Staying in School Despite an Uncertain Future It's a paradox: Youths in the United States illegally can earn high-school and college degrees, but after graduation are likely to find themselves confined to the underground economy. Christian, 15, tells his story.
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Staying in School Despite an Uncertain Future

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Staying in School Despite an Uncertain Future

Staying in School Despite an Uncertain Future

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Every year, some 65,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate from U.S. high schools. And as things stand, they can't work legally. Even with a college degree, there's a good chance they'll be confined to the underground economy, taking jobs as construction workers or nannies.

Now, we have the story of a 15-year-old who's trying to avoid this future. His name is Christian. We agreed not to use his last name because of his immigration status. He's one of member station WNYC's Radio Rookies.

CHRISTIAN (Radio Rookie, WNYC): All right. This is my neighborhood Port Richmond in Staten Island, New York. Every morning when I take the bus to school, I see men lining up on Port Richmond Avenue. They are waiting for jobs in construction, roofing or whatever is available.

Right now, there are about 20 guys out here. They don't look so happy and their clothes doesn't look so clean at all. Sometimes my stepdad is one of them. I've worked with my stepdad in a few jobs, and I know I don't want to spend my whole life breaking concrete for $100 a day. But when I look at the men on Port Richmond Avenue, I see myself in the future, standing there, waiting. And it makes me feel depressed.

(Soundbite of people chatting)

CHRISTIAN: I started high school this year, and someday I want to become an engineer or maybe an archeologist. I want to learn about my ancestors, the Aztec people and find some ruins that no one has ever found.

Unidentified Man #1: There is the Mexican runaway from the border.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: I heard two illegal Mexicans got married at the top of the fence.

CHRISTIAN: My friends are all from different backgrounds and we make jokes about each other every day.

Unidentified Man #2: Christian is a true Mexican. Why, you might ask? Because his pants are full of paint, which is what Mexicans always come to work in.

Unidentified Man #3: True.

CHRISTIAN: Sometimes they even make fake green cards out of construction paper and draw my picture on them. And yeah, that's funny, but I wish they were real.

I don't have legal papers. When I was four, my mom carried me across the border. All I remember is helicopters, dogs barking, and I felt like I couldn't breathe because I had dirt in my nose.

When we got to Staten Island, I learned how to read and write in English, and forgot a lot of my Spanish. I played with my Hot Wheels in the driveway and watched "Pokemon" on TV. But the difference between me and most of my friends is, four years from now, they'll be getting ready to go to college. They could become firemen, astronauts, mechanics, anything they want. But when I turn 18, I will either have to go back to Mexico and start all over, or hide for the rest of my life living (Spanish spoken), under the line, underground.

MIKEY(ph): (Spanish spoken)

CHRISTIAN: My cousin Mikey is four years older than me, but we play video games and hang out a lot like if we were brothers. When we were little, Mikey really wanted to become a U.S. Marine. He thought it will make my aunt proud of him and help him pay for college.

MIKEY: Even if, you know, it looks scary and everything, it looks really dangerous, I want to go, you know? And definitely, I want to go to get - go to college and maybe I can be someone in this country. I don't know.

CHRISTIAN: When he was in 10th grade, Mikey talked to military recruiters in his high school, but they told him he couldn't join because he was undocumented.

MIKEY: When they say no, I'm like - then, you know, I just walk away and it's like, I don't know what to do. And it's not like I have two choices.

CHRISTIAN: Soon after that, Mikey tried to get a job as a plumber, but he couldn't because he didn't have legal papers. Then he just decided to drop out of high school. It's not just Mikey, I know a lot of kids who drop out. Some of them are already working as day laborers. Some of them joined gangs.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

CHRISTIAN: Most of the people at my church come from Mexico. And our priest, Father Michael(ph) says he sees this all the time.

Father MICHAEL (Priest): I see in this neighborhood, people who are in sophomore or junior year of high school, because they do not have citizenship or papers, think, well, there's no sense studying or working or doing anything gives a person a feeling of what's the use. That's a very sad thing to do to youth - to frustrate all that energy and talent.

CHRISTIAN: There is no way right now for me to get my legal papers. Even though I was only 4 years old, the fact that I crossed the border illegally means I can never marry someone for my papers. I can't get sponsored by my family. I'm not eligible for special work visa. I'm completely locked out, unless Congress makes a change to immigration laws.

There's a law they've been debating for a long time. It will make it possible for kids in my situation to become citizens if they finish two years of college or military service. It's called the Dream Act.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

CHRISTIAN: My mom says if we don't fix our papers, all I'm going to have is dreams.

My little brother Dominic(ph) was born here. So how does it feel to be an American citizen?

(Soundbite of baby talking)

CHRISTIAN: Okay. How does it feel to know that you're going to have a better future than I am?

(Soundbite of baby talking)

CHRISTIAN: How does it feel to be a furry monkey?

(Soundbite of baby talking)

CHRISTIAN: In a cabinet in my mom's room, she keeps things from when Dominic and I were little. There's baby clothes and the blanket that I wore on my shoulders when I was crossing the border. I pull out some pictures from when my little brother was born. He's so funny. In every picture, he's laughing.

In one picture, me, my cousin Mikey and my little brother are all together. Me and Mikey were born in Mexico and Dominic was born here with the rest of my little cousins. And that's it. They're going to have a better life than me and Mikey is going to have. Happy for them. I guess, yeah. I don't know.

For NPR News, I'm Christian in New York.

BLOCK: Christian produced his story for Radio Rookies, a project of WNYC in New York that trains teenagers to make radio documentaries. It was produced by Melissa Robbins with Kaari Pitkin and edited by Marianne McCune.

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