Growing Up In A Family In The U.S. Illegally

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Alicia Martinez's family illustrates some of the complexities of the debate over illegal immigration. Martinez's parents and her older sister came here illegally, while she was born in the U.S. and is a citizen. In a story for WNYC's Radio Rookies program, Martinez reflects on her struggles to meet her parents' high expectations and overcome guilt that her legal status gives her so many more opportunities than her sister.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, the story of Alicia Martinez. That's not her real name. We're not using it because of her family's fear of deportation. Her story is a case study in the complexities of illegal immigration. Martinez is a U.S. citizen. She was born here. Her parents came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico with her older sister who was a toddler at the time.

In this story from WNYC's Radio Rookies, Alicia reflects on the difficult emotions on growing up in a family that is not supposed to be here.

Ms. ALICIA MARTINEZ: Zero becomes a 10 so what's 10 minus 9?

Unidentified Child: It's one?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yes.

I'm in the living room helping my 9-year-old cousin with his homework. He was born here like me and his parents are illegal, just like mine, but he doesn't know it.

Do you know what your parents are? Illegal immigrants.

Whenever I hear people using the word illegal, they always emphasize it, as if it's a dirty word. But I'm doing the same with my little cousin.

Was your mom born here?

Unidentified Child: Mexico?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yeah, like my parents. It's that they came here without permission.

Unidentified Child: From without permission?

Ms. MARTINEZ: Yeah. And if the government finds her, they'll put her in jail and then they'll send her back to Mexico.

Unidentified Child: Don't say that because you're making me cry.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Oh.

I know he's probably too young to understand all of this, but I don't want him to find out from kids teasing him at school.

Okay, okay. Calm down. It's all right. Come on.

I'm almost 17 and we still haven't had a serious family conversation about the fact that my parents and sister are undocumented. That's half my family. What would happen if my parents' job got raided? What would happen to my younger brother who's autistic?

My parents only talk to us seriously about deportation when they try to scare us to do well.

Here is my report card.

I'm showing my report card to my mom. I got an 89 average, but she immediately asked what happened to the 95 I used to get. If I don't do well, my mom nags. You better do well in school. Why else did we come here? The government could throw us out. Then, my mom compares me to my older sister who's always at the top of her class and wants to be a doctor.

Unidentified Female #1: I'm thinking of either being a doctor or a pharmacist.

Ms. MARTINEZ: But she can't even work in the U.S. because she wasn't born here. My mom says I should do even better because I have everything on a silver platter. But piled high on that platter are all these responsibilities. There are a lot of things children of undocumented immigrants have to worry about.

ALEXANDRA: My name is Alexandra.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Like Alex who's only 13.

ALEXANDRA: Soon as I hit 21, like, you know, I need to get my parents' papers and everything.

Ms. MARTINEZ: She's the first in the family who can work legally. So when she slacks off at school, her undocumented sister pushes her to do better.

Unidentified Female #2: Sometimes I do get really pissed off, like how bad my sister was doing in school. And it's like, you have all of these opportunities and you're just throwing them away, you know. It's like she can tell you, I was so mad.

Ms. MARTINEZ: My sister and I, well, we've actually never sat down and talked about that.

So you never resented the fact that me and (unintelligible) are citizens? Maybe when you were younger?

Unidentified Female #1: I don't know if resent was the word. It was either in junior high or in high school where it actually hit me that, you know, I was undocumented and that you guys were citizens. I think I felt some sort of anger towards Mom and Dad. Just the fact that if they had known the consequences for me, because of how my life is now, of the difficulties that I've had.

Ms. MARTINEZ: We live on Staten Island and there's a lot of tension over illegal immigration. If I'm in my neighborhood, I feel fine. But when I step outside, I definitely feel unwelcome.

(Soundbite of horn blowing)

Ms. MARTINEZ: Some people just assume everyone in my situation is an anchor baby like this random tall white guy at the Staten Island ferry terminal.

Unidentified Male #1: Yeah, well, people cross the border just to have their babies born here, become citizens and then it's like they're automatically, like, grandfathered in.

Ms. MARTINEZ: Sometimes, I do feel like an anchor baby because as soon as I can, I will file for my parents' legalization. I don't want us to be separated. But at some point, when I was growing up, I admit I was mad at my parents for coming here. I was mad that they had to work so hard, that we had to wait in line to get free food, that we had to lay low.

Professor CAROLA SUAREZ-OROZCO (New York University): This kind of conversation's tough, isn't it?

Ms. MARTINEZ: This is Professor Orozco. She's the co-director of immigration studies at NYU. I didn't want to spill my guts out to her. She was a stranger. But that's what I found myself doing.

It's hard watching my sister, like, struggle to be something amazing. And I don't know. It's just because like sometimes I feel like I don't even want to go to college. My parents, they just, like, they want me to fill these, like, high expectations and I feel like I just don't want to disappoint them. I don't know. It's just...

Prof. OROZCO: Your parents, like many immigrants, frame immigration as, we did it so you could have a better life. It feels manipulative from the kid's point of view. I think immigrant parents come to have a better live for the whole family, themselves and their kids included.

Ms. MARTINEZ: For a whole week, I try to get the courage to talk to my family about all the feelings I've been having. Finally, in the kitchen, I started talking and so did they. I asked them if they came to this country so my siblings and I could be their anchor babies. They had no idea what that meant. When I explained it, my dad said he wasn't even thinking about trying to become a U.S. citizen. He just wanted to find a job so he could get money to eat or a place to live and to provide for others back home.

Unidentified Male #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. MARTINEZ: In the end, my parents say they don't even want to stay here. They want to return back to Mexico in three or four years and my sister is thinking about leaving with them. I can't believe it. Without them, I would feel lost. If that's what they want, then I'll have to be okay with it. I'd just like to talk about it more.

SIEGEL: That's 16-year-old Alicia Martinez. She told her story for the Radio Rookies program at WNYC. Radio Rookies teaches teenagers to report about their lives for the radio.

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