America’s poorest perimeter town: no immigration papers , no American Dream


In his third dispatch from the USs most deprived communities, Chris McGreal visits Colonia Muniz in Texas, where the right documents can construct discrepancies between surviving and prospering

Seven miles east of McAllens palm-studded city streets, the interstate off ramp slides past the sprawling branch of a popular Texas supermarket HEB( Here Everythings Better) and a drive-in bank. Swaying under the road and heading north on Alamo Road, the shopping center and auto showrooms recede at the first tracings of the colonias the ramshackle but largely unseen towns that are home to hundreds of thousands of Latinos across the Rio Grande valley of southern Texas.

A mechanics sign proclaims credit no problem. Vibrant green fields of coriander or cilantro , a staple of Mexican cooking, accentuate the dilapidation of the road. A small square building with a corrugated iron awning marks the corner with East Trenton Street. A wooden, hand-painted sign is nailed to one of its walls: Trentons Second Hand Store. Doors, sinks, windows and mosquito screens are propped in a jumble on the grass in front. Purchasers stop by to pick up the portions for colonia houses, constructed piecemeal as their owners find the money.


East Trenton Street leads to only one place, Colonia MuA +- iz, the poorest Latino community in the country and among the lowest-income towns in the US. It is home to a little more than 1,100 people who live on a rectangle grid of six streets surrounded by fields. None of the houses are large. Some are simple wooden structures; others were induced with cement. The limits of their territory are marked out by chain-link fencings, except for a handful plainly owned by more prosperous households, which include one property with Roman-style columns guarding the front door and a decorative wall around the garden.

It is in Colonia MuA +- iz that Theresa Azuara, 64, landed 22 years ago after dragging her seven young children from Mexico and across the Rio Grande river, 15 miles to the south. Among them was Maria, who induced the journey at just seven years old and still recalls it with horror. It was very bad intersecting the river. It was raining. I was telling I dont want to go, Mom. The mud was up to my chest. Big mosquitoes. I was really scared. I was crying I dont want to walk, Mom. And so she carried me, told Maria , now 29.

The family settled into the colonia that became a haven and a trap. The US has been good to me, told Azuara. It has been good for my children. It has not been as good as if we were American, but better for them than Mexico. Thats why I went. For my children. We are poor, but it is better to be poor here than in Mexico. But it is not better to be Mexican here.

Colonia MuA +- iz is the third stop for a series of Guardian dispatches about the lives of people trying to make a life in places that seem the most remote from the American Dream. According to one measure, the US Census Bureaus American community survey 2008 -2 012 of communities of more than 1,000 people the latest statistics available at the time of reporting the median household income was only $11,711 a year, putting it among the four lowest income towns in the country, and has since dropped to $11,111. Nationally it was $53,915 in 2012.

In Colonia MuA +- iz, more than 60% of households fall below the poverty line, including all of those headed by single mothers with children at home. About a third of the workforce is unemployed, although even for those with tasks their work is often seasonal and fails to provide a steady income.

The town is in Hidalgo County which, according to Texas official statistics, has a poverty rate six times the nation average. Hidalgo also has a high number of children living without health insurance and failing to complete a high-school education. The town is not very different from the hundreds of other colonias where about one in four of the 1.3 million residents of the Rio Grande valley live in what one civic rights group described as third-world conditions. But it is distinguished from Americas other lowest income communities by a good proportion of its residents absence the legal right to live in the US.

income map

This lack of newspapers has left one generation after another unable to take a shot at that American Dream, because it is almost impossible for those without legal residency to find anything but low-paid and insecure work. That was until Barack Obama changed the future for Azuaras children in an instant three years ago, with a presidential order that is transforming lives throughout the colonias .

The colonias

The colonias the name derives from the Mexican Spanish for the residential area of a town are a creation of mid-2 0th century developers who bought up inexpensive land of little use for agriculture, sometimes because it was sitting on a flood plain, and carved out plots for housing. The great bulk are in Texas where more than 2,000 colonias , home to about 400,000 people, are stretched along the states 1,200 -mile border with Mexico. Nearly half of those are to be found in Hidalgo County. But the scale of local populations has not avoided their marginalisation to the point of near invisibility.

