Undocumented Teen's School, Work Options Limited High school graduation marked a dead end for 18-year-old tenor sax player Sam, whose parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 5. They overstayed their visas, and now he's dealing with the consequences of his undocumented status.
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Undocumented Teen's School, Work Options Limited

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Undocumented Teen's School, Work Options Limited

Undocumented Teen's School, Work Options Limited

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

What does it mean to be a citizen? For the 65,000 illegal immigrants who graduated from U.S. high schools this year, that is not an abstract question. Their immigration status will shape their future.

Today, we're going to bring you the story of one of those graduates, an undocumented 18-year-old from Elkhart, Indiana, called Sam. We're using only his first name because of his family's fear of deportation.

Independent producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister met Sam, as he was in his final weeks at Elkhart Central High.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: Bertha is my saxophone.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: I've had Bertha three, three and a half years, and she's old and seen some action, but she's amazing pretty much. Girlfriend takes first place, though.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: My name is Sam. I'm 18. I'm a senior here at Central, and I'm in the band and stuff, in jazz band. And I was drum major this year. And the past four years have been great. And I'm finally, you know, ready to graduate and get out of here.

Mr. TIM CARNALL (Director, Bands Elkhart Central High School): Thanks for coming to senior concert tonight. You're in for a treat.

SAM: Tonight is our senior concert, and this is kind of like the last football games and where the seniors are, you know, awarded.

Mr. CARNALL: Sam has been great for our three-year piece, really stepped it up to the next level. And this year's Believe It or Not Outstanding Jazz Award goes to Sam.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. CARNALL: My name is Tim Carnall, and I'm the band director at Elkhart Central High School.

This is Sam featured "In a Sentimental Mood."

(Soundbite of song, "In a Sentimental Mood")

Mr. CARNALL: Sam is one of the probably top five musicians, I think. You know, 150 a year. I've taught for 18 years.

SAMUEL: At first, I feel nervous, but then I'm like, dude, just let go.

(Soundbite of song, "In a Sentimental Mood")

Mr. CARNALL: He tries during the solo build his solo. This is what is so advanced about him. He starts somewhere, goes somewhere and finishes it. He tell us a story.

SAMUEL: I'm actually from Mexico and I got here when I was five.

SAM: My name is Sam, and I'm Sam's father. We come with visa. And, of course, it's expired, but we still have it.

SAMUEL: I don't remember much and I haven't really asked them. It just hasn't really been brought up.

SAM: Samuel, he don't know anything about it. He just came with us. We never asked him to come. He never say no. He never say yes.

SAMUEL: I've been raised an American, you know? That's all I know. Heck, I'm playing jazz. How more American can you get?

(Soundbite of song, "In a Sentimental Mood")

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. CARNALL: Okay. So our first senior we want to recognize tonight means more than (unintelligible) college in (unintelligible), Indiana, with a million-dollar scholarship, it seems like, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Where are you going, Sam?

SAMUEL: I haven't decided yet. Yeah, that's my crappy answer.

Mr. CARNALL: It was the most, in my 18 years of teaching, confusing thing, is Sam not being accepted to one of those colleges because of how well he plays. It didn't occur to me that Sam was undocumented at all. And frankly, I didn't care. My job is when a kid comes in, give him a horn and teach him how to play it.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: Graduation, that was a really, really cool day. I put on my robe and looked in the mirror and I was like, whoa, we're here. Crap.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, Central High, we will be true...

SAMUEL: I got there and I saw the rest of my peers, you know, just everybody was in blue. My counselor goes, hey, here. And she gives me my Indiana honors diploma medallion.

Ms. GAIL DRAPER (Chairperson, Guidance Department): My name is Gail Draper, and I am the head of guidance here at Elkhart Central High School. I did not know for certain until this year that Sam was a non-documented student. That's not something that comes up in conversation, usually, until the college application process.

SAMUEL: The whole college process was really frustrating because when you say, are you a citizen of the U.S. or citizen of Mexico, I'm like, I don't know. And I almost feel like E.T. - alien.

Ms. DRAPER: Because they were undocumented, they were uncertain, do we tell people we're undocumented? Don't we tell people? Does he even have a chance to go?

SAMUEL: I really hoped to go to Indiana University down in Bloomington, the biggest campus of all of them. And what they're really known for is music. But what happened was I applied a little too late. And then, you know, I applied at another school, but they asked for my permanent residence card. I was like, whoa, we have a problem. So right now, the only place that'll take me is IUSB or Indiana University of South Bend.

The other thing is that we found out that we really don't qualify for financial aid or loans because of my status. So I have no idea how we're going to pay for tuition.

Ms. DRAPER: That's probably one of the hardest things I deal with in my job. We take students where they're at. We educate them. We inspire them to go to college. And then for our undocumented students, we say, we can't help you.

Unidentified Man #2: May each of you have the very best of good fortune in your futures.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Unidentified Man #2: We now declare the class of 2009 graduated.

