I took a friend to see a lawyer yesterday. About a decade ago, when she was a small girl and far too young to know what poor decisions were being made on her behalf, her parents left Mexico and drove the family to the United States illegally. They settled in Arizona, found odd jobs, raised their young family, and she was enrolled in the public schools. Her lack of American citizenship became her problem when she received scholarships for college. She couldn’t claim the funds; she didn’t have a Social Security number. Instead, she now attends a small private university paying for course by course out of pocket. She pays out of state tuition even though she’s lived here nearly her entire life. She works like you wouldn’t believe to help her family, manage her coursework and avoid ever drawing even a wink of attention from anyone in uniform.

Living in Phoenix, and having lived in Mexico, every side of illegal immigration seems incredibly ugly and miserable. Whether you are the poor rural Mexican family paying a coyote to shuffle you through hundreds of miles of hot desert, only to land in a drop house in a Phoenix suburb where you are enrolled in indentured servitude to pay off the smuggling fees, or the American families who pretend not to notice nearly everyone cooking their food, mowing their lawns, washing their cars are brown skinned and being paid under the table — the system is broken. Arizona schools are overwhelmed. Our hospitals cannot handle the emergency room cases, where non-citizens know they will always receive care. Our public services are feeling the strain of many who don’t pitch for their portion of the bill. It makes me sad the economy of Mexico isn’t strong enough to provide ample opportunities to their people. However, their corrupt government has made one bad economic decision after the other and when officials began distributing pamphlets for safe-desert crossing, I nearly lost my mind. Bureaucratic avoidance of responsibility at its worst! Governments should stand up for their citizens and work to make their countries stronger, not encourage their people to move to other lands to work illegally.

It took quite a bit of convincing on my part to even get M before the lawyer yesterday afternoon. I’m not sure if she knew before then that her parents had made a series of decisions that would forever influence her life, or if it was just sinking in when sitting across from a great immigration attorney in a fancy conference room, we heard the bad news.
She’s got few options as an illegal immigrant in the United States and even fewer considering one of her parents is now a legal resident. Family nonsense aside, this is the story of a sweet, smart young woman who simply wants to finish college and live the American life she’s loved for the last 20 years. She was brought here as a child, but is being punished as an adult. The attorney was blunt: don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t go near the border. Avoid cities with large immigration check points — namely southern California. Oh, and if you can swing it, marry an American. He specifically warned her against marrying anyone with a green card or residency permit. He must be a citizen, otherwise she’d more than likely be deported to Mexico for at least 10 years as a punishment and then could apply for a visa to live with her husband in the US. No bother that she doesn’t have anyone to return to in Mexico. She’s the baby. Everyone else is here and well settled.

M’s story is that of countless illegal immigrants living in the US. I’m not sure about amnesty, but I am certain that immigration reform is absolutely necessary. Living in a border state, having friends on both sides of the issue, it is crucial our leaders sit down and discuss openly how to create some solutions to this huge problem. With the recent economic craziness, issues like immigration reform get tossed aside in the national debate. I hope our next president does make immigration a top priority. While I am not sure how to make any of this better, I know the children who are brought to the US only to become hard-working, adults with character deserve better than a boot back to their home countries.

I wasn’t sure yesterday what smarted more — my pink, sunburned skin itching underneath my dress from the recent Mexican beach time (ironic?), or listening to the lawyer tell M to consider marrying and having babies to stay in the country. She is 21, bright and has so much she wants to do professionally. There simply must be another way.