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The secret of Paola Ramirez-Pena

VIDEO: The secret of Paola Ramirez-Pena

North High's senior class president, Paola Ramirez-Pena, worries that her mother may not make it to her graduation.
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North High's senior class president, Paola Ramirez-Pena, worries that her mother may not make it to her graduation.

Paola Ramirez-Pena, 17, is in two Advanced Placement classes this year. Her junior year she was in five. She is senior class president, is a member of two leadership clubs and sings in the choir.

She was North High School’s sole ambassador at Riverfest and is one of three students to represent her school on the Mayor’s Youth Council, a leadership body for the top student leaders in the city.

In November she was one of four student leaders chosen to travel to Nashville, Tenn., for the National League of Cities convention, where she had her picture taken with Vice President Joe Biden.

In the fall she visited the University of Kansas, where she’s planning to accept a scholarship.

But she has a secret that, until recently, she had not told her friends.

Although her family has lived in the U.S. for two decades and she was born here, Paola’s parents don’t have permission to be in the country.

“You’re trying to live a normal life because you don’t want to let people know that there is something different about your family,” Paola said. “But I mean, there is.”

That means that when she buckles the seat belt in her mom’s minivan, she’s always a little afraid.

When she was 9, she and her dad were pulled over for speeding on the way to the movies. Three police cars showed up, searched the car and arrested him. At the time she believed it was because she didn’t have her seat belt on. She thought her dad would be deported and didn’t want to ask the police to take her home because she was afraid they would take her mom too.

“I (had) nowhere to run to because the one is just as much of a target as the other,” Paola said.

Her parents’ status is in the back of her mind every time she invites a friend to the house. It pops up during class discussions. She thinks about it before vacation trips and changes stories she tells when she gets back. Her parents’ status has influenced what she wants to study in college and the career she imagines when she grows up.

Immigrants like her parents are such a controversial topic that there isn’t even a consensus on how to refer to them: illegal aliens, illegal immigrants, undocumented immigrants or a handful of other terms.

Earlier this year Paola’s mom, Gisela Pena, began doing something many immigrants here without permission are afraid to do: speak up. She helped bring immigration lawyers to Wichita and started a radio show about issues that affect immigrants.

One recent day at her mom’s shop, Paola said she was scared that all this new activity could mean that her mom could be torn away from her before graduation.

“Everything that I worked for has come to this point until now,” Paola said, wiping away tears that smudged the black paint she’d put under her eyes for spirit week at school. “And every morning she’s dropped me off, and every breakfast she has ever made me, and every field trip she has ever helped chaperone, every permission slip she’s ever signed, she won’t be able to see the end of it.”

SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

The country was just 4 percent Hispanic in 1970. Now it is 17 percent and is expected to be 27 percent by 2050. Hispanics already make up the largest bloc of students in Wichita’s schools. By 2020 public schools in the U.S. are expected to be filled with more minorities than whites, and more than half of those minorities will be Hispanic.

Although the vast majority of Hispanics are citizens or legal residents, 7 percent of students, most of whom are Hispanic, have at least one parent who is not, according to a 2015 study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Whatever course the country chooses for immigrants without legal status will shape not only their lives but the lives of millions of American children for years to come. President Obama tried to give 5 million of the parents temporary status in 2014, but his actions were overturned in court.

The Supreme Court decided in January to take the case and is expected to rule in June. If it rules in Obama’s favor, Paola’s two younger sisters could go through school without fear of what might happen to their parents.

AMIGAS DE WICHITA

When Pena, Paola’s mother, created the Facebook group Amigas de Wichita, she wasn’t thinking about how it could get her into trouble.

She started the all-female group as a social club. They would meet to sell wares and socialize over dinners.

Pena’s friends call her “China,” which means “curly hair.” Not yet 40, she has facial piercings and proudly displays several posters of the punk band the Ramones in her basement, while the upstairs is devoted to more traditional Mexican art.

Pena moved from California to Wichita four years ago and describes herself as a business woman and a go-getter who had to rely on her brother, who is a citizen, to finance three homes and two small businesses. Her brother was granted status when Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Pena organized parties for traditional Mexican holidays, like Dia de los Ninos (like Mother’s Day but for children), and 50 people showed up. For the next event it was closer to 100. The group grew to more than 500 women.

Paola was already concerned about her mother, because as an owner of two businesses, Pena works with the public every day. The more attention Pena drew to herself, Paola worried, the greater the chance she might come home one day and her mother would be gone.

LAWS AGAINST FAMILIES

Immigration judges are supposed to consider the impact on the family before deportation, but it’s left up to the discretion of a judge, according to several immigration lawyers in Kansas.

“Laws are often designed to apply to individuals, but their effects ripple through households, families, and communities, with measurable long-term negative impacts on children who are lawful U.S. citizens,” states a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report prepared by a panel of 15 immigration experts, including Cecelia Menjivar, a sociology professor charged with starting an immigration center at Kansas University.

“Every six months, you have almost 50,000 mothers and fathers of U.S.-born children deported,” Menjivar said. “Those parents are going to want to come back to see their children, and they have no way of applying for a visa to come back.”

Nationally, fewer immigrants, even among those who are eligible, are seeking citizenship than in the past, according to the study, and one likely reason is the country’s mishmash of immigration laws and regulations.

