Tell Me More continues its series "In Limbo," which focuses on the complicated experiences of immigrants caught between being in the United States legally and illegally.
Even though Maria Luna's parents are U.S. residents, she is in limbo. That's because her mother drove to Mexico to deliver Maria and leave her there.
"I happened to be born on New Year's Day, and my grandmother who owned a house in Mexicali, Mexico — where I was born — was celebrating with her family. And when she found out what my mother had done, she immediately came to my rescue and brought me over to the United States at just three days old. So she basically saved my life within the first 72 hours of my birth," Luna told Tell Me More host Michel Martin.
Luna grew up on the West Coast in the care of her grandmother, believing all the while that the woman was her mother. It was not until she was 10 years old and her grandmother died that she met her mother, who took her to northern California.
"When I met my mother, I didn't know I was undocumented," said Luna. "I just thought that I had done something wrong, that I had entered a different family, and I wasn't wanted."
She described a life of abuse while living with her mother; and to cope with it, she lost herself in school work. "I dedicated myself to my schooling, and I felt worthy, and my dignity was returned in school, because I was valued based on my merit and my drive."
Luna became a straight-A student. But because she wasn't U.S.-born, she wasn't entitled to all of the things that straight-A students would benefit from, namely financial aid to pursue higher education.
Teachers and friends who were aware of her scholastic strength stepped in to help her. Some even tried to adopt her, but her mother wouldn't allow it. She managed to go to college anyway and graduated last year.
While in school, she became aware of a cause she would advocate for fiercely — a path to citizenship called the Dream (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. It was proposed in 2000 to allow kids like Luna – those brought to the U.S. at a young age – to stay in the United States as long as they went to college or served in the U.S. military. Congress would not pass the legislation however.
Luna even lobbied for the Dream Act in California. Though she's in the country illegally, she feels native to it in heart: "I am as American as any other American can be, minus a weekend. I've lived here all my life. I consider myself a Californian."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we'll have a conversation about one of the most difficult challenges any parent can face, burying a child. We're going to hear from Robert and Pamela Champion. Their son, a respected musician and band leader, died at his university a few weeks ago and authorities suspect hazing was involved.
But first, another intense and emotional issue, this time a political issue. We talk about it often on this program. It's immigration. One reason we talk about it a lot is that it's right in front of us, in the news, in hearings in Congress, in confrontations between people who favor more expansive immigration policies and those who want more restrictions.
But what we don't often see or hear is what it's like to be in that middle space between legal and illegal or to be related to someone who is. We don't often talk about what it's like to be in limbo. That's why this week we've been having a series called In Limbo and today we hear the story of Maria Luna. She's one of the tens of thousands of undocumented young people, some now adults, who were brought to the U.S. at an early age.
Popularly referred to as dreamers, these young people are not allowed to work, get a driver's license, nor - in most states - receive financial aid to pursue higher education. A proposal to change that and get young immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship was introduced a decade ago, but to this point Congress has chosen not to pass it. It's, of course, called the Dream Act.
But that hasn't stopped Maria Luna from dreaming and she's with us now from Sacramento, California. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
MARIA LUNA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You actually have a very dramatic and I have to say unusual story related to your status in that your parents are both actually U.S. residents, but you aren't. So why is it that you were born in Mexico when your parents are both U.S. residents?
LUNA: Yeah. That's a little interesting. My mother was actually a U.S. resident and she lived in the United States. Her family had immigrated and she had a family of her own, but she happened to have an affair and became pregnant with me and even though she carried me in her womb during her pregnancy on U.S. soil and although my first - my heart first took its beat in California, I (unintelligible) the privilege of being born in America. She actually drove down to the Mexican border and delivered me there and abandoned me at birth and she came back to the United States.
So that decision made me...
MARTIN: A Mexican national?
MARTIN: That's a tough story. Forgive me. I'm sorry to make you relive that because that has to be a difficult...
MARTIN: ...thing to have to live with. So how did you figure all that out? I mean, and how did you come to be back in the United States?
LUNA: Yes. Actually, it happened very sudden, right after my birth. Fortunately for me, I happened to be born on New Year's Day and my grandmother, who owned a house in Mexicali, Mexico, where I was born, was there celebrating with her family, and when she found out what my mother had done, she immediately came to my rescue and brought me over to the United States at just three days old. So she basically saved my life within the first 72 hours of my birth.
MARTIN: Why is it that no steps were ever taken to naturalize you or to get you U.S. citizenship?
LUNA: Yes. My grandmother raised me as her own. I grew up believing she was my mother and she raised me in Los Angeles up until the age of 10. At that time she passed away from breast cancer and that's when I met my biological mother, who came to her burial, and from that point on she took me back to northern California and that's where I started living with her. But when I met her, I entered a world full of abuse, of hate and of neglect, and my innocence was lost with her. I suddenly had to become an adult.
MARTIN: Well, she basically - forgive me. This is such a harsh thing to say, but she didn't want you and therefore, she didn't...
LUNA: She didn't want me.
