But when Alberto looks at his young ones, he knows that they cannot go home again. It’s too hard to picture Juliana’s quirky Brooklyn fashion sense—her fuchsia leg warmers and maroon nail polish—in outer Puebla. Or to see Berto happy where he can’t afford a Whopper or the latest game for his PlayStation Portable. Those who moved to this country before their early teens, the “1.5 generation,” have punched a one-way ticket. “What are they going to do in Guatemala or Mexico or Ecuador?” says Marguerite Lukes of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. “They speak the language, but they’re from a different culture. It would be like immigrating.”
When Berto was born, Luisa says, “I wanted a different life for him. I had this view that he could be what he wanted to be. It was just bigger.” For son and daughter both, she imagined some high profession: “Lawyer, pediatrician, ophthalmologist … ”
“As much as we can give them economically, we’ll help them,” Alberto says. “We’re expecting the best for our children.”
“After something bad,” Luisa says, referring to her own experience as a ninth-grade dropout, “something good has to come.”
Though immigration reform barely surfaced during the fall election campaign, Obama’s intentions might be signaled by his likely choice for secretary of Homeland Security, the department that oversees ICE: Janet Napolitano, the Arizona governor who has backed harsh penalties for those who hire the undocumented while opposing the criminalization of the workers themselves. Advocates dare to hope for a regenerated DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would give youngsters like Berto and Juliana a route to legalization through either college or military service. “That’s the kissing-babies issue,” Smith says. “I think we’ll probably get something for the kids. The thing for the grown-ups is a whole other fight.”
There is no end in sight for irregular migration, not while half the world lives on less than two dollars a day. Another mass amnesty, tied to a cutoff date, will inevitably sow a new underclass down the road. But the dilemma could be eased, suggests Ngai the Columbia historian, by restoring a statute of limitations for crossing a border or overstaying a visa: “After x years in this country, you’re given a clean slate.” A safe-at-home law would merely bow to a stubborn reality: that, over time, undocumented immigrants raise American families and lay down American roots. That, like it or not, they belong here.
Luisa’s children are still innocent of their tenuous place in the world. The last time I checked, Berto aspired to be either an FBI agent or a singer, while Juliana hoped to teach fourth grade. They recited why their parents crossed over, like a bedtime story they’d yet to outgrow. “My dad’s dream was … ” Juliana said haltingly. “What was his dream, Berto? He told us all of his dreams.”
“To live a better life and raise a family,” her brother said.
Juliana looked pleased: “So that’s why he came, for us to have a better life.” She could not envision living elsewhere, yet she’d begun to intuit her plight. One day she told me, “Some people think immigrants just come to New York to visit, but that’s not always true. Sometimes they come to live their future.”