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The Invisibles

The students in UCLA's undocumented immigrant club struggle for an education others take for granted, getting by without financial aid, traditional IDs, even a place to live. They're smart and determined. But do they have a future here?

April 23, 2006|Douglas McGray | Douglas McGray is a contributing writer for West and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

"I'll be there in five minutes," Thi says.

If you spend any time around college students, you expect this kind of phone call--and you know it really means 15 minutes, maybe 20. But sure enough, five minutes later, I spot Thi hustling up the sidewalk from UCLA's main library, a stuffed messenger bag swinging at her side. She is wearing dark, low-cut jeans, retro sneakers and a trim, arty T-shirt with big aviators hanging from the collar. "Hey," she says, a little out of breath. She is pretty and record-store cool, with heavy black hair that falls across her eyes.

Thi is a senior now, which means she spends a lot of time hustling across campus. She has to decide on a subject for her documentary film class, finish a deep stack of books, find time for clubs and volunteer work, make some headway on her thesis (examining the concept album as a narrative form) and figure out what to do with her life once she graduates. Maybe a PhD in English? Or in education? An involuntary wince says it all: Can't we talk about something else? Just thinking about the question stresses her out, typical for a UCLA senior on a warm fall afternoon.

But Thi is not a typical college senior. Only a few students on campus see the kind of uncertainty she does when they look ahead to graduation. These students--Thi, Martha and about two dozen other confidants in an unlikely campus club--share a secret. It is the kind of secret that has roiled Congress this session, that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters to march on downtown Los Angeles and across the country, and that pokes at a fundamental question: What does it mean to be American?

Thi's secret is older than she is, and for most of her life, she barely understood it. It took her nearly 20 years to figure out what was set in motion the night her father took off his glasses so he could pass as a poor farmer, and shuffled, squinting, to the bank of the Saigon River in Vietnam. There he met a fisherman, who helped him into a damp, dark space hidden beneath the floor of his tiny boat. As he lay on his back, squeezed between two other men, the fisherman set out for a bigger boat, bound for international waters. Thi's father still has no idea where that boat was meant to take him. Getting out was good enough. And out was as far as the ship got. After a week of violent winds and nauseating swells stranded them at sea, a huge German navy vessel appeared, and its crew helped Thi's father and the other refugees aboard.

Thi was born on a snowy day three years later in a small town outside Stuttgart. Her father, who had refugee papers, worked in a factory, and her mother had followed him from Vietnam. Now, all of a sudden, they were a family, with a curious new member: a German daughter. Her parents spoke to her in Vietnamese, but she giggled in German with her friends--Katrina and Monika and the twins across the street. She thought in German, even dreamed in German. By the time she was old enough for kindergarten, with a little brother to baby and boss around, the Vietnamese her parents spoke was a foreign language.

Thi was a few weeks into first grade when she heard her parents fighting in the other room. They seemed to be arguing about a trip. A few days later, it all made sense. "We're going on vacation," Thi's mother said. "Tell your teacher you'll miss some class." She doesn't remember touching down in Los Angeles. She doesn't remember the airport, or what she thought of the palm trees, or how they got to her aunt's home in Orange County. She doesn't remember celebrating her seventh birthday just a few days after they arrived. She does remember getting dropped off at a school where nobody spoke German, and beginning to think that this was a strange vacation.

But she took to her new surroundings quickly. In second grade, her teachers switched her from ESL classes to the gifted program. By the time she entered junior high, she had lost her accent and forgotten all her German. (When I ask Thi if she remembers her address in Stuttgart, she says "something-strasse?" badly mispronouncing the German word for street.)

Her parents tried to enroll her in Vietnamese language classes at a local Buddhist temple. "They tried at least five different times," Thi says with a laugh. "They finally gave up when I was in high school." Instead, she studied the violin, played trumpet in her high school band and, later, picked up classical guitar. She played soccer and field hockey and ran track. She took all honors classes and got As and more As. She went through a black sweatshirt phase during her sophomore year when she slouched and sulked and worried her parents, but by summer vacation she was done with that and on to other things. She discovered "Catcher in the Rye" and surrounded herself with literature--Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell. She landed an internship at the local police station, where they liked her so much that they hired her to work after school.

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