MARTIN: ...really - she didn't take the steps that a loving and supportive parent...
MARTIN: ...would have taken to put you on the path to citizenship to protect you. And so tell me, once you figured that out, that you were not a U.S. citizen, that this person who you thought was your mother was in fact your grandmother - how did that affect your life? What were some of the things that, for example, your peers could do that you couldn't do?
LUNA: When I was younger, when I met my mother, I didn't know I was being abused, but I didn't also know that I was undocumented. I just thought that I had done something wrong, that I had entered a different family and I wasn't wanted. I obviously felt the neglect and I felt, you know, the hate towards me. So I just - you know, as I was being abused, I dedicated myself to my schooling and I felt worthy and my dignity was returned at school because I was valued based on my merit and drive.
So I became very successful in all my classes and my teachers sort of became my parents and they didn't really suspect that I was being abused at home, so I think that's how I kind of managed to deal with that. But when I did enter the 10th grade and I was preparing for college, I learned that I was, in fact, undocumented and even though I didn't know the significance of it, I knew enough that, you know, that it would affect my dreams and going to college.
So at that point, my teachers did try to help me. They tried to adopt me, but my mother refused to let them do anything for me. In fact, she lied and said that I was a U.S. citizen, so pretty much she continued to neglect me and purposefully went out of her way to make sure that no steps were taken in legalizing me or helping me.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the latest in our series of conversations about living in limbo. Our guest is Maria Luna. She is an advocate for the Dream Act.
So what's your status now?
LUNA: I am still undocumented. Hopefully something's going to happen.
MARTIN: Have you been able to go to college? Have you been able to continue your education?
LUNA: Yes. You know, my teachers - we learned about AB 540, a bill that would allow me to pay(ph) tuition in California, and I applied for many scholarships. I actually graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA and I was accepted to the University of UC Davis with a $15,000 scholarship, and having been that I had - was forced to work at a very young age to pay rent, I also had some savings.
However, I was only able to attend the first two years because my mother also stole that tuition money, so I had to transfer to Sacramento State University, but I was able to pay in payments and I graduated last year, May of 2010, with honors, and that's how I was able to get through college.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations on all of that.
LUNA: Thank you.
MARTIN: I mean it's - you're telling this story in such a calm way that it kind of belies just how difficult this had to have been. I mean, there are a lot of people who work their way through school without any of the emotional baggage that you're carrying on your back as well.
LUNA: Thank you.
MARTIN: But Maria, having said all that, there are those who will be hearing our conversation who will say, you know what? I am so sorry that happened to you, but rules are rules and benefits like financial aid and placement in colleges are privileges that should be reserved for people who are here legally.
And to those who feel that way, what would you say?
LUNA: Rules are rules. I understand that. I know, during slavery, the rules were different, also back then. Rules doesn't necessarily make it right and a lot of the people who disagree with people like myself often contradict themselves because they argue a life is born at conception. However, even though I was conceived here and I was just, you know, unfortunately born in a different country, their theory doesn't apply to me.
But for me, I am as American as any other American can be, minus a weekend. I've lived here all of my life. I consider myself a Californian and even, you know, I think of my situation as a temporary problem. I know and I believe in my heart that I will become a legal resident and definitely a U.S. citizen. My education and my dreams - those are permanent.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to go public?
LUNA: Well, you know, there's a saying that, you know, the worst thing to fear is fear itself. And shortly after I graduated I realized that I was left with basically a piece of paper. My diploma meant nothing and to society I was something that, you know, didn't exist. I didn't have a voice. I was insignificant. And I became slightly depressed at that point, but I realized that I had an option either to let this take over me or for me to look at the monster in the eyes and just kind of face it.
So I decided to become active and I decided that I would take a first step and walk into my state capitol in Sacramento and just support the California Dream Act and make myself be public. I understand that it's for a better good and that it's going to, in the long run, benefit millions of students.
We should use this as a strength to empower us, to not only, you know, aspire to be average or to be a normal citizen, but to be great and to give back to our country that we love so much and just show our gratitude for it allowing us to still be here, you know.
MARTIN: Okay. And, finally, very briefly, Maria, I understand that there is a dream that you - a particular dream that you have. Would you like to tell us what it is?
LUNA: Well, it's a dream, but it's also a step to a bigger dream. I see a bigger picture, but I made the Sacramento Fashion Week in February and I'm going to be the first undocumented model to walk that runway. So it's kind of interesting. It's kind of interesting, but you know, out of things that we see as negative, I see a lot of possibility for beautiful things and I welcome all opportunity. As long as I can share the Dream Act and I can share my story, I will definitely become involved in the arts and everything and writing music, whatever it takes.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, I can say, even though this is radio, I have seen pictures and I do believe that you have the basic credentials to be a supermodel, so...
LUNA: Thank you.
MARTIN: I'll just leave it at that and I'll just let imagination take over. Maria Luna is an advocate for the Dream Act and she was kind enough to join us from Sacramento, California. Maria, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LUNA: Thank you for having me. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.