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Hiding in Plain Sight

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At home in Brooklyn: "We're fine here. Not the way we want it, but better than we were before."  

“They treat the immigrants bad,” her brother interjected.

“Yeah, they do,” Juliana said. “I heard they want to pay the immigrants less.”

“I don’t know if I’m a legal or illegal immigrant,” Berto said, “but I’m 100 percent Mexican and I’m proud of who I am.” He was a sensitive boy, eager to please and quick to perceive a slight, but Americanization could be a twisty thing. Berto was in thrall to John Cena, the WWE stalwart and hip-hop artist. One night he showed off a video of Cena hyping his match with a Mexican-American opponent:

I’m about to show you I can whip a Latino,
You run from me like you run from El Niño!
Hot like jala-pee-ño stuck on an enchilada,
I’m a Rottweiler, you’s a Mexican Chihuahua …
You hate me ’cause I’m white, that’s reverse discrimination,
I hate you for two words—illegal immigration!

Cena’s muscular bluster seemed to trump Berto’s ethnic pride—a hint, perhaps, of the boy’s insecurity over his status. After moving to a mostly Latino middle school this fall, he found himself bullied by eighth-graders and reluctant to defend himself. Alberto remembered the times he’d ignored people who provoked him on the street, and his son had asked why. And he had responded, “Because if I hit them, they’ll call the cops and I’ll get deported or locked up.” In an undocumented family, Alberto said, this was something passed from father to son: “You don’t feel you have the right to fight back.”

The immigrant dream is one of sacrifice and deferral; parents slave at lower rungs so their progeny might climb. For children like Berto and Juliana, however, the tale is turned on its head. There are 65,000 undocumented children in New York City, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s Passel, and their quandary cuts across ethnic lines. (An additional 110,000 are birthright citizens with undocumented parents, a whole other predicament.) Among Latinos, most teenagers leave school early in droves or dive into the workforce after twelfth grade. In families from South Asia, college-educated parents may push their children harder to matriculate. “But whether they finish is another question,” said Monami Maulik, executive director of DRUM, a Jackson Heights advocacy group. “A lot of them drop out the first or second year.”

Like all New York residents, Berto and Juliana will be eligible for in-state tuition at CUNY or SUNY. But they’ll be barred from government grants and loans or paid internships, a sneak preview of the formal job market. One of Maulik’s former Queens youth leaders was a slight 23-year-old named Rajesh, an undocumented Trinidadian of Indian descent. A high-school valedictorian, he began his senior year pointing toward medical school. “I wanted to help people,” he said. “I wanted to be a pediatrician. I like kids.” But that fall, when he needed a Social Security number for some scholarship forms, Rajesh realized he was out of the game. He slogged through premed at Hunter College, going through the motions. “I felt like I wasted a lot of time,” he said. “You want to do good, but what’s the point?” Now 23, he works construction full-time for a family friend.

“These kids are being blamed because they were brought here as children,” said Baruch’s Robert Smith. “It’s a morally upside-down universe.”

A medium-size woman with a smile that channels Meg Ryan, Luisa is a pillar of her Park Slope church and the former secretary of her PTA. At a parent meeting five years ago, she stumped the translator by asking about the “psychometrics” of a standardized test. College-educated, the principal thought. In truth, Luisa drew her knowledge of the world from the Sunset Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where she devoured biographies and monthly issues of Selecciones, the Spanish Reader’s Digest. By last spring she’d begun to see herself as a nurse or a Head Start family worker. But in the next breath she’d sound deflated: “What I like, you need papers for.”

Luisa missed her next YMCA English class, and the one after that. When I caught up with her, she had news: She’d taken a job as a housekeeper and babysitter in Borough Park, five days a week at $10 an hour. As she explained it, the family’s debts had spun out of control the previous summer. With no credit cards available to help make ends meet, they’d borrowed a thousand dollars from a loan shark who charged 10 percent interest per month. Luisa decided that her husband needed help: “Alberto says he’s never going to get old, but I can see his knees hurt when he gets home from work.”

With Luisa covering the food and phone bills, the debts were mostly cleared by June. She rued the loss of her English class when she struggled to speak with her employers. But it made her proud to buy Alberto a camera or surprise Juliana with an American Girl doll on her birthday. The family could breathe a little bit.


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