SAMUEL: The next thing I knew, I looked up and there were like hundreds of hats in the air. I threw mine up and it was just like this feeling of, yeah, you jump. Now, I don't know if there are feathers or rocks at the bottom. I'm just hoping for the best. And, you know, it'll be great some day.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: It's midsummer and, dude, I need a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAMUEL: It's going to have to be under the table if I'm going to do something. It's going to have to be no questions asked. It's going to have to be a little risky. But I'm just afraid to take that step.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAM: I feel sort of uniquely responsible for all this stuff. You need to find a job, too, and help Sam. Hey, Dad, I don't have a papers. There's 12,000 - a million people here that don't have papers; you're only one of them. Go do it.

SAMUEL: I know the saying, there's no gain without risk. But, oh, there's so much risk. I don't want my family hurt. I don't want myself hurt. It could go all in different ways, so it's like a bomb: It's going to affect every single little thing.

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you here for orientation? Are you Samuel?

SAMUEL: Yup.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, you're in art club. All the arts is this table number two.

SAMUEL: I don't have school paid off yet, but I am going through orientation anyways.

Unidentified Woman #2: Grab a chocolate. Grab a Band-Aid holder.

SAMUEL: A Tootsie Pop. I really shouldn't be eating this.

Unidentified Man #3: Have some popcorn.

SAMUEL: Sweet. This is better than Halloween.

Unidentified Woman #3: Okay. As a music student, I need you to fill out this form.

SAMUEL: It's a little weird. It's like an expensive meal. You don't pay till later, but you don't know if you have enough money or not. So you might have to wash dishes later on.

Unidentified Woman #4: What will it cost you? Next year, roughly for a full-time student, it'll cost about $4,500 for tuition fee. We'll factor in about $1,200 for books.

SAMUEL: We have 2,000 that we have for this year. I still need to pay for books. I really want to live on campus, too, especially since ISB is, what, 45 minutes away, and legally I can't drive. But for me to live on campus would be another $5,000 that I have to cough up. So I'm going to have to do these things under the table.

I'm going to get a car and just drive there, you know? I'm giving myself enough time, no rush. Carefully, if I'm late, I'm late.

Ms. MICHELLE HEINZ(ph): My name is Michelle Heinz, and I'm Sam's girlfriend. He's like, oh, you don't know the plan? Yeah, I'm going to take the little black car. I was like, you mean your mom's car. Yeah, the black one. My stomach dropped. I'm just like, oh, please tell me you're kidding me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEINZ: You know, it feels like, first, it runs through my head. It was like, he gets pulled over once and he's done.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: Last Friday, I was feeling really, really crappy and I freaked out, you know? I start freaking about, like, jobs and money, what exactly am I going to do in a couple of years, in a couple of days? Sometimes I feel like a failure because I can't do something on my own. So I started picking up the saxophone because I wasn't feeling well and then just started playing it.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: The thing that I struggle with is why can't I be normal? It's just like, (makes noise), because I can't work. I'm undocumented. I can't offer much. I have talent. But without a lot of money, I can't go very far.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: There is this one part where I was just playing as loud as I could, and I was just so angry, angry about being who I am, I guess, as an illegal resident and just like, screaming, I guess, (unintelligible) passion because I couldn't in real life. Just trying to get a better life for yourself is not a crime. It's kind of nice to have a way to relieve it, you know, with something that doesn't involve, like destroying stuff and including myself.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SAMUEL: I'm here at IUSB with my parents, and we're going to meet with Cynthia. She is helping us out with the whole college thing.

Ms. CYNTHIA MURPHY-WARDLOW (Recruitment and Retention Counselor, Indiana University South Bend): ...everybody just wants to make themselves at home.

My name is Cynthia Murphy-Wardlow. And for the past five years, I have been the recruitment and retention counselor for Latinos and other underrepresented students here at IU South Bend.

SAMUEL: She was looking for scholarships for me, so that way, she could maybe soften up the cost a little bit. But we'll see what happens.

Ms. MURPHY-WARDLOW: This is the part where the rubber meets the road because when it comes down to it, one semester has to be paid completely. (Foreign language spoken).

They unfortunately have to find ways to pay for college on their own. You really have to put yourself out there and network and talk to people and talk to the church. You know, the beautiful thing about the Latino community is there is a goal, and there are lots of ways for the community to participate and help students within their community. So...

SAMUEL: My mom was thinking, oh, I'm going to make a bunch of tamales, and I'm going to sell them to the church. Sure. I mean, hey, that'll work. To be honest with you, I was thinking, mom, that's embarrassing. But then I was like, wait, embarrassment or being an idiot, you know, two months from now and saying, why didn't I do that? Now, I can't go to school. So, sometimes you have to put your ego down, check it at the door and go in.

Ms. MURPHY-WARDLOW: Thank you, guys.

SAM: We know there was a problem there that we need to face and deal with, but if it was a little bit of hope, it's not anymore, you know, because we know now that we got to find other way, that this thing can be done.

SAMUEL: The first year is definitely going to be harder than the rest.

SAM: And I remember one day, he said, dad, all my effort for years working with this thing, and now, what am I going to do now? Why I put all this effort, and I'm not going to be able to keep going?

SAMUEL: There's got to be some movement on my part. I need to find something, do something, I'll tell myself. And a lot of things are, like, for me to grow up finally, and this is - this might be one of them.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

SIEGEL: Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions. Sam did make it to college, at least for a semester. You can hear more of his story in the documentary "American Dreamer" at npr.org.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

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