Because few in authority wanted persons responsible for colonias populated largely by poor Latinos, many without the right to vote, they largely ran unregulated. The Texas state government took little interest as the plots were sold off without access to clean water or energy, with no paved roads or sewerage systems. Largely they were sold to Mexican migrants running as harvest pickers. The purchasers were in no position to complain. Too poor to be of interest to the banks, their only sources of financing were the developers themselves. Lenders operated a system of selling land and sometimes rudimentary housing at interest rates of up to 25%, but with a twist. The purchasers had no title to the property until years later, when all payments had been induced. If they missed a payment they could, and often did, lose everything: the land, the house and the money already paid.

Theresa and Emillio Azuara outside their home in Colonia MuA +- iz where Theresa arrived with her young children 22 years ago. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

That practice has been proscribed in recent years but large numbers of colonia residents still live with the legacy of exploitation. For some the only source of drinking water is to buy it by the drum or pail. Half of all homes do not have clean water from a tap or connection to the sewage service. Even where sewage systems exist, the local authorities often refuse to hook up homes that do not gratify building criteria because the owners are too poor to construct the necessary improvements. Texas health department figures show that the colonias have a higher rate of illness such as hepatitis A, dysentery and cholera. Tuberculosis is twice as common along the border as was the case in the nation as a whole.

Theresa Azuara, a short woman with thick dark hair and a perpetual smile, was born in Veracruz, a port city on Mexicos east coast. When she came to the US she left behind her eldest daughter, who was already married, and three children she had interred after their deaths in infancy. Azuara was keen to underline that their own families had survived entirely through their own labour. As undocumented immigrants or illegals, as “they il be” derisively called by many of the individuals who advocate mass expulsion, they do not is eligible for the benefits available to US citizens and legal residents in low-income families.

She has neighbours who claim food stamps and housing grants but there are others in the street who share her struggle. A good number of families in the colonias are a mix of undocumented and legal residents or citizens. Sometimes the divide is across a matrimony or between parents who came from Mexico and their children born in the US( giving them automatic citizenship ), meaning at least one person in the household qualifies for benefits. But Azuara has had nothing from the nation. She has worked at two of the few tasks she can get without newspapers, although both are dependent on demand. About half of the year has been spent in the fields picking harvests. Once the latter are old enough to work, her children joined her.

I started working in the fields when I was 12 years old, told Maria Azuara. Its hard. A lot of clay. You get really tired. You start early. You wake up early. You work at night. Its the ugliest undertaking you could ever have and my mama has 20 years working in the area.

When there is no picking to be done, Theresa does piece work in a laundry. Shes paid$ 3 for folding 100 stacks of clothes. Most days she works from 7am to 4pm, bringing home a bit more than $200 a week, with her husband, Emilio, if theyre both running. But the previous few weeks had been lean and she had earned $60 on average doing a little bit of cutting in the fields.

Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

There is no public transport to the colonia and for years Theresa had no car so she trekked to work. Here we have the freedom to stroll, she told with a deride giggle. Now her daughter has a auto. But Texas does not issue driving licences to undocumented immigrants. God is my licence. My insurance too, Theresa said.

Theresa, who does not speak English, tries to picking her employers with care after being ripped off by a few who refused to pay for her work since they are calculated she would not go to the authorities for fear of being deported. Over in McAllen two years ago, some humen took us to a field to cut papaya. But they used us. They took advantage. They didnt dedicate us fund for petrol. They didnt pay us for the work. Nothing. It was two weeks work, she told. She said she accepted exploitation as part of the price of being in the US illegally until she started to attend meetings of La Union del Pueblo Entero( Lupe ), a group founded by CA( c) sar ChA! vez, the renowned farmer, employee, organiser and cofounder of the United Farm Workers of America union.

Juanita Valdez-Cox established Lupe in the Rio Grande valley, a short drive from Colonia MuA +- iz, and is its executive director. She said the organisation ensure a steady stream of people exploited by unscrupulous employers. There are cases and cases of people, undocumented mainly, who are not paid for their work. Its not just farm worker. We get restaurant employees. We get hotel employees. A lot of the cleaning in the hotels is done by undocumented[ people ]. A lot of the cooks and dishwashers in restaurants. A lot of building hires undocumented. The roofers and cabinet makers, she told. So many times they can work up to a month and the owners of the construction business then just refuse to pay them. We had one against a church which didnt pay construction workers. They didnt get paid by the priest.

Workers are frequently the target of immigration patrols while picking harvests. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Working in the fields carries other perils. Theresa Azuara is ever alert to the sound of the border patrols approach. I get so scared my blood pressure goes up and down. When I see immigration coming to the fields I freeze and pray they wont come near me, she told. They ask me, do you have newspapers? I would say , no, and they would say, get on the truck. The last time was 2011. December. They dropped me off over the border at 11 am. I was back in the US by 3am[ the next day ].

