The “Illegal” Immigrants I Know


When I met Rosa, she cried a lot. She called me her “school mom”. After she graduated she married another student named Pedro. They lived in a barely furnished apartment with lots of windows in Brooklyn with her sister. Pedro worked a lot and ran marathons. I visited her. Rosa made me tamales from scratch, and I played with her 1-year old son. Rosa was in my 9th grade class, but researchers say it takes 5-7 years for non-English speaking youth to learn English. Rosa was a good student and she graduated in four. We spoke in the Spanish words I knew and the English words she knew. When I left the apartment my belly was full and my heart was full too. I had wanted so much for her when I met her. As a young teacher, I thought the world was different– and that the poetry projects I designed could be enough.


Sandra had a job with a lot of responsibility in an office at a prestigious university. She had thick, black hair and beautiful skin and she hated her job. Her parents brought her to the United States as a young girl. She had gotten her job before the laws in her state changed, and now she was stuck in it. No one in her office knew she was undocumented. Sandra would take me to lunch, and give me cake, and she would cry. I hate the word “illegal,” and it is a powerful word. We have lots of feelings when we hear the word “illegal.” Some of us worry about fairness, others worry about the the fear of shrinking resources. Some of us worry about helping others, other worry about creating laws — and what does that mean? Sandra wanted to have a baby but she and her husband couldn’t conceive. Because she was undocumented, they couldn’t adopt. At a party her husband said to me quietly: We are waiting for immigration reform, but I don’t think it is ever going ta come. 

Jose and Wilbur.

Jose is the only student who has ever levied his right of refusal. Researchers give kids long-winded sheets of paper that say they have a right to withdraw from research at anytime.  We write them because our universities don’t want to get sued. Then we talk to kids one on one, like a real relationship, and ask them– can I tell your story? I am an ethnographer, and I want people to understand what life is like for kids like you. I wanted to interview Jose for my dissertation project. He stood me up. The next day I asked him what happened. He looked at me and said: It’s complicated, Miss… I got that feeling in my stomach that I get when I know something important is being said to me.

His friend Wilbur asked to be in the project. He sat me down and told me about crossing the desert and how happy he was to be with his father. His words poured out. He had escaped gangs in his home country, and his father drove him 90 minutes to school every morning so he could go to a safe school now that he was in the United States. Three months after I recorded his story, the school found out he lived outside their zone and kicked him out. I didn’t share his audio with them– I’ve never shared it with anyone, and I now I think a lot about keeping data safe. Jose probably had to go to his local school and there were a lot of gangs there. I called his phone because I was worried for him and I wanted to know how he was. He never picked up.

When I was almost done collecting data for my dissertation Jose told me he had changed his mind. We talked about how happy he was to have other Spanish-speakers in his ESL class because it made him feel at home and he could learn better in two languages. He never told me anything else.

Sometimes kids wanna talk about it, and sometimes they don’t– just like me.

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