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Coming To America: Illegal Teen In The Big Apple

Miriam came to live in New York when she was eight.
The time seems ripe for immigration reform in the United States, with debate centering on how to deal with the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Reform has become a priority following the November presidential election, in part because both the Democratic and Republican parties see the potential for future votes. The majority of illegals living in the U.S. are Latin Americans, a voting bloc that has the potential to swing elections. But there are smaller groupings of undocumented immigrants as well, including some 50,000 from the former Soviet Union.

"Earned citizenship," border protection, and finding ways to attract low-skilled workers to take the legal route to immigration are among the details being ironed out -- and decision-time is nearing. April is seen as a key month for the reforms, with different legislation proposals in the works, and there is optimism that a deal could be agreed to by summer.

As the issue heats up, RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Brooks speaks with three immigrants about their experiences in "Coming To America."

Read Part 1: A Bosnian Story

NEW YORK -- As a little girl, Miriam and her family immigrated to Israel. It was shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union and, as Bukharian Jews, they sought to flee discrimination.

When Miriam was eight she moved again, this time settling with her mother and siblings in Rego Park, the center of Bukharian life in Queens, New York.

Miriam and her family were living in the United States without proper documentation, despite her mother's efforts to secure permanent residency ahead of time.

"Playing the green card [lottery] was something that she was like, 'C'mon, can I win, can I win.' And it actually didn't happen. We actually came here without it," Miriam says.

"It is what it is," she says. "Ten years without it and we survived." She is currently in the process of obtaining a green card that would give her permanent residency, but her current lack of legal status has its costs. She has been unable to apply for the financial aid she needs to enroll in college, preventing her from pursuing her dream of becoming a physical therapist.

"My mom wants me to go to school so bad. It's just that I don't have the opportunity right now to go. Hopefully next year -- it's something I'm crossing my fingers for. It's something that I really want. And she wants to help me so bad. She tells me, 'I know you want to go, and I want you to go, and I want you to be a physical therapist. I have all the faith in the world [in you], [but] right now is not the time,'" Miriam says.

Through her work as a waitress, Miriam brings in enough to make her the breadwinner of the family.

"I make a lot -- tips are really good here," she says. "I could make about $800 or $900 a week, which is good. It helps my mom so much [because she can] pay the bills, pay the rent. This is not my dream job, but it's something that helps my mom out right now."

Trouble With Relationships

"My mom is a home attendant. And she works at that and after that she goes to a nail salon -- she also does pedicures and manicures and eyebrows and stuff like that. So she works about three jobs. She has one case on Saturdays, one case on the weekdays, and then after that she goes to the [salon]. She works three jobs. So, I wouldn't say we're living badly, I don't think we are. I think we're fine. My sister helps as much as she can; everybody helps as much as they can for us. We're not living badly. We're not rich, but we're not poor. I think we're somewhere in the middle," Miriam says.

Miriam admits, however, that being an illegal immigrant can make it difficult to establish personal relationships. Potential partners, for example, might be wary that illegals will seek marriage in an effort to gain U.S. citizenship.

"My brother was in a relationship with a woman who was older than him, and actually had a son, and he told her, 'Let's get married, I don't need your papers, let's get married.' And she said, 'No I'm too scared.' And my mom goes, 'Oh why can't they trust us?' And I'm like, 'Mom, I'm getting my papers, so what if I date somebody who doesn't have papers?' Would you let me marry him?' And she goes, 'No, I'd be scared.' So there you go. It is what it is," Miriam says.

And with expectations high within the conservative Bukharian community for its members to marry young, Miriam says failure to follow the program can lead to intense pressure.

"In American culture, if you're 30 and you're a girl and you're not married that's okay. It's okay. In our culture if you're 30, you're old. 'You don't have kids, what happened?' Your doors are closed," Miriam says.