She was not always deported. Sometimes border patrol policemen applied their own criteria. Three or four times I was able to save myself because I told them I work hard and Im not a criminal. Six or seven years ago, immigration stopped and asked me, what do you ask the government to give you? I told , nothing. I dont construct the government gives people anything. No food stamps , no cheques , nothing. I told I get my fund with sweat. He didnt take me, she told. The Anglo policemen are sometimes more considerate. The Mexicans born here are more strict. I think its since they are consider us an embarrassment.

Theresa has been deported 10 times and has always induced it back to the US within days and sometimes hours. This ritual is not without its complications, including the loss of work. When we got home from school there would be a little note on the door, told Maria. The perimeter patrol took your parents. Go inside. Dont come out. Theresa smiled and told: I have very good neighbours. They would tell the children that they took your mother to Mexico and now well take care of you guys. And they did. Maria did not smile. It was scary. You go to school thinking maybe your parents wont be there when you come home and maybe they wont come back, she said.

Living in poverty

Proyecto Azteca, a housing organisation founded by the United Farm Workers of America union and rights groups, describes colonias as having third-world conditions. Every community in the United States has pockets of poverty. When you look at the colonia community its different from the rest of the US because there are so many people, said its director, Ann Cass.

We dont have public transportation. We do not have a[ state-subsidised] public hospital. The closest hospital we had was up in Galveston, but they shut their doors after hurricane Ike. In the 1980 s we pushed to have the district and the nation help us with infrastructure because most all of the colonias were not on the grid; they didnt have potable water; they had outhouses for the most portion; the street werent paved. Kids couldnt go to school if it rained because the bus wouldnt go down the roads.

Things began to shift two decades ago after the Texas state legislature dedicated funds to upgrading the colonias , but involved any new development to provide infrastructure. Change did not go swiftly. Colonia MuA +- iz fought for years to get street lighting. It was ultimately installed just two years ago. Other colonias are still waiting. Cass used to say planning statutes in McAllen, the largest city in Hidalgo County with 136,000 people, were for a long time intended to keep poor people confined to the colonias , where they could be ignored.

McAllen at one time zoned for low-income people, back in the 70 s. They want low-income people to maintain their municipal buildings and their golf course and to work in their hotels and restaurants, but they do not want them living in their city. So where else are people going to go but to the colonias to buy land and to build a home? she told.

One of the cities to the west of McAllen, youre not allowed to build a house if its under 2,500 sq ft. Essentially its a route of saying we do not want low-income people living in our community. Valdez-Cox lived in Georgia, a former Confederate state with a history of brutal racism, before she moved to Texas. I moved here from Atlanta in 1980 and I saw the systemic racism here far worse than what I had ever experienced in Atlanta, but its very subtle, she told.

Cass told postures had improved, but only up to a point. The local housing authority ran into resistance when it tried to move low-income households out of the colonias and into northern McAllen. The commissioner in McAllen said he did not want those people living in north McAllen and those children going to our schools in north McAllen, she said.

Prejudice against Latinos in general and the undocumented in particular is alive and well, as Donald Trump has so competently demonstrated. But it has also evolved. In the 70 s, children were not allowed to bringing tacos to school for lunch, told Cass. McAllen was run by Anglos. The mayor, the police chief, members of the council were all Anglos. Now its all Latinos. But still only two out of 10 people here vote. Austin[ the seat of the Texas legislature] is not going to pay any attention to us until we can change that. The Democratic party has long rued the low turnout among Latino voters in Republican-controlled Texas. Cass thinks it is in part tied to a sense of estrangement and being unable to change their circumstances. I named it learned helplessness: Its always been this route, I shouldnt expect anything different, she told.

The piecemeal improvement in physical conditions in the colonias is welcome but it does not alleviate the other burdens of poverty, particularly for the undocumented. Census figures show that more than 40% of the residents of Colonia MuA +- iz is covered under public health insurance because of low income or age. But only US citizens and legal residents receive that benefit or is eligible for subsidised insurance under Obamas health reforms.

Theresa Azuara. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Theresa Azuara is left out. She cannot afford insurance and so must pay up front for treatment along with 36% of the other people in Colonia MuA +- iz, according to the census. Even a simple visit to the doctor costs about a weeks earnings from the fields. When I get sick I have to go on running, she told. I went to the doctor once. He just made me lie down. He never gave me pills. But when I got the bill I freaked out because it was a lot of money. I was believing, what did the doctor do for this fund? Did he garment me in gold? So now I dont go to the doctor even if I get sick. I just wait it out.

