AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Arizona, where a controversial immigration law was passed last year, teachers, social service workers and police are encountering children and teens who have lost their parents or guardians to deportation, detention, or simply because caregivers left the state. John Faherty is a reporter for the Arizona Republic and he says it's hard to pin down the exact number of undocumented children living on their own in Arizona.
JOHN FAHERTY: But everyone agrees that the number is going up very quickly. I talked to a social worker at a school down in Tucson and she said the number of students she would categorize as homeless tripled since SP-1070. And she says all of the new students were the result of families breaking apart.
CORNISH: You recently followed three Arizona high school students who are all undocumented immigrants who ended up living together in a trailer in Phoenix without their families. One of them was Gerson Gonzalez, and we have a clip from your interview with him about what it was like for him to cross the U.S.-Mexico border as just age 15
GERSON GONZALEZ: I didn't know what I had done was like bad or that it was a crime. Of course, I knew that I had come and that we were hiding from immigration patrol, but I didn't know why.
CORNISH: And in that clip of tape, we hear Gerson talking about not fully understanding that what he was doing was committing a crime. Did you believe that? Is that something that was common to the teens that you followed?
FAHERTY: I did believe it. One of the reasons I thought these kids were so good to follow was immigration reform advocates like to talk about the baby being carried across the desert in his mother's arms. And, you know, that child, obviously, is a complete innocent. And immigration hardliners like to talk about the grown man who sneaks across and comes to this country and commits crimes. These boys were neither of those two things.
CORNISH: And these boys end up at the same public high school in Phoenix. As they head into their senior year, the bill, 1070, is signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. And how does this change things for them?
FAHERTY: Well, their lives became a lot more complicated. Gerson's father was deported. Jonathan Labrada, another one of the three boys, his family left. They couldn't find work. And Alejandro's family just kind of fell apart. He was living with his grandmother. She lost her job. He felt like a burden on her. So, all three of them ended up together and decided to live as their own family.
CORNISH: Can you tell us the story about one of their experiences that you think really highlighted their place in between worlds?
FAHERTY: You know, the night of prom, they were just like - I mean, you could have been anywhere. I grew up on the Midwest and it was, you know, young men playing loud music, trying on their clothes and it's time to jump in their car. And they realize, oh, the headlight is out and you can't drive without a headlight or you will be pulled over. And they don't have driver's license - you know, they're in the country illegally - so, you know, everything has to stoop. And they just strip off their clothes down to their T-shirts and fix their headlight. So, it was like a foot in each world. But they made it to prom and they had a heck of a time.
CORNISH: Two of the three boys in your story has since graduated from high school. What's happened to them since?
FAHERTY: All three of them were very bright. Gerson arrived for his freshman year of high school and he could say two words in English - he could say yes and no. And he graduated with a 3.9 grade point average. And Jonathan was also very bright. And they applied for scholarships and went to college.
CORNISH: And, of course, the story was different for Alejandro Sau. He dropped out of high school. And we have a clip of him I want to play.
ALEJANDRO SAU: If I go to a university, how am I going to work in my career, you know? They won't even allow me. So, I'm just wasting my time giving them money. And I don't think that's a fair exchange, you know. In this country, I'm not going to do anything but work, and that's it.
CORNISH: John, talk a little bit about Alejandro's attitude towards the end of this.
FAHERTY: Yeah. Sometimes he acted like he had a right to be here. Sometimes he acted like he couldn't get out of bed. He was a very interesting young man and I knew from the day I met him that he was going to be the one that was going to have the hardest time making it. He was abandoned by his mother twice in Mexico, which is why he was living up here with his grandmother. So, the deck was kind of stacked against him.
CORNISH: All three of them allowed their full names and their photos to be published for your report, even though they were illegally in the U.S. Did they tell you why they decided to go public with their story?
FAHERTY: They did tell me why. And I though Alejandro said it best. He said: people need to know our story. I feel invisible here.
CORNISH: Now, the U.S. Supreme Court's scheduled to rule next year on whether Arizona's immigration law steps on federal authority on regulating immigration. Give us a sense of where things stand now in terms of immigration policy in Arizona.
FAHERTY: It's been very quiet recently. As you know, there was a lot of shouting back and forth when SP-1070 became law. You know, I wrote this story and I expected to be inundated with letters from people saying how dare you. What part of illegal don't you understand? That type of letter that we used to get frequently and I got almost none. I think there's a lot of wait and see, so it's hard to know what's going to be next.
CORNISH: John Faherty is a reporter for the Arizona Republic. He joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. His series on undocumented immigrant students in Arizona is called On Their Own. John, thanks so much for talking with us.
FAHERTY: Thank you very much for having me.
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