NPR : Tell Me More

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Stiff Immigration Laws, No Bar To Big Dreams

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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."

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