CHARLOTTE, N.C.-It's 3 a.m. and Carlos can't sleep. As he lies in bed by the window, every passing light, every noise jerks him awake. Rumors of police raids have been swirling in his Hispanic neighborhood. Although he recently turned 18, Carlos sees that as a bitter milestone: He could be deported now from the country where he has spent the last eight years.
Carlos' parents left Honduras for a better life when he was six years old: "We had one room for four people, one bed for four people. Our house was tiny, we were poor." Carlos and his siblings lived with his grandmother for the next four years, amid youth gangs and drugs, until his parents sent for him to cross Guatemala and Mexico into the United States at the age of 10.
The first time, Carlos traveled with his brother and uncle in trucks. As they approached the Guatemala-Mexican border, they realized the cops were after them. The men fled, leaving behind the children and women. Sent back to Honduras, he and his little brother soon headed north in a truck once again, stopping at Mexican houses with a handler guiding them. After three weeks they were reunited with their mother in Texas, and then moved to North Carolina.
Eight years after his journey, Carlos says most of his friends don't even know he's living here illegally-most think he was born in the states. He graduated high school, and although three colleges offered partial soccer scholarships, he couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition. He now does manual labor at a greenhouse, working 15-hour days at minimum wage.
For many students like Carlos-WORLD agreed not to use his real name-life as an illegal immigrant is filled with fear and apprehension about the future. Without legal documentation and a social security number, he can't get a driver's license or open a bank account. He fears deportation to a country he barely remembers. In the United States, 1.7 million undocumented immigrants under age 18 face the same hurdles.
Under current immigration law, children whose parents brought them illegally to the United States have no way to stay in the country and become citizens. For the past five years, Congress has been considering the DREAM Act, which would create an avenue for undocumented students who graduated high school to became citizens by joining the Army or going to college. But the law has faced opposition from those concerned about the larger impact of illegal immigration.
The current law says that minors cannot be deported before turning 18. The rules are complex and meant to force young adults to return to their home countries when they turn 18. If they delay, stiff penalties kick in. An illegal 18-year-old has six months to return to his native country. From there he can apply for a U.S. visa. If he waits beyond the six months to go back to his native land, he can still apply for a visa-but he has to wait three years. If he waits until he's 19 to return to his native land, he can still apply for a visa-but he must wait 10 years.
Additional complications arise when returnees arrive in their native countries. They may face gang violence or harassment from authorities. They may not have relatives there and may not know the language and customs. If they plan to return to the United States, they face either a decades-long wait list or must settle for a student visa and pay tens of thousands of dollars for out-of-state tuition.
This would change with the DREAM Act. It would give illegal immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 temporary residence for six years, giving them time to complete either two years of college toward a four-year degree or two years in the military. After the six-year period, they would be eligible to apply for permanent residency, and after three more years, citizenship. Illegal immigrants under age 29 who have graduated from high school and lived in the United States for at least five years at the time the bill passes would be eligible.
Provisions of the DREAM Act attempt to guard against some standard concerns about allowing those who entered illegally to gain citizenship. Since the beneficiaries came here as children, proponents say it would not be helping those who knowingly broke the law. Since the DREAM Act would not allow those who gain citizenship through it to bring in relatives, it would not lead to "chain immigration," with a host of relatives coming.
Despite such clauses, the DREAM Act has floundered in Congress. Many Republicans and some Democrats want the larger questions of border security answered before passing any other immigration legislation. The act has come up for a vote several times since lawmakers first introduced it in 2001 but failed to win passage. In 2007 it garnered a bipartisan vote of 52-44 in the Senate but failed to reach the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
Some former Republican supporters of the act switched positions after coming under fire for supporting any form of immigration "amnesty." Sens. John McCain, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl, and Lindsey Graham ended up voting against the law when it came up again in December 2010. The law passed in the House but fell five votes short in the Senate.
McCain said he sympathized with students, but securing the borders is the number one priority and a constitutional duty: "Once we fulfill this commitment, we can then address all of the issues plaguing our broken immigration system. There simply isn't sufficient political support to do anything before we secure our borders and there won't be until we do."
Five Democratic senators also voted against the 2010 bill, including North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan. In a letter to her constituents she said, "I do not support this bill as a stand-alone measure. I oppose amnesty, and I strongly believe the United States must take the necessary steps to fix the way we handle the entire issue of illegal immigration."
Hagan serves a state about 1,500 miles from the Mexican border that has had an influx of illegal immigrants during the past 20 years. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, North Carolina's mild climate and its jobs in construction, textiles, agriculture, tobacco, and meat processing have attracted 325,000 illegal immigrants-that's 5.4 percent of the Tar Heel state's labor force.
On Central Avenue in Charlotte, N.C., brightly colored piñatas line a wall at a Latin music store. Around the store sit bins of Spanish pop music cassette tapes and shelves filled with DVD sets of telenovellas-Spanish-language soap operas. Positioned on the corner of a strip mall, the small shop is next to El Banco de la Gente and a supermarket that sells horchata, a cinnamon milk drink popular in Latin America. Signs all along the street advertise "Cambiar cheque (cash check)," El Salvadorean bakeries, and immigration services.