Azuara is coping with high blood pressure for which she is not receiving treatment. Although hospitals do not ask immigration status, some people risk arrest by utilizing false identification, such as social security numbers, which medical establishments involve. Cass, who cofounded the Family Health and Resource Center in McAllen to provide medical and mental health services with volunteer staff, told Theresas experience was typical. We have 300,000 adults in this district who do not have health insurance. Theyre the undocumented, she said.

What happens if they get sick with a chronic illness? You end up succumbing, told Cass. We had a family member of someone here who had belly cancer. He liquidated all of his assets. He got chemotherapy for a certain amount of period and then he operated out of money and his treatment stopped. He lived without treatment for maybe two months. He got truly, really sick. Now the hospital regards him as an emergency and the law says it must treat him. He goes into ICU for two weeks and he dies. Im angry because that two weeks in ICU cost a hell of a lot of money that if they had spend it on his treatments, maybe he would have lived.

Yet the US medical system is a contradiction for the poor. The reporting obligation on hospitals to treat people in an emergency, whether or not they have health insurance or fund to pay, prompted Venicia Vallejo to construct the difficult journey across the Rio Grande with young children, 24 years ago. I intersected with my three children without my husband. My seven-year-old son couldnt walking because he was sick. I decided to cross the river since they are told me the child would die. He had something very wrong with him. I dont know what it was, she told. People told me if I came to the US they wouldnt let him succumb. Here they operated and saved him.

Vallejo settled in Colonia MuA +- iz. I ran in building and in the fields. They dont ask for your newspapers. They dont ask you to speak English. Construction work you do from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week, she told. It has been difficult. The US, this is poverty. I dont have the same benefits as other people here because I dont have newspapers, but in Mexico its much worse. In Mexico, if I had soup and beans to feed my children it was awesome. The children ran hungry some days. We didnt have enough fund for food because of the bills. Here the children do not go hungry. Here there is a lot of clothes they throw away and in Mexico people didnt have enough clothes. Its worse in Mexico but still difficult here.

One of the difficulties is the medical system that saved her son but will not save her sight from glaucoma. The pay is so low, it doesnt cover the medical stuff. I require an operation on my eyes. The doctor told me if I dont have the operation I will go blind. Because I dont have insurance I cant do it. Its $2,500 for each eye, she told. It used to be that Mexico was part of the survival strategy for the poor and undocumented living near the border. Medicines were cheaper on the other side. So was seeing a doctor, buying cigarettes and fuel, and shopping for price-controlled foods.

Ten years ago we were like one community, back and forth, told Cass. Then[ the authorities introduced] the requirement you had to have a passport. Then it was the border wall. And now its the[ narcotic cartel] violence in Mexico. We had a lot of people gringos , wintertime visitors included who would utilise the Mexican healthcare system because it was cheaper. Prescriptions are less expensive. You stroll across the bridge, theres dentists lined up to take care of you. But now people are afraid to go. Now were procuring drugs being sold under the table at the flea market here. There are physicians, dentists moved across the border and operating out of their homes but theyre practising without a licence. Theyve been threatened. The cartels are working very much like the mafia did. You have to pay someone to be protected.

According to the census, about half of the residents of Colonia MuA +- iz were born outside the US. It doesnt tell where, but anywhere other than Mexico is exceptional in the colonias . Neither does the census show how many of the foreign-born residents are undocumented but Valdez-Cox said her organisation estimated that about one-third of people living in the colonias did not have legal residency.

Guillermo dropped out of school at 17 to work picking harvests, but has recently passed vital quizs. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

All of Theresas children are illegals and, without residency newspapers, they faced a future similar to their parents, struggling to find regular well-paid work, with no social benefits and restriction expectations. It was a prospect that ate away at their motivation to work in school. What was the point in an education if they couldnt employ it? Maria said it was a common sentiment among students in schools across southern Texas, who were acutely recognizing also that they did not have the same opportunities as their classmates , no matter how hard they ran. She said her children lost the heart to work for qualifications they could not employ. They lost interest because people would tell them, Why would you graduate if you cant even get a job because you dont have newspapers? I would have to force them to school but still they didnt want to go, she told.

