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My Life in the Shadows

Brought to the U.S. illegally from Mexico as a child, Wences has stepped forward to make the case for immigration reform

By Reyna Wences, 19


I'll never forget the day I left Mexico for the last time. I was nine, and my mother, three-year-old brother, and I abandoned our apartment in Mexico City. We boarded a bus heading north to the border city of Nogales to meet up with a "coyote"—a guide who helps smuggle people into the United States.

We had paid the coyote $6,000, borrowing most of the money from relatives. All we could take with us that morning in July 2000 was a small bag with a change of clothes and water. The sun was hot, and I remember praying we wouldn't have to travel through the desert, where temperatures can reach 120F and many people die from dehydration.

To my surprise, getting across the border and to our final destination proved uneventful: We didn't see any guards and just walked into Arizona, to a city also called Nogales. From there, a driver hired by the coyote took us to Chicago to join my stepfather, an engineer who had entered the U.S. a year earlier on a three-month work visa but stayed after the visa expired.

Even as a young girl, I understood why he chose to remain in the U.S. illegally, and why my mother wanted us to join him: In Mexico, my parents often had to choose between paying the rent and buying food. Like most immigrants, they came to the U.S. seeking a better life for their family.

No Social Security Number

But growing up undocumented has meant living in limbo, with opportunities only half open to me. I was fortunate to have gone to Walter Payton College Prep school in Chicago, and I got into several top-tier colleges. But without a Social Security number, I was ineligible for the financial aid I needed to be able to go to many of them.

I'm likely to be in a similar situation in the working world because without a Social Security number, employers can't legally hire me. So although I'm now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying sociology, I may never be able to work in my field. Without legal status, I'll have no better options than my stepfather, who fixes factory machinery, or my mom, a former teacher who works as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant.

I understand why many people are upset about the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. Some fear that immigrants will take their jobs or think the U.S. shouldn't reward those who came here illegally.

The Dream Act

But I would also ask that people try to understand my situation. As a child, I didn't have a say in my parents' decision to bring me to the U.S., and this country is now my home. Without legal status, however, I'll be relegated to the margins and will never be a fully engaged member of American society.

The Dream Act, which was introduced in Congress in 2009, may be my best hope, although its prospects for passage are uncertain. It would provide a provisional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought here before age 16, have graduated from a U.S. high school, and have completed or are on course to complete at least two years of college or military service.

On March 10, 2010, along with seven other undocumented students and hundreds of supporters, I marched to Chicago's Federal Plaza to raise awareness of the Dream Act and the need for immigration reform, sparking a week of "coming out" marches across the country.

When it was my turn to speak, I revealed my immigration status: "My name is Reyna Wences," I announced, "and I am undocumented." I knew I risked deportation, but it was worth it.

I was tired of living in the shadows.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, DATE)