What it's like to be a teen in L.A. with a parent in the U.S. illegally

It was hard not to eavesdrop in the tiny Pico-Union studio where Maria Garcia grew up.

She was around 9 when her father came home one day from his low-wage job as a garment worker and told her mother about the immigration raid at his downtown L.A. factory. She could hear their relief that her father hadn’t been found.

She began to comprehend then that her parents were in constant danger. But it took her a few more years to understand why.

When Garcia was in sixth grade, she went home and asked her mother what her classmates meant when they talked about la migra taking away parents without papers. Couldn’t they just go buy some paper from the store?

“I remember her … pulling out my birth certificate and being like, ‘This is what a paper is,’” said Garcia, now 18. It allows you to go to a doctor, her mother told her, and walk around without being afraid of being pulled away from your family.

“For her … ICE wasn’t just a thing, it was like a feeling,” Garcia said of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It was a feeling of having so much impotence.”

Garcia, who is now a high school senior, is one of many thousands of teenagers who were born in the U.S. to parents who are in the country illegally. A 2013 USC analysis found that about 16% of children in Los Angeles County were U.S. citizens with at least one parent without legal status. In 1999, Garcia was one of about 215,000 children born in the U.S. to immigrants in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Center.

These children now are feeling more anxiety than ever about the fate of their parents. And many teenagers are trying to take on the adult responsibilities of protecting their loved ones and friends from deportation.

During the presidential campaign, when Donald Trump appeared on TV calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, Garcia’s parents laughed, sure that he was going to lose. They would joke then about being taken away, and about how she’d have to take care of her younger siblings. It was never serious— until he won and news began to break about immigration raids in L.A.

When Trump took office, Garcia was two months from her 18th birthday. She began counting down the days. If she had to, she wanted to be an adult to take custody of her 15-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister.

She’s never traveled beyond Santa Barbara, and she thought about college in San Francisco. But now that’s not in the cards.

“I just feel like I should just stay in L.A.,” Garcia said. “How would I get back fast enough to be able to get my brother and my sister? And where would I take them?”

Like many teens in her situation, Garcia deals with the helplessness of not having the power to protect her own parents by advocating for the young people around her. At school, she started what she calls a sanctuary organization, where anyone can feel safe to share a story, ask questions about college applications and financial aid, or talk about something more personal.

“If you’re living in fear … we’re here for you and we hear you, because we are also living in fear,” Garcia told her classmates at a Thanksgiving potluck a couple of weeks after Trump’s election. “Turn that fear into something productive and something to show others that we’re not going to be taken down easily.”

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