MPR's Youth Radio: Undocumented teen says equality is everything

Growing up undocumented
Brenda, 19, walks through her Minneapolis, Minn. neighborhood Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Brenda has been living as an illegal immigrant in Minnesota since she was seven years old.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

by Brenda, Youth Radio reporter

A Minneapolis teen who was carried across the U.S.-Mexico border a dozen years ago hopes Congress will pass the federal DREAM Act so she can live and work legally in the country she considers home.

The Democratic-controlled Congress plans to make one more attempt to pass the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act -- the DREAM Act -- this week.

If passed, it would give children of immigrants not legally in the United States a path to citizenship if they graduate from high school and complete two years of college or military service. It has support among many Democrats, but most Republicans oppose the DREAM Act, saying it amounts to amnesty.

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Brenda tells what it's like to live in the United States illegally.

Editor's note: MPR News has agreed not to use Brenda's last name because she fears deportation.

NO TIME TO BE A TEENAGER

When people ask me where I'm from, I say Minnesota. I am from here. I came from Mexico when I was 7. I was carried over the border. It was nighttime, and I remember the narrow path along the cliffs, and a rattlesnake.

I'm 19 now. I live in Minneapolis with my mom, my stepdad, my older brother and his son, and my little brother and sister.

I help take care of the little kids, and I work second shift in a factory. I don't have a lot of time to be a teenager or to have fun.

Brenda
A self portrait by Brenda, a Minneapolis teen who was carried across the U.S.-Mexico border a dozen years ago hopes Congress will pass the federal DREAM Act so she can live and work legally in the country she considers home.
Image Courtesy of Brenda

I had to leave high school a month before graduation this spring, because my family needed help paying the bills.

My mom brought my brother and me here because she was a single mother and she saw a better life for us here.

"Maybe not for me," said my mom, "because I had to work, work, work. But I liked that every day you used to come home and learn more English every day at school."

People say immigration is a mistake. But I thank my mom for bringing me here.

"In Mexico, I was a cook," said my mom. "Here I became a janitor. I was proud to be [one]. But it ended."

My mom was one of 1,200 janitors who lost their jobs in a "silent raid" at ABM, a janitorial service company in Minneapolis last year. She didn't have the right papers so she lost a job she'd had for 12 years. That had a big effect on our lives.

I want things to change for families like mine. We've been here a long time. We pay taxes. But we're invisible.

DARING TO SPEAK UP

In March I took a bus from Minnesota to Washington D.C. to attend a big immigration rally. As we walked to the National Mall near the Capitol, Latino roofers called out to us, "We can't be there, we have to work, but lift up your voices for us."

At the rally, President Obama had a videotaped message for the crowd.

"I pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year on this important issue," the president said. "You know as well as I do that it won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight."

I've been waiting for this. Every time on the news they say, "Oh, they're going to start working on immigration reform." But then we hear, "No, something else came up."

So I have to get -- I'm sorry for the word -- really crappy, bad jobs.

I used to work for this restaurant, and the lady made me work long hours for low pay. I used to clean tables, take orders, clean dishes, clean bathrooms, clean the floors and back again. I told her, "I can't do this." She told me to take a day off. I took it. And she never took my calls again and never paid me for all that work. Equalness is everything.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

I have a better job now. Some of the things we make at this factory are probably in your home. I make $8.65 an hour, so I can pay some of our bills and send money to support my grandma in Mexico.

My dream used to be to be an FBI agent or a cop. Now I'm thinking about being a teacher and working with kids. But to do any of these, I need to finish school.

When I quit high school in May to go clean offices, I didn't tell anybody. I just left. One of my old teachers, Vanessa, has encouraged me to come back and finish.

"I saw sometimes you were sad," Vanessa said. "And I think sometimes whatever issues were going on -- it kind of distracted you from your schoolwork."

I tell her I want to come back and finish high school, maybe take classes online. But I don't want to have to answer the other students' questions about why I left.

She says a lot of students in my program have also had to leave school for their own reasons and come back.

"You've got to remember, when they ask, 'Where have you been?' it's because they care," my teacher says. "They noticed you were gone. So that's a good thing."

After coffee, she walks me back to the school office and hands me an application for the online classes.

She tells me to think of what I have accomplished. I do have a job. I am helping my family. I do have dreams and goals.

But a lot of things are up in the air right now.

My mother is marrying my stepdad, who's an American citizen. But to get permanent residency in the United States, my mom might have to return to Mexico for a year. She'd bring my infant brother and little sister and nephew -- and all of them are American citizens.

If I go with her, I can't come back. And I don't want to leave.

I'm going to go back to finish high school and I hope someday, there'll be a better life open to me in the United States.

(MPR reporter Sasha Aslanian helped produce this report.)