For most of his childhood in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Hector Susano saw his father for only six months of the year. The rest of the time, his father was growing vegetables on a ranch in western Colorado.
The family had been granted temporary residency thanks to the amnesty program of 1986. And in the year 2000, at the age of 17, Hector accompanied his father to the United States to work and to save money to go to college in Mexico.
Once in Denver, Hector worked seven days a week selling fruit and then in construction, always with the hope of returning to Mexico as his father had done. But in 2001, his entire family moved to Colorado, and Hector and his older brother, Isidro, decided to give up the manual labor and find a way to go to college here in Denver.
"My brother told me, 'Look how (our family) made money, and now they're paying with pain in their knees, with their health,'" Susano said. "My brother was the one who pushed me to trade in my tools for books."
He is now 28 and a student counselor on the Auraria campus, and his brother is studying medicine and working at the Anschutz Medical Center. The two young men represent the new face of Mexicans in the United States, dedicated young people determined to create a future for themselves in this country through education.
There are about 8 million Latinos between the ages of 16 and 25 in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of those, 68 percent are of Mexican descent. In contrast to their parents, these young people grew up in the American culture and carry with them the values of self-improvement and equality, said Dr. Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., a history professor at the University of Houston in Texas.
"These young people have accepted and believe in the American Dream, the idea that in this country the possibilities of advancing are significant and what you need to do is to take advantage of them. Those ideals have been ingrained in these kids," he said.
This creates a huge barrier for those students who don't have documents. For them, the doors begin to close when they get to high school, which is when many of them discover that society considers them "illegal," said San Miguel.
With a population of 31.8 million, Mexicans are the largest segment in a growing population of 50.4 million Latinos in the United States. Because the rest of the U.S. population is aging rapidly, the economic well-being of the entire country is linked to the future of these young Mexicanos, San Miguel said.
"If these kids don't get the opportunity to advance, what we'll be doing is developing a two-tiered society where you will have the wealthy and an increasing population that is poor. The result of that will be a declining economy and likely increased social tension," he said. "Without documentation, they will be working in the underground economy, and those jobs don't provide tax resources for the state."
This week, Colorado's Mexican community will celebrate Mexican Independence Day with festivities around the state. For this population, which numbers 758,000 according to the U.S. Census, the uncertain future of its youth without documents is worrisome, said the Consul of Mexico in Denver Andres Chao.
"We are closing the doors to people who are honest and hardworking. All they are trying to do is to find a possibility for advancement," Chao said. "We cannot forget that they are the least guilty. It is an incongruity that they don't give them the opportunity to continue to study to be part of the economy and the workforce of this country."
Such is the case for 17-year-old Javier, who asked that his last name not be used. Five years ago he crossed the border illegally from Mexico with his mother and his brother to be with their father, who had been working in Colorado for years, Javier said.
They settled in Summit County, where Javier took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. He's student council president at his school, an excellent student and an active member of the community. But now that he's in the process of applying for college, his options are limited.
"We have the abilities of anyone, papers or not," he said. "It wasn't my decision to come here. Why do we have to pay for someone else's decision when we have the potential to contribute to this country? I am an American. In our case, just a paper defines who you are and who you can be."
Javier is one of nearly 65,000 undocumented students that graduate each year from U.S. high schools, according to the Immigration Policy Center. They are among a group called "Dreamers" in reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act that would offer them a path to normalize their immigration status.
The Dreamers have started an active movement in the United States, marching through city streets and lobbying lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to change immigration laws. Their efforts have prompted some to wonder where this population came from.
The answer lies in part in immigration laws that have changed dramatically in the past few decades. In fact, according to the Pew Center, unlike the beginning of the 20th century when many more Mexicans crossed back and forth across the U.S. border easily and often, fewer immigrants today cross the border and fewer return once they do. And those immigrants who have made the decision to stay have integrated in far greater numbers to American society.
About 400,000 Mexicans crossed the border into the United States in 2010, Pew said. That compares with 1 million just four years earlier.
