Alma Avalos and Pedro Ramirez have no memories of the towns in Jalisco, Mexico, where they were born. Their families illegally crossed into the United States when they were 1 and 3 years old, and they grew up viewing themselves as Americans.
Elden Hernandez, who came at 15, put behind many childhood recollections of his Mexican port city of Veracruz after a harrowing border crossing and a determined integration into a new world. Moving forward as part of the fabric of California, he feels disoriented looking back.
In California, where the majority of the estimated 2.6 million undocumented immigrants are natives of Mexico, Avalos, Ramirez and Hernandez reflect the unresolved status of many young people now graduating from California high schools and colleges and launching adult lives – and careers – as Americans.
All three are benefiting from a 2011 administrative decree by President Barack Obama, under which certain categories of people 30 and under, who entered the country illegally before the age of 16, are eligible to apply for two-year work permits.
Those granted conditional protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program provide a living preview of what immigration reform might look like as Congress prepares to take up the volatile issue.
Even with DACA's protection, Hernandez, Avalos and Ramirez remain undocumented immigrants under the law. They have no assurance of achieving U.S. citizenship.
Yet, allowed work permits through the program now, Hernandez, 23, is teaching high school English and middle school science as a credentialed substitute teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Avalos, 22, a semester shy of graduating from California State University, Sacramento, is a classroom aide at her former high school, Luther Burbank in south Sacramento.
Ramirez, 24, a past student body president at CSU Fresno who gained national attention when he announced he was an undocumented immigrant, is a graduate student at Long Beach State and hopes to become a public policy lawyer.
An estimated 1.76 million undocumented people nationwide who came to the country as children are eligible to apply for the work permits as long as they are high school graduates or enrolled in school and have no felony or serious misdemeanor convictions.
Many of the estimated 460,000 applicants in California are also realizing benefits under state legislation, including eligibility for in-state college tuition rates and, more recently, the ability to obtain a California driver's license.
"These are Americanos – Americans," said Jim Gonzalez, president of the Sacramento-based Latino Policy Coalition. "They are preparing to be engineers, teachers and policemen. They are not caught between two worlds – they are caught transitioning from one world to a better world."
Alma Avalos says the American story is the only one she has ever known.
Her father and mother, still waiting on 8-year-old applications for U.S. citizenship, worked illegally as a landscaper and appliance cleaner and served up steaming plates of Mexican food at home.
But Avalos says she's "clueless" about Mexico. She speaks far better English than Spanish. Until she was a teenager, she say, "I didn't realize I wasn't part of the United States."
It hit home when she interviewed fellow students at Luther Burbank High for a senior project on the California Dream Act, which ultimately allowed eligible undocumented immigrants to apply for state financial aid for college. Avalos said classmates who didn't know her status told her they thought it was unfair that under a 2001 California law, undocumented immigrants are allowed to pay in-state college tuition rates.
She finally announced during her class presentation that she was an undocumented immigrant preparing for college.
"People said, 'Really? I didn't know you were illegal,' " Avalos said. "I said, what do you think undocumented looks like?"
Working in a restaurant without a Social Security card, driving without a California license, she never forgot her problematic legal status. After enrolling at Sacramento State, where she is working on a degree in childhood development, Avalos looked into teaching English in Mexico, where she could work legally.
"My mother said, 'What are you going to do there? You have no idea what Mexico is,' " Avalos recalled.
Under the Obama administration's two-year permit program, she now works legally, translating classroom lectures and materials for Spanish-speaking students at her former high school.
She tells them, "You help me with my Spanish. And I'll help you with your English."
While thousands of children who came to California illegally from Mexico may not know how they got here, Elden Hernandez remembers his journey vividly.
It was 2005, and he was 15 years old. Hernandez and his mother were hiding, pinned under seats in separate cars at a San Isidro border crossing, looking to reunite with his father, who had come to California to work in 2001.
"I could barely breathe. I was crying for help," Hernandez said.
Upon settling in Sacramento, he was enrolled at Luther Burbank High. He quickly learned English and achieved academically.
His mother was suffering from cervical cancer, and Hernandez told himself that if he could succeed and adjust, his mom would get well. "I thought if I got good grades, my mom would survive," he said. She has since gone into remission.
By his senior year, he was tutoring other students to help them pass the state high school exit exam. His teachers were so impressed that he was offered a job as a classroom aide upon graduation. He didn't tell anyone he was undocumented and not legally allowed to work.
Now an honors graduate from Sacramento State with a degree in journalism and a teaching credential, he works legally as a substitute teacher through the DACA program.
And under newly passed state legislation that allows work permit recipients to get a California driver's license, Hernandez – at age 23 – passed his driving test.
"I was actually freaking out," Hernandez said. "It's great knowing I can get into my car without having to be afraid, without fearing if I get stopped I'll be sent back to Mexico."
Pedro Ramirez's parents were undocumented farmworkers from Mexico. But he grew up without doubt about where he belonged.
He played in the marching band at Tulare Union High School in Tulare County, was a member of California Junior Scholars and co-valedictorian of his class. And, though he knew he was born in Mexico, he just assumed "I was a legal permanent resident" of the United States.
But Ramirez realized otherwise while applying for college. After being elected student body president at Fresno State, he notified university officials he couldn't take the $9,000 stipend that came with the position because he had no Social Security number. He told the college newspaper he was undocumented.
His story drew angry demands for his resignation. Another Fresno State student set up a website that denigrated Ramirez as "a Dream Act poster boy." His cellphone lit up with calls from strangers, including a Utah man who said he was coming to California to carry out a citizen's arrest for illegal immigration.
Ramirez served out his term as student body president, finished his undergradate degree in political science and began graduate studies in public policy at Long Beach State. He applied for a work permit under DACA and was approved on New Year's Eve.
"The big thing with my story and that of a lot of students, is that unlike many immigrants, we're very much integrated and assimilated into American culture," Ramirez said. "I know more about American history than about Mexico."
Ramirez hopes to find a job in policy work as he pursues citizenship. He wants to earn a law degree and work for the U.S. government – if he is allowed to stay after his work permit expires.
He is no longer assuming anything until the immigration issue is legislated and the status of those who arrived illegally as children is determined.
"There is definitely uncertainty," Ramirez said. "We can't say we're Americans. We can say we're from another country, but we don't understand that country's values. Here we do, but we're not yet embraced."