“Some states and localities provide in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, some provide driver’s licenses, and some are declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities,” the report reads. “In other localities there are restrictive laws, such as prohibitions on renting housing to undocumented immigrants or aggressive local enforcement of federal immigration laws.”

North High's senior class president, Paola Ramirez-Pena, worries that her mother may not make it to her graduation.

SOCIAL STUDIES

When Paola heard a student in AP Government recently say that he didn’t think his family should have to pay for the education of illegal aliens, it caught her by surprise.

Everyone in the class looked to Paola to respond. Not because of her legal status – she is a citizen – but because she is that girl in her school who will dependably speak up whenever she hears something crass or controversial.

Comments like these still caught her by surprise: To at least a few of her classmates she was just another “anchor baby,” she said, a term used to describe children whose parents try to use their children’s status to help secure legal status. Her classmate was implicitly telling her that he didn’t think she deserved to be here, she said, and that her parents should be deported.

But that day Paola didn’t have to speak up. A few of her classmates spoke up first. Illegal immigrants are necessary for the economy, they said, to clean our houses, cook our food and take care of our yards. The whole economy would collapse without them and we would lose our jobs, her classmates said. Paola rolled her eyes when retelling it.

These are the same well-intentioned friends, Paola said, who think they are complimenting her when they tell her that because she doesn’t speak with an accent, she doesn’t sound Mexican. Even most of her classmates didn’t understand how much it stung to hear the word “illegal” rather than “undocumented.” She believes “illegal” connotes crime and lawlessness, even though most first-generation immigrants get into trouble with the law less frequently than U.S.-born citizens, according to the Center for Migration Studies.

When Paola eventually responded in class, she was careful to say “they” and not “we.” She has learned how to talk in the code of a child whose parents are undocumented. When Paola was little, she would say her mom wasn’t free to chaperone school trips that required a driver’s license. When Paola returned from Mexico in the fall, she blew off people who asked how her mom enjoyed the trip.

“People ask me, ‘How was Mexico? How did your mom feel going back and seeing her family?’ ” Paola said. “You can’t really trust anybody, you can’t let them in.”

Paola’s parents never told her not to talk about their status; she said she was smart enough to know on her own. When she visited the houses of her Hispanic friends, she wondered about their parents, too, but knew not to ask. And in turn she never told.

GENERATIONAL DIVIDE

Pena’s rise to owning two houses and two businesses wasn’t easy.

When she first arrived in Los Angeles at age 19, she didn’t know how to use a washing machine. She lived in a living room with two other couples, and her first car, she said, was confiscated by the police.

After she moved to Oakland, Calif., two years later, she supplemented her work in a restaurant and car shop with a flea market booth on the weekends.

She felt fortunate to be in the U.S. when Paola became sick soon after her birth, but she said she’s often had to pay off hospital bills over several years because she doesn’t have insurance.

She moved to Wichita because, she said, the cost of the American dream here is within reach. She’s had to find creative ways to save for her houses and businesses, because she can’t take out loans from a bank.

On Nov. 2, Pena joined another local immigration activist for the first episode of a weekly radio show on La Raza, one of the two Spanish-language stations in Wichita. The show would be largely about concerns that affected all Latina women, such as how to get help with diabetes. But they could soon speak out against local politicians, and as the show was about to air, Paola feared retribution.

Everything her mom had done to organize immigrants who are here illegally was reckless, Paola thought at the time. Still she was proud of her.

“(My mom) doesn’t have the right to be doing these, according to how (the law) defines it, but she’s doing it anyways because she thinks it’s right,” Paola said recently at the family shop.

“It makes her more courageous than I would be in this situation,” Paola said. “Being the daughter of an activist, I guess in a sense you kind of want to be selfish. I know this is the right thing, and you’re doing right by other people,” she told her mom, crying. “But what about us, what about your family?”

“I have friends with undocumented parents,” Paola said. “OK, this is what my mom is fighting for, but it’s like, why can’t your mom do it?”

A RECKONING

Finally, in December, Pena talked to immigration lawyers to figure out if appearing in the media could get her into trouble. Paola translated a couple of phrases her mom had trouble understanding and, huddling over a phone in their dining room, grilled the lawyer.

Pena was probably not a great risk for being deported, the lawyer said. She had lived in the country for two decades, had three U.S. children and did not have a criminal history.

The only thing that made her a potential target was her two businesses. The businesses themselves were legal, because she paid her taxes, but immigration agents could still ask about her workers.

As Pena started to process what she’d heard, she started to tear up. She pays her taxes with a legal ID that the government gives to people without a Social Security number. The government already knows she has a business, she said, and it doesn’t seem fair that she is still a target.

It was still unlikely that anyone would come after Pena, the lawyer said, since she wasn’t harboring any workers in her house.

Pena said that when she moved to the U.S., she didn’t think about what coming into the country would mean for her future children. “So now (Paola) is almost adult and this is the first time … we talk in serious about this part of the life, this part of their history.”

At the end of the call, the lawyer said it was possible the Supreme Court could rule in favor of President’s Obama’s immigration action, Deferred Action for the Parents of Americans, in 2016. Because Pena has three American children, she would likely qualify.

Paola talked to her mom in more detail about what to do if her parents were deported. She probably wouldn’t be able to go to Lawrence for college. She would have to keep an eye on the family business.

“I’d have to stop with my dreams, I guess,” Paola said.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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