Mike, 17, believes he was born somewhere in the Southwest.
His earliest memory is about crying into a white stuffed bear that his father kept in a brown paper bag because they were always on the move. Held out of public schools by his father, Mike had no proof of where he spent his childhood, and he had no birth certificate.
Mike doesn't remember his mother. His father, now in prison and considered insane by authorities, is too incoherent to be of assistance.
Immigration officials, unable to verify his background, assumed Mike was born in Mexico, although he speaks nothing but English. In the eyes of the law, they said, this lack of proof made the teen-ager an illegal immigrant.
Mike, whose last name has been ordered withheld by the courts, became a ward of the Orange County courts after his father's arrest four years ago. A diligent caseworker was able to track down a scrap of paper that proved the boy once lived in a remote Arizona town. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, that scrap was enough to make Mike a legal resident.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Southern California children in court custody haven't been so lucky.
"They did not knowingly, or willingly, enter the country illegally," said John Oppenheim, deputy director of social services in Santa Clara County, who recently addressed a congressional committee on the subject. "They did not want to be abused or neglected, and most certainly they do not deserve to grow up without the legal right to remain, prosper and serve in their homeland."
The very law that has made legal residents out of thousands of adult aliens has put these children into a new class of illegal immigrants who are coming of age and who face a lifetime void of legitimate work or stable home life, said Carlos Grado, coordinator of the Orange County foster care program for immigrant children. He estimates there are hundreds of these children in Orange County besides the 40 in court custody.
"These are the kids that fell through the cracks," said Neena Erickson, an Orange County amnesty social worker. "They're real scared. It's very likely they'll be exploited, underpaid and overworked."
The children who fall through the cracks are:
* Those born in other countries after 1982 and brought into the United States.
* Those born before 1982 who have lived in the United States most of their lives but whose families may have returned briefly to another country.
* Those who lack the documentation to prove legal residency.
After the federal law took effect in 1987, Orange County Children's Services sought legal residency status for 74 children placed in the county's care because they had been abused, abandoned, neglected or orphaned. Only about half qualified; the rest will remain in the county's care until they become adults.
In Los Angeles County, there are 285 such children under county care, officials said.
Though Orange County's 50% success rate in gaining legal residency for these children may seem low, the statistic is considered impressive by officials in other California counties. Los Angeles County has since copied Orange County's system for tracing the pasts of these children, a system that amounts to grasping "anything we could find," said Robynn Y. Vowell, who headed the effort for Orange County Children's Services.
The trail included report cards, medical records and statements from neighbors who remembered the child.
"It took some sleuthing," Vowell said. "Sometimes kids couldn't remember what school they went to but they could remember the street. . . ."
Then there are those children whose residency could not be established.
In Orange County, several of them are approaching adulthood and are either soon to graduate or recently graduated from area public high schools, according to county social workers.
They may rely on a growing underground network of community groups and churches that will help them find work. But they are likely only to obtain menial and low-paying jobs, county officials say.
In the meantime, these children are being cared for at county taxpayer expense.
Orange County officials project that the cost of caring for illegal immigrant children in county foster care could climb to $2 million annually over the next few years. The county now cares for about 40 undocumented children at costs ranging from $200 a month to $3,000, depending on the child's needs, officials say.
That does not include the administrative costs of the program. Moreover, while federal child welfare laws require localities to care for such children, the immigration law prevents them from paying for it with federal aid, county officials said.
"I don't think there's a lot of sympathy for these children in Congress," social worker Erickson said.
In any case, it is unlikely these young adults will return to what federal authorities consider their country of origin.