Maria, who stopped going to school at 15, said it started with her older brother who worked hard, passed his quizs but was then blocked from a university scholarship because he was not a legal resident. When he went to get the scholarship, they asked him for the social[ security number ]. He didnt have it so they stopped the scholarship, she told. My older sister was like, what are we going to do? Were never going to be someone in this country. So we dropped out of school, me and her. We went to work in the fields. She got married.

Cass told lack of opportunity was a major contributor to a kind of educational apartheid in which students with citizenship or legal residency in the colonias had greater opportunities than in the past but those without newspapers got left behind. Were procuring more and more going to college. However, the statistics remain that one out of two children out of kindergarten will not graduate high school, she told. According to the census, 75% of the population of Colonia MuA +- iz has less than a high-school education.

Maria Azuara. Photograph: Sean Smith/ Sean Smith for the Guardian

In her 20 s, Maria worked for a family, caring for their children and helping with the homework. She was paid $50 a week. Then they started treating me like the maid, asking me to construct food and do the cleaning and clean. I didnt have a selection. If I didnt do that Id have to go back to working in the fields, she told. That was my future. We never imagined Obama was going to do something about it. Never. We used to wonder what we were going to do with our lives. Just take care of kids.

In June 2012, President Obama issued an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US before the latter are 16 to stay and be given a work permit. The measure, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, popularly known as Daca, does not offer permanent residence or a track to US citizenship but it does remove the threat of expulsion, at the least so long as Obama is president and his successor or the courts do not overturn the order. Just as importantly, the presidents order devotes Maria and an estimated 2 million other people the right to work in the US, opening a track out of the fields and low-paid, insecure tasks. Obama changed all of our lives just like that, told Maria.

Approval under Daca is not automatic. Applicants have to have lived in the US continuously since 2007 and have no criminal record. They also require a high-school diploma or its equivalent. That set off a stampede back to the classroom. Maria returned to study part-time while working, and passed her high-school equivalency exam on her third endeavor. There was merely one remaining obstacle.

You have to prove you were here in 2007. My sisters have children so they could prove they were here. I was believing, what can I do? I had a phone but it was pay-as-you-go. The only thing I had to prove I was here was a police ticket. Then they wanted to know what the ticket was for. That it wasnt for drugs or something like that. It was a ticket for driving without a licence. I proved that and then I got my permit in two weeks, she told. I have a social security number. I have my[ driving] licence. I have my ID. I have my charge card. Right now the border patrol can come over here and Im cool.

Daca has been life-changing for Azuaras children. Today, one of her daughters is an English teacher and two others work for charities. One of her sons has a undertaking as a bus driver in Florida. The last infant still living at home, Guillermo, recently passed his high-school equivalency exam at the age of 23. He had fallen out of school at 17 to work picking harvests. I just thought all my life Im going to work in the fields. That was going to be life. I didnt suppose I could do anything. If you dont have social security you dont qualify for nothing. A lot of my friends were in the same situation. Right now theyre back in the school, he said.

Guillermo, Theresa and Emillios son, counts the days earnings with his parents. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

For Guillermo, who speaks good English, along with the rest of his siblings, the absence of residency newspapers entail he did not feel American even though he has lived in the US almost all of their own lives. I ensure myself as Mexican because of the situation. I went to school since pre-kinder here but I came from there. I ensure my friends go up north to work and come back with fund and Im like, if I had my newspapers I could go too and work but I cant, he told. I would like to go work on the oil rig or for college and analyze energy. Now I can apply to college to get a degree and a better life. I have friends working in Utah building playgrounds for schools and parks. I told them I qualify[ for Daca ]. Theyre like, get it and go work for us. Youll get work with us.

A block to the north, the Cardenas siblings, who live in a clapboard house, faced the same obstacles but remained in school. Elizabeth, the eldest at 24, started studying to become a registered nurse even though she would not have been able to work in the US. She thought she might have to seek work overseas but that would have meant leaving her mother and risking not being able to return. If I dont have my social security number, theres nothing for me. But its hard to leave. We belong here together.

The Cardenas family are photographed in their home. Three of the siblings work in the fields with their parents, picking oranges from October to June. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Her sister Veronica, 22, is training to become a dentist. Their younger friend, 18 -year-old Louis, wants to be an technologist. They all stuck through high school but getting a higher education has been a fiscal struggle. Under Texas law, as undocumented residents they qualify for the minimum nation aid to go to college but no federal loans or grants. All three work in the fields with their parents, picking oranges from October to June. The fund goes to pay off the cost of the land and the house. Theres not much left for college. There are also the practical issues, such as not being able to open a bank account. Now all three is eligible for Daca. I came here when I was four years old, told Louis. This is the only place I know. The American Dream is to become someone and I think we have a shot at it.

