For teens in mixed-status immigrant families, things can be complicated
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org October 11, 2013 7:50PM
Mireya Rios, 17, and Sonia Ortiz, 33, are two of about 9 million people across the United States who live in mixed-status families that include at least one U.S.-born child and one undocumented adult. Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:41AM
AURORA — Mireya Rios wanted to fly to a leadership conference for Latino high schoolers held this June at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It would have been the first time Rios, 17, tried to board an airplane using her Mexican passport.
But Rios’ mother, Sonia Ortiz, 33, didn’t want to risk it. Both she and her daughter are undocumented immigrants. So instead, they drove together on the more than 1,700-mile trip from Aurora.
At the conference, Rios closed her eyes and stood with about 120 other students in a line, preparing to take a “privilege walk.”
“Did you have more than 50 books in your home as a child?” the exercise leader asked. Take a step to the left.
“Did your parents speak English at home?” Another step left.
When the questions stopped, Rios was one of only a handful standing at the far right.
“I just didn’t feel … I didn’t know I was that unprivileged,” Rios recalled.
Rios’ first language was Spanish. She crossed the Mexico border into the United States with her mother when she was a year old, an event she cannot remember but that has stripped her of many teenage rites of passage, including her ability to work, drive and apply for federally funded college grants and loans.
Recently, she applied for a special program for undocumented immigrant youth, known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would give her the right to legally work in the country and get an Illinois driver’s license. While it’s not permanent legal status, it would prevent her from being deported for at least two years.
But that relief won’t wipe away the many pressures Rios grew up under or the stresses that still plague her mother, who is in the process of applying for lawful residency through her U.S. citizen husband. It won’t grant Rios the U.S. citizenship that her sister, 3, and brother, 7, were lucky enough to be born with.
“I know what it is like to be undocumented and feel helpless about it,” Rios wrote recently in an essay. “To me, the hardest part is accepting the word ‘illegal.’ I feel that just walking on this land is a crime. Living is a crime. Working is a crime. Going places is a crime. I’m a criminal.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, at least 9 million people live in the United States, like Rios and Ortiz, in mixed-status families that include at least one U.S.-born child and one adult without legal status.
Nationwide, an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrant children in these mixed-status families have U.S.-born siblings.
Mixed-status families have become a focus of attention in the debate over immigration reform. The recent uptick in deportations has meant painful separation between citizens and their family members without papers to stay.
Teens and 20-somethings brought to the United States as children, who do not have the same rights as their citizen siblings and friends, are among the strongest and loudest proponents of immigration reform.
Living in a mixed-status family is not uncommon in the Aurora area.
Mireya Luna, a program coordinator at Family Focus Aurora, said that almost all of the roughly 30 families a week that have consultations at the nonprofit are mixed-status.
Often in these situations, according to Luna and Maria Torres, a Family Focus immigration specialist, not every family member can drive, access credit, get a bank account, travel outside the country, afford higher education or work legally. Citizens can’t always get non-citizens on their health care plans and fear of separation might cause psychological and emotional issues.
‘Another part of me’
Ortiz and Rios are close. Ortiz says her daughter “grew up like she was another part of me.”
Ortiz was the oldest of six children growing up in a small ranch town of Durango, a state in central Mexico. She wasn’t a good student, she said, because she was focused on caring for her siblings, taking care of the animals and helping her mother keep house.
At 16, Ortiz didn’t want to be pregnant. When her schoolmates saw her protruding belly, she cried alone in her house. The man who became her first husband was older, physically abusive and an alcoholic, according to Ortiz and Rios, but Ortiz felt a responsibility to have her baby.
“I knew I wasn’t prepared to get married or to have a child,” Ortiz said. “I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t change anything. I had to embrace my stomach and think that everything was going to be OK.”
After crossing the border, Ortiz lived with her husband and daughter in Texas for about two years. The couple separated — Rios no longer has contact with her birth father, she said — and the mother and daughter moved in 1999 to Aurora, where Ortiz’ brothers lived.
