Diana has been waiting to become a legal U.S. resident since she was 5.
Diana's family entered the country many years ago on a compassionate visa when her brother was diagnosed with leukemia. The entire family eventually received resident visas to stay with him. They settled in Madison County, raising their children as Americans.
But Diana never got a visa. Once her compassionate visa expired, she was undocumented. The family tried many avenues to apply for papers, but none were deemed likely to succeed, especially after her brother succumbed to his leukemia.
Now 17, Diana has applied for a permit under the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy implemented earlier this year by an executive order signed by President Barack Obama.
Diana's other brother married an American citizen, and he applied for a sibling visa for Diana.
Diana, who is being identified by her first name only because of her current immigration status, has been waiting for 11 years just to be interviewed.
In the meantime, she grew up as an American teenager. Her family lives and works in the metro-east, and she attended a local high school. Now her graduation is coming up, and she wants to work, to save money for college, to drive a car. None of that is possible without documents.
Without the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA policy, Diana's only choice would have been to return alone to Mexico and wait a minimum of 10 years. Then she would have to apply for a visa that has a potential wait time of more than 100 years under the current system, according to Marti Jones of the Immigration Project.
"If nothing changes, you're better off buying a lottery ticket," Jones said.
The reason for the long waits? Quotas, Jones said. The immigration system only allows a certain number of people from any given country. It was intended to promote a "diverse society" a century ago, she said, so the United States would not be overrun by any one nationality.
Now it has created such long lines that waits like Diana's are not at all unusual, she said. Not even being married to a U.S. citizen lets you stay, if you overstayed your visa or did not enter with documents.
"I do so many intake (interviews) with people who want a good-faith effort to attain legal status," Jones said. "It's hard to tell someone who came here when he was 3 and has a great opportunity (here), but there is nothing I can do for him."
Some immigration activists call DACA a watered-down version of the proposed DREAM Act, which would have offered a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and either serve two years in the military or finish at least two years of college, as well as a 10-year waiting period before they can seek a green card.
First introduced by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in 2001, the DREAM Act's 2010 version gained 55 votes in favor to 41 against, but needed 60 to pass. The 2011 version never reached a vote, and the Obama administration deported nearly 400,000 that year -- the highest number on record.
'It's a complex process'
DACA isn't exactly a path to citizenship, Belleville immigration attorney Maria Jimena Sanchez-Ley said. It doesn't change the immigration status of people like Diana, but it gives them a "deferral" to remain here, to wait out the long process and -- important for a young person seeking work -- get a driver's license.
Sanchez-Ley said while more than 80,000 applications have been accepted so far, even the process for DACA seems to be taking a long time. In addition, she counsels her clients that there is no guarantee DACA -- created by the president's executive order -- will not be ended at any time.
"It's a complex process," Sanchez-Ley said. "Many people think this is a way to gain legal status. But the government changes, policies get removed, and we don't know what will happen."
Jones is more optimistic. She said usually programs like DACA get entrenched in the bureaucracy and tend to stay -- and certainly the DREAM Act is likely to come up again in the next Congress.
In order to qualify for DACA, an immigrant must have arrived in the United States before the age of 16, have lived here at least five years, never been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor, is still under the age of 31 and is in school, and seeking a GED or has graduated from high school.
It gives the recipient the right to stay and work, but not to access federal benefits such as student loans. It's still a big help for undocumented people who can't open a bank account or drive a car. Immigrants -- whether documented or not -- still pay into Social Security, but cannot collect benefits.
Basically, DACA is built for people like Diana, Jones said -- there are only 4,000 sibling visas granted per year, with more than 30,000 in line.
DACA is too late for Omar, who turned 36 this year. He came to the United States at the age of 14, brought by his family. He didn't realize they were undocumented when they were working in California -- at his age, he said, it was just "something new." He has spent his entire adult life in the United States.
Now he is married with five children. He has repeatedly sought ways to gain legal status. "They say there's no way to get legal," he said.
His stepdaughter, Nancy, is 17 and was brought here undocumented, as he was. She is about to graduate from high school and wants to attend college to become a nurse. She is a straight-A student, but cannot get a driver's license because of her immigration status.
Nancy said the DACA program is "perfect."
"I'm thinking it's about time," she said. "I'd rather get something than wait for nothing."
Having lived as an undocumented immigrant all her life, she shrugs about it. "It's stressful, but you get used to it," she said.
But when she reads people saying that she should go back home and wait in line, she doesn't know what they mean. "I have no memory of any other place," she said.
The full names of Omar and Nancy are not being published because of their current immigration status.
'We pay taxes like anyone else'
There are 1,500 immigrants eligible in the St. Louis area alone, immigration attorney Kenneth Schmitt said. He did not know how many were eligible in Illinois, but in the few months since DACA was announced, he has personally interviewed more than 200 people.
"It's going to let a lot of great kids come out of the shadows," Schmitt said.
It's had another side effect: education. Since DACA requires that the recipient be in school or graduate, many applicants who had dropped out of school are now reconsidering. Lea Maue of Southwestern Illinois College said GED enrollment has gone up significantly, probably because of DACA. That increase might not be reflected in Missouri, though, as Maue noted Illinois residents can take the GED without a Social Security number, but Missouri requires one.
Diana hopes that DACA will give her the freedom to