Vallejo is grateful to the president because their own families had been divided by the right to live and work in the US. I have five children, three from Mexico and two from here. The two from here are free. They applied for college. The ones from Mexico couldnt do what they wanted, she said.

The chairwomen order unleashed a wave of people trying help from Lupe, which offers free assistance with immigration applications. Obama brought forward a huge number of young people who are now able to continue their college education, told Valdez-Cox. We have young people who have their bachelors and their masters but couldnt get job since they are didnt have a social security[ number] so they couldnt contribute to the economy.

We were astonished at the number of people who came here to apply who have not one masters but two masters who couldnt work. Now they have employment and they have an opportunity for the family because they can contribute good wages to the family and help the parents. It has changed things wholly. The parents are still in the same situation but theres income coming into the family that they didnt have.

There is always a crowd at Lupe trying legal advice or help with immigration issues. The offices of Proyecto Azteca, which helps people in the colonias to build and own their homes, are close by. The housing program brings groups of people together to work constructing one another houses, providing oversight and finance. Proyecto Azteca the financing to build Theresa and Emilio Azuaras home, a clapboard structure in lime green that feels more spacious on the inside than it seems from the front. The Azuaras pay $230 to finance the mortgage from Proyecto Azteca, half of the rent they previously paid. The organisation has built more than 700 homes in 130 colonias .

The proliferation of civic groups is a striking feature of the colonias , compared with other poor regions. There is a solidarity rooted in common struggles for farm worker rights, over immigration and against racism. Cass said there was also a greater sense of family unity than was may be in some other places. You wont find people living on the street like you do in other communities. Thats just a horrifying thing for them to think that they have a relative who has not got a roof over their head. Consequently we assure three or four generations all living in a small house because theyre not going to let their loved ones on to the street.

I think thats very positive but unfortunately it adds to other emotional and physical challenges. Incest is up because of the concentration of people living in the same house, she told. Here in the valley we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the US and multiple teenage pregnancies, but the contrast is we have the best outcomes of newborns born to teen mothers than any other place. The newborns are born healthier. The mommies are healthier. My only rationale is that the family rallies around the girl and maintains her healthy.

Infant mortality is about half of the rate in poor white areas of eastern Kentucky and one third of some black towns in Mississippi. Close family ties construct the separation of the border even more difficult. Theresa dare not visit her ageing mother in Mexico for fear of not being able to return. The frontier is less porous these days and she is older and less agile at getting across the river. Vallejo is also unwilling to hazard the journey in case she cannot get back. I have family in Mexico. Thats the sad portion, that we cannot go there, she said.

Azuara judges her life in the colonias by comparing it with how the past two decades would have been in Mexico. For all the adversities, she said the US had been good to her. Above all, it had a better life for her children the reason she carried them across the Rio Grande in the first place. Maria and her siblings “says hes” regard themselves as Mexican but do not know Mexico. They cannot imagine living there yet neither are they fully part of the country they have lived in most of their lives.

Young people in Hidalgo County order nachos and cheese. For many the American Dream is a reminder of their complicated relationship with the US. Photograph: The Washington Post/ Getty Images

In much of the US, the American Dream is often regarded as a birthright. For many who live in Colonia MuA +- iz, it is a symbol of hope but also a reminder of their second-class status and their complicated relationship with the US. As a child I didnt feel good because I wished I was an American but Im not, told Maria. What Obama has done is good and Im proud the United States has helped us. It is a good country. But I want it for my parents too.

That may yet happen. Under a most recent presidential executive order, undocumented parents of US citizens and legal residents can now also apply for protection from expulsion and a work permit. That includes Vallejo, who has two children who were born in the US. The order does not cover the parents of those who have applied under the earlier order, such as Maria. But her friend in Florida currently has permanent residence, a green card. That should open the track for Theresa and Emilio if politics doesnt get in the way.

The programme is on hold after Texas and 25 other countries launched a legal action to challenge the presidents authority to issue the order, although more than 100,000 permits were already issued before the legal intervention. Theresa is waiting. She has a wood burning oven in her backyard on which she cooks Mexican food. I want to be able to put up a sign in front of my house: tamales for sale, she told. I cannot do it now. Immigration may see it and come and ask questions. But the working day I will do that, thanks to Obama.

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