Immigrant Students Talk About U.S. Life

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Renee Montagne speaks to three high school students in Los Angeles. They were among the marchers in pro-immigration rallies Monday. All three came to the United States with their families — and are undocumented. They talk about their journeys, their status and their hopes for the future.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Among the pro-immigration rallies held yesterday, two in Los Angeles drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. Among them were three high school students who came to our studio before going to school and then to the afternoon rally.

All three are studying hard and starting to think about college. They are also undocumented, that is, illegal immigrants.

KEVIN: Oh, hello. My name is Kevin and I'm 16 years old and I'm a freshman at Camino High School.

THALIA(ph): My name is Thalia. I'm 17 years old and I'm a sophomore in Camino High School.

SARYE(ph): Yeah, my name is Sarye and I'm in 10th grade. I'm 17 years old.

MONTAGNE: Because they aren't in the U.S. legally, the teenagers go by only their first names in this conversation.

Kevin came to California from Guatemala with his family seeking medical care for his brother, who was mauled by a dog, and then stayed here. Sarye crossed the desert at 14 with her mother and a coyote, a smuggler. Thalia's journey also began in the desert near Tijuana. She was just a year old, crossing with her mother and infant sister.

THALIA: The coyote, he was carrying me, and my mom was in the back with my sister. But she says that that day she was scared because she was running as fast as she could in back of the coyote, because, since he had me, she felt like he was going to run away with me. So she's all, like, I was tired, but I don't want him to take her. What am I going to do?

MONTAGNE: This is running across the desert?

THALIA: Uh-huh. (Speaking foreign language), how we say it.

MONTAGNE: The family reunited with their father across the border. There they found themselves homeless, sleeping in a downtown Los Angeles park, cardboard pulled over them for warmth.

Within a few days, they were taken into a group house and eventually found their footing in their new city. Thalia's classmate, Sarye, says her mother was willing to face the dangers of a desert crossing because she was tired of working 12-hour days at a restaurant in Mexico City.

SAYRE: She wanted to spend more time with us because we were growing without a mother.

MONTAGNE: And she thought she could work eight hours and make it here in the U.S.?

SAYRE: Mm-hmm. She wanted us to have more education, more opportunities, more options in our future.

MONTAGNE: Thalia, how much do your parents have to hide what they're doing? You know, how do they make a living without having a legal residence in this country?

THALIA: Well, they have a muffler shop where they fix cars. My dad is like, how you call it, entrepreneur. He started the business. Because in Mexico City most people are like that--like they start their own business wherever they go. So they have a muffler shop.

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm. Sayre, what job has your mother ended up doing here?

SAYRE: She is working as a cashier in a bakery. We share the rent with other people. We are stable.

MONTAGNE: When you say share the rent, tell us what that would be.

SAYRE: Yeah, we live in an apartment with some other guys--two guys…

MONTAGNE: Family? Or just other people?

SAYRE: No. Other people. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: So, what? Four bedrooms or something?

SAYRE: No, it's just--it's one bedroom and the living room.

MONTAGNE: What do you say, because you hear this a lot, especially now that its in the news, what do you say to people who say undocumented workers, in general, immigrants, that its unfair that there are people who are getting on lists and trying to get over here legally-- doing it, what many would call the right way. What do you think when you hear that, Kevin?

KEVIN: Um, what is the right way? If they would tell us what the right way is and then a lot of people would do it, including…

MONTAGNE: Well, if someone said, well, the right way is to stay in Mexico, make an application to come to America legally, make sure you have your documents before you cross the border.

KEVIN: Yeah, but all people want to do is just work for their families. And have a better life.

THALIA: You see, (unintelligible) that it's not fair that people without papers come here, I just want to tell them that their the ones not being fair, because everybody--we're all humans and we deserve an opportunity to progress, right?

MONTAGNE: Your mother works in a bakery, Sayre. Do you expect to do that job? A similar job?

SAYRE: I'm studying really hard, and I think I can reach better opportunities. No, not that.

MONTAGNE: I'll quickly turn to Kevin. What does your father or your mother do?

KEVIN: My dad, he fixes lamps; and my mother, she cleans houses.

MONTAGNE: What are you thinking about in your own future? Similar job, or…?

KEVIN: No. Similar, no. Because we came here for a reason, you know, to get a better life and a better job. I'm studying hard, you know, like, I want to get the best grades I could. So I don't know, like, I don't really see myself doing the same thing as my dad or my mom.

MONTAGNE: Thalia?

THALIA: I do want to keep on going with the muffler shop, but I really want to study administration. Because my dad, his dream is to do like, you know, Midas, they put a lot of shops all over the U.S. So I want to study administrations and--but I also want to study politics because I want to be, like, something in the government to make a change in L.A.

MONTAGNE: Are you worried, though, at all for yourselves? Not one of you is documented. Do you fear for your future here?

THALIA: The truth? No. We could hide or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THALIA: Like because you're studying hard so I think they will give you an opportunity. Like, if they see that you are studying hard but you're not from here, they'll let you stay here or something. I think they will.

MONTAGNE: What do you think, Sayre?

SAYRE: I'm not worried because we're trying our best and I'm studying hard. So maybe we'll have more opportunities in the future.

MONTAGNE: Thank you all three of you for joining us.

THALIA: Thank you for inviting us.

KEVIN: Thank you for inviting us.

MONTAGNE: Kevin, Thalia and Sayre are students at Camino Nuevo High School, here in Los Angeles.

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