The decline in immigration is attributable to several factors, according to the Immigration Policy Center: A drop in employ-ment opportunities as a result of a weaker economy in the U.S., a greater effort to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, the dangers of crossing the border illegally and more opportunities to work in Mexico.
For those who already live here, the drug violence that has taken more than 40,000 lives in that country since 2006 has discouraged many from returnimg to Mexico.
The tendency to migrate to the United States to stay began in the '60s, when this country's immigration laws put more emphasis on keeping families together, said San Miguel.
Before then, employers in agriculture and manufacturing attracted single, male immigrants, he said. They soon realized that they had a more stable workforce when workers had their families nearby. For this reason, employers began to push for the immigration of families.
The demand for cheap labor in American businesses attracted thousands of Mexicans with and without papers. Many came with their young children in search of a more stable life. Their children grew up and formed a new generation of Mexican-Americans that in many cases didn't have the emotional connection to Mexico that their parents had, said San Miguel.
Of the 31.8 million Mexicans in the United States, 17.5 million or 55 percent could be in the country without documents, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
For those young people who don't have documents, the options are limited: work for minimum wage, attend a low-cost community college, obtain private funding to pay for university, or return to their country of origin and adapt to a new culture. The last option may not be appealing for the many young people who have American siblings.
And once even the youngest of people is in this country illegally, it is just about impossible to change their immigration status. To get a green card generally requires a return to the home country, according to immigration attorney Kelly Ryan. In some cases, this return initiates the so-called "10-year ban" that prohibits anyone who has been in the U.S. without authorization for more than one year to return to the country for a decade.
Many, like Javier, don't have anywhere to return to because their entire family now lives in Colorado.
That's why so much effort is being placed on the approval of the DREAM Act. The initiative would offer a path to legal residency to thousands of undocumented students who have graduated from American high schools.
The legislation would allow these young people to adjust their status to conditional lawful permanent residency, to continue their studies, to work or to enter military service. Colorado ranks among the top 10 states as far as candidates for the program, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
In December 2010, the proposal was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 216-198 but rejected in the Senate by five votes.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who has fought for the DREAM Act in the House, said it is difficult for him to see how many people don't understand the situation of these young students, who can't work legally or even get a driver's license.
"These are de facto Americans, and we the taxpayers have invested in their education here. I don't see how we expect them to live their lives and contribute to the United States without some kind of DREAM Act," Polis said.
He added that at this moment there are still not enough votes in the Senate to introduce the legislation again. For now, the only thing keeping some of these students from being deported is the recent administration's decision not to target undocumented students and other low-priority immigration offenders.
These changes don't pacify Irasema Medorio, a 15-year-old Denver Public Schools' student who fears that at any moment her parents could be picked up and deported to Mexico.
Irasema and her younger sisters came from Veracruz when she was 8 years old. While their parents work in construction and clean both night and day, the girls go to school so they will have better options.
"If we go back, I won't be able to go to college. I will have to learn Spanish and work in anything I can find. I am worried about the violence there. Here there are no wars among cartels like they have there," she said. "I want to be a teacher to help not only children here but also in Mexico."
Writer and journalist Helen Thorpe, author of the book "Just Like Us," about four young Mexican girls who encounter various hurdles based on their immigration status as they strive for a higher education, said that many girls like Irasema live by the labels society has imposed on them, labels that marginalize them.
"There is so much stigma attached to (being in the country illegally), and these young people who did not create this situation but inherited it have to deal with that stigma all the time," said Thorpe. "They are always wondering who they can trust with this piece of information and whether it is OK to talk about it or not. I think it is an immense burden that they carry."
Many Mexicanos like Susano are trying to help students like Irasema and Javier. In his work at the Education Opportunity Center, he helps first-generation college students with the application process and in finding scholarships. He often winds up as a mentor and an example to follow, he said.
"A DREAM Act is necessary because what is going to happen if these young people don't have opportunities to advance? Where are they going to work? What are they going to do with their lives?
They may end up on the streets," he said. "They know that if they go back they may not be accepted, so they are living in limbo, and that is no way to live."