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One Family, Two Worlds
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One Family, Two Worlds

“To have papers is a privilege,” says Cynthia Romero, 13. Cynthia is a U.S. citizen. Her sister, 21-year-old Noemi, is undocumented. Reporter Eileen Truax detailed their split predicament in a feature story for the Spanish-language Huffington Post Voces. Another version of this story is scheduled to be published in Mexico, in the Feb. 2014 issue of Variopinto magazine.

In the Romero family, children learned that all siblings are equal. They all practice respect for their elders, they’re proud of being Mexican, and they love the United States, the country that has been their home for the last 18 years. But deep down, everyone knows that there is a difference between them. In households where some children are undocumented and other are citizens, tension can grow but ties can also become stronger.

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Eileen’s Story Behind the Story

What would you do if you had no options, but your siblings do? That’s a question that most Dreamers living in mixed immigration status families have to face everyday while opportunities pass them by and go straight to their younger brothers and sisters: the chance to get a driver’s license, the access to financial support to go to college, the chance to travel abroad or to get a decent job.

Dreamers, undocumented youth who came to the US brought by their parents at a very young age –some of them even as newborns– have no access to any of these opportunities due to their lack of documents to prove that they’re living legally in the country, although they have spent most of their life here: they’re Americans in every sense, but they don’t have a document saying so.

I first found this situation eighteen months ago, when I was doing some interviews in Phoenix for my book Dreamers, la lucha de una generación por su sueño americano (Dreamers: A Generation’s Struggle for Their Own American Dream; Spanish, Ed. Océano, 2013). In that occasion I was interviewing Viridiana Hernández, a 20-year-old who was preparing to participate in a civil disobedience action on March 20th.

Viridiana talked to me about living in the shadows. She came to the United States when she was one and has spent the last 19 years feeling American, but fighting for access to higher education and other opportunities. She talked to me about her family’s struggle and the fear of raids by Sheriff Joe Arapio’s agents. But the only moment when she cried, was when she talked about her siblings: while she has been struggling to go to college, her 17-year-old brother, a U.S. citizen, has the chance to do it but doesn’t want to. Viridiana started crying and she couldn’t keep talking. “Of course I love him, I want the best for him, but he don’t appreciate the chances that he has.”

At that moment I realized that there was an under reported side of the Dreamers stories. Tensions can build up in a family but no one would talk about it. As my interviews with Dreamers continued I started to get more testimonies: “It’s hard to ask my younger brother to drive me to places because I don’t have a driver’s license.” “My sister has traveled abroad, she’s been with my grandparents in Mexico and I can’t go there.”

So when the opportunity for a fellowship with IJJ came, this was the kind of story that I thought about. I wanted to go back to Arizona to pursue a specific story about Dreamers in mixed status families. But during the conference in Oklahoma I realized something else: that being in a mixed status family may represent a burden not only for the undocumented siblings, but also for the younger who are U.S. citizens.

I especially remember two moments. In a data workshop, we learned that:from the 17.5 million children in immigrant families, 88% are U.S. citizens and more than 40% have a non-resident parent. This means that these children are growing up with the fear of having their families separated because of the immigration status of one or more members of the family.

I was also moved by a talk by Jose Arreola, a Dreamer activist working for Educators for Fair Consideration. When asked about his own mixed-status family, his answer was not about him, but how his U.S .citizen sisters have managed the situation.

These two moments made me realized that my focus should be not only on the undocumented members of the family, but on those who are citizens too. I’m pretty sure that if I had not received the IJJ fellowship I would have done the story anyway, but certainly I would not have include the younger siblings angle since I was so focused on the stories shared by my previously interviewed Dreamers. That’s the whole purpose of these conferences: to be able to see the same issues from a completely new perspective.

I finally found my story in August 2013 with a wonderful, brave family in Phoenix, the Romeros: while Noemi, 21, and Steve, 19, have no documents, Cynthia, 13, is a U.S. citizen. Cynthia became the soul of the story. One of her phrases was very moving to me: “I know that having papers is a privilege.”

The story was published in Spanish-language Huffington Post Voces, and it seems like some of our readers think the same that Cynthia: although there were comments of support to this family –and bashing Barack Obama because of his deportation policy– there were a few saying that “this is a country of laws and the parents knew what they were doing” when they brought their kids with no documents. We still have a lot of work to do in order to put the harsh reality that these families face every day on the public eye.

Something else that I took from the fellowship was the idea of pursuing stories in small towns as well as in large cities. In the future I would like to keep exploring this issue in smaller places, where the situation is still common among immigrant families, but the environment is not as friendly to talk about it. I can only imagine how the tension builds up every day; there’s a lot to find out about it.

Once again, thank you so much, IJJ, for having the best tools and people all together in one place. This was an experience of extraordinary learning and professional growth.

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