Ortiz rented a room from her brother and raised her daughter alone.
“It’s not her fault or my fault, but things happened that shouldn’t have happened because I was young,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz made decisions no mother wants to, like when to take her daughter to the hospital, because they didn’t have medical insurance. She searched for treatment centers that helped undocumented immigrants.
Rios was an intelligent and curious child who preferred books to dolls. By age 6 or 7, she knew she was undocumented.
“I think I just knew,” Rios said. “I just knew that I didn’t have those papers.”
She figured it out because her family members were afraid of driving, she said, a risk that could get them deported if a police officer found out they didn’t have a license. And she knew she couldn’t travel to Mexico with her U.S. citizen cousins to visit their grandparents.
Rios’ mother remarried when Rios was in eighth grade, to a man who is a U.S. citizen. Now her mother has two U.S.-born children, neither of whom knows that Rios is undocumented, she said.
“Maybe because they’re too little, but I also wouldn’t want them to know,” she said. “I’m glad they were born here so they don’t have to go through what I am going through or I will go through.”
Rios said she notices little differences between her and her siblings that are a result of their immigration statuses.
“When my mom’s driving they’re very distracting,” she said of her two younger siblings. “I know why she has to keep her eyes on the road. I know why she can’t — even for the littlest thing — get distracted.”
It frustrates Rios, who is taking Advanced Placement courses and wants to pursue medicine in college, to see that her 7-year-old brother does not love school. He’s a bright student, she said, but doesn’t like doing homework and he can be lazy.
She tries to force him to do his 20 minutes of daily reading, often to no avail.
For Rios, speaking Spanish is “kind of like breathing.” Her 3-year-old sister also speaks Spanish well, because she is often cared for by her Spanish-speaking grandmother.
But her brother’s Spanish is, as Rios put is, “very bad.” Sometimes it makes Rios and her mother laugh, but they try not to say anything hurtful.
“We do correct him sometimes, but he doesn’t care as long as we understand him,” Rios said. “It does kind of make me sad because I love Spanish. And he doesn’t like it, at all. And it’s kind of like our roots. How can you not like something that’s part of you?”
Ortiz, too, sees small differences in her children that she thinks were caused, in part, by immigration status.
As a child, Rios was more mature and independent than her U.S.-born children, Ortiz said. Her daughter learned to tie her shoes in a day and more quickly learned to dress herself and speak up for what she needed.
Ortiz now has the support of a second parent and income, so she can more easily pick up her children from school and afford the things they need. Ortiz also understands more English than when she was raising her first daughter.
At the same time, Ortiz said, as a single mother she set the rules for Rios and there were no contradictions.
Now, she said, her two youngest children “don’t respect the rules exactly as is.”
And she sees that when Rios “gets something, she values it more because of how she grew up with me.”
As teens and mothers often do, Rios and Ortiz sometime butt heads. But Rios respects many of her mother’s limits. They agree Rios should have a curfew and not sleep over at other people’s houses. They agree that, above all, education is the No. 1 priority.
Only sometimes, Rios said, she feels the pressure when she forgets to clean her room, or wash the dishes, or doesn’t want to drive to pick up her siblings.
“When I don’t want to she says ‘When I was your age I was already taking care of a baby,’” Rios said. “And I feel like I can barely take care of myself. I think that’s the biggest problem, is that she expects met to mature as fast as she did and I feel like I shouldn’t.”
But when they don’t see eye to eye, Rios said, maybe it’s because her mother is working, very hard, in a factory that makes filters for industrial-size refrigerators and understandably gets frustrated.
When Rios graduates from high school next year, it will be a success that brings Ortiz great pride. If Rios succeeds, as she hopes to, in winning a scholarship for undocumented students and attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, she’ll have to move out of her Aurora home.
Ortiz said that day will be both a painful moment and a dream made reality.
“It’s going to be difficult, because she has been my partner for her 17 years of life,” she said. “She is always with me and I am always with her. She deserves it. She has to do it.”