In July, La Noticia, a Spanish-language newspaper sold in front of the supermarket, had on its front page the face of 22-year-old Erick Velazquillo. Driving home from the gym one night in 2010, Velazquillo saw red and blue flashing lights behind him. Police pulled him over for having his high beams on. They asked for his driver's license-and saw that it had expired two years earlier. (Velazquillo had obtained his license before North Carolina tightened its laws in 2006.)
Police learned that although Velazquillo had lived in the United States since he was two years old, he didn't have a green card or social security number. The Central Piedmont Community College student spent three days in jail and faced deportation to Mexico-even though Velazquillo doesn't know anyone in Mexico except his 70-year-old grandparents. Advocacy groups such as the NC DREAM Team took up his case: In July Velazquillo told us, "Right now I'm kind of like in limbo. I mean sometimes it doesn't feel real. Its like wow I really went public with my case and pretty much everybody knows about it."
Later in the summer, amid massive media publicity, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials decided to let Velazquillo stay in Charlotte-for now. While his case brought attention to the 51,000 North Carolina students who would benefit from the DREAM Act, it also highlighted the concerns of DREAM Act critics like Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph. Pendergraph says illegal immigrants cost his county millions of dollars for education, healthcare, and social programs. He also complains about illegal immigrants in Charlotte "driving around with no license or insurance."
Ron Woodard, of NC Listen, an immigration reform group, said "every illegal immigrant is disenfranchising an American one for one." During bad economic times when many Americans are out of work, Woodard believes illegal immigrants take low-skilled jobs away from American workers and bring to public schools an influx of immigrant children, many of whom don't speak English. He fears the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students to take slots at colleges and universities away from U.S. students.
Dan Ramirez, a legal immigrant from Colombia and a former member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, worries about "gangs from New York and California setting up here because it's a prosperous city."
Ramirez sympathizes with illegal immigrants who want a better future for their children but says the United States needs to be "practical" by improving border security: "The U.S. cannot handle all the immigration that comes here." The debate continues, but in the meantime students like Carlos have to put their future on hold. He had considered returning to Honduras and then coming back legally, but when he heard about the DREAM Act he decided to stay to see if it would pass. It hasn't and Carlos is still waiting, with his options running out.
"My life is here," he said. "There's so much keeping me here and it's hard-even if I wanted to go back, I can't just leave. Every morning I wake up and I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow."
On a hot Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C., Spanish and English voices fill the lobby of Iglesia Bautista de Hickory Grove as adults chat on one side with their middle school to college-aged children on the other. Then the two groups split, with 40 adults heading to the sanctuary for a Spanish-language sermon on the Israelites' false idols, and 30 students to another room for Pictionary and charades.
The youth group gathers in a circle, snacking on popcorn and laughing with friends, speaking only in English. Youth leader Luis Tejera, son of a Hickory Grove pastor of the same name, asks the students for prayer requests, then prays in Spanish because he says it's easier for him. After the prayer, conversation and games switch back to English.
The students have mostly grown up in American public schools and can speak both English and Spanish. Probably nearly half are here illegally. The church reaches out to the Hispanic community by offering Spanish-language sermons and Bible studies, but also connects congregants to legal services and teaches them how to comply with laws and stay out of trouble.
Pastor Tejera is aware that some in his 500-member congregation are not here legally, but he says his job is to minister to all members: "The Bible says I have to reach everyone. There are political facts about the issue, but I'm not a politician. There are legal issues, but I'm not a lawyer. I'm a Christian, and I respond to the needs of everyone how God sees it."
Tejera says many immigrants are accustomed to authorities and even religious institutions taking advantage of them, and Tejera says it takes a lot of time to gain their trust. He also makes it a point to help congregants understand that American culture is different from the one they left: "They have to understand this is a different place, and they have to abide by the rules."
Sixty miles north of Charlotte in Hickory, Brandon Martin deals with similar issues. Every Thursday night, The Bridge Hispanic Mission he pastors brings together for English classes a group of Lutheran parishioners-55 volunteers from 13 local churches-to meet with area Hispanic families at a local school. Martin greets everyone warmly, switching seamlessly between Spanish and English. Beginners meet in the school's library where tutors and their students sit around square tables, and a teacher directs their attention to the screen at the front for that night's lesson.
Elsie Johnston, a volunteer from Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, says, "We try to keep it light." The teacher has the students play games during the two-hour session, and tonight's game is simple: In English, ask those next to you, "When is your birthday?"-and they answer you in English. Some of the Hispanic women whisper nervously to each other and laugh when one of them accidentally says a month in Spanish. Johnston says the games are integral to helping students overcome their fear of speaking.
Martin, who taught in Mexico and Guatemala, said part of the reason he wanted to start this ministry was because he "realized most North American churches were entirely disconnected from the Latin American community."