, and I believe I'm doing that. The DREAM Act is just a path for - Sarah said she has a problem with us being unable to contribute in different ways financially. If the DREAM Act passed, we would actually be able to contribute.
CONAN: Zeenat Bhamani is a tutor in Los Angeles. We're going to ask her to stay with us and take a couple of more calls on this issue. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: In a few moments, we're going to be talking more about the review in Afghanistan, but we're going to continue our conversation on undocumented young people in this country.
Our guest is Zeenat Bhamani who came to this country at the age of 6 months old with her parents. Her father has since become a - gotten a green card and was able to stay in the country legally. She, however, is still undocumented and currently working as a tutor.
And, Zeenat Bhamani, I wanted to ask you if the DREAM Act does not pass, as it does not look as if it's going to pass, what are you going to do? Are you going to continue that life in the shadows?
Ms. BHAMANI: You know, Neal, I understand statistics. I've taken two nice statistics courses at UCLA that I enjoyed and I respect political analysts' opinion. If the DREAM Act doesn't pass, I'm still here. I'm going to still continue to work. I'm going to apply to law school. I'm going to continue to teach. So it doesn't make much of a difference in the sense that I'll be living a life in the shadows. I'll still keep going, and I'm still going to be an American, either way.
CONAN: Let's go next to Mary(ph). Mary is on the line with us from Denver.
MARY (Caller): Hi. I'm also an undocumented student and I was brought here. And you were talking about how our lives change as were here.
MARY: And I think that I had a different experience. I'm a - like all these kids describe, a perfect American, as you would say, really perfect grades, volunteer work, everything you can think of. Except that my experience is different, thinking of the DREAM Act is - I see it as like a dream nightmare because a lot of us see it as a draft. And a lot of people talk about this is a way to accept these kids, but they put us in two groups, either criminals or perfect, or were perfect human beings. And I think that's two very extreme levels of the spectrum, either were criminals or we're, you know, perfect.
And I think in the end, we're human beings and a lot of people aren't addressing the causes of why our parents or we migrated here. And I think that's part of the problem, not being able to go back and realize these - we don't exist just because, oh, we exist as immigrants. We exist because of things that this country has done to our countries or our people that have caused us to being here. You know, it's not like we popped out of thin air and it's new. It's just - it just repeats itself with history, and I think it's important to remember those things as well.
CONAN: Mary, if you're hoping for a comprehensive change to - reform the immigration policy in this country that may happen but it's not in the cards anytime soon.
MARY: Right. Yeah, and I don't believe any comprehensive is going to happen anytime soon, but I think it's time for people like me to start waking up and realizing why things are this way and stop referring to our parents as criminals, as they're referring to us as criminals. This is terminology that the system has created to make us feel like we've done something wrong, when in fact we have done nothing wrong.
And we ought to really - we are - we work hard not because we're immigrants. We're really good students not because we're immigrants or migrants, thats just who the people we are. And I think it's very unfair to group people into criminals or perfect citizens. I think we're very complex human beings, just like any other human being. And it's something that's not being talked about, you know? So I think there's a new group of DREAM students who are looking for more answers other than just this legislation.
CONAN: I can understand your frustration, Mary, but criminals are defined by those who commit a crime. Coming into the country illegally is a crime...
CONAN: ...therefore, there are criminals.
MARY: Right. Yeah. Except that migrants don't break - immigration is civil. It's civil law. It's not criminal law.
CONAN: I'm afraid you're wrong with that, Mary. It's criminal law.
MARY: Okay. Well, I guess, this country would have to face - if this country really wanted to put some thought into like how they treat people, they would have to face and own up to a lot of the things that they've done with their policies and their laws to other countries and war and, you know, all these other things. It's not like this is a new thing.
It's like these kids are not this is something this isn't new. This is something that has been going on for a long time. And I think a lot of kids and a lot of migrant people and their families are waking up to, like, wait, we didn't come here just because we wanted to migrate. There's a lot of I just think underlying issues that affect all of these.
CONAN: All right, Mary. Thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And I wanted to get back to something she said, Zeenat Bhamani, that the people the DREAM Act seems to channel young undocumented into two categories, either perfect students she might include you in that category draftees, people willing to go into the military and criminals.
Ms. BHAMANI: You know, I understand her concerns. I've grown in a world of like dichotomies. You know, you see boy/girl, you see Muslim/non-Muslim, black/white.
I think that if you look closely at the DREAM Act, it does have a ten-year conditional period where you are required to not commit any crimes and to actually prove that you are able to be a contributing, good citizen who does not have a criminal offense record. So I think that, in a sense, that that ten-year period let's us inadvertently pay for our parents' crimes. It's a really long time. After that ten-year period, there's a six-year period where you have to wait to become a citizen. That's 16 years.
If the DREAM Act does pass I've been in this country for 23. You add that on, that's I'm going to be 39 once I'm a citizen. So I think that's enough payment. And I also think that I'm a firm believer in the justice system. If you are here and you want to be a part of this wonderful country, then you shouldn't be committing crimes in the first place. And that ten-year conditional period is the test.
CONAN: Zeenat Bhamani, thank you very much for your time today and good luck to you too.
Ms. BHAMANI: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Zeenat Bhamani joined us from our studios in Los Angeles at NPR West excuse me Culver City, California. And she's a tutor there in Los Angeles.
In just a moment we're going to be talking about the Afghan policy review, the strategy review. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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