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September 1, 2006

Has America Become Immigrant Nation?

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"I paid for my mother's surgery and my sister's college education by working in America."

TERESA, 25, FROM MEXICO

I didn't know what the word "poverty" meant when I was a little girl--or that it described my life. I grew up in a village on the edge of Mexico City in a house without a toilet or a telephone. I remember making mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch because there was nothing else to eat. Every year, my four siblings and I alternated whose turn it was to get a new pair of shoes. If we wanted to go to school, we had to bring along concrete blocks to sit and write on, because there were no chairs or desks. When it rained, school was canceled because the building was made of tin, and it leaked. When I asked my parents for a notebook and pencils for my classes, they said we didn't have the money. My younger brothers and sisters complained, but I was the oldest, and I understood. At age 7, I got a job working as a maid in the city during my school vacations. The wealthy señoras paid me a dollar a day to wash dishes, mop floors, and do laundry. I was proud to help my family. I gave some of my wages to my mom; the rest I used to buy candy for my brothers and sisters. Eventually I dropped out of school, even though I loved it. I know I could have succeeded, but no money for textbooks meant I failed most of my classes. Then, at age 19, I got word from my childhood friend Carlos: He was in New York City, earning $200 a week. I said to him, "Wow, you're a millionaire!" He said he'd send for me. The day I left, my parents hugged me and said, "May it go well with you," and that was it. I didn't cry until I was on the bus, so they wouldn't see me. I thought, It's better to go to America with a smile than to bring your tears. That was more than five years ago, and I haven't seen my family since. I've been working at a factory ironing sweaters--$1 for every 12 sweaters. I make around $200 a week and live in an apartment with three other immigrants. Not long ago, my mom needed an operation, and my family begged me to come home. They told me that it might be the last time I would see her, but I refused to cross back into Mexico. I knew I could help her more if I stayed here, so I kept working and paid for her surgery. She survived. Now, thanks to the money I send home, one of my sisters is in college and my other siblings are in school, too. I miss them, but if I weren't in the U.S., they could never afford such education. I know people say we shouldn't be here, but we pay taxes. They say we're taking work from those who are born here, but the work I do, others don't want. I think about going back, but I can't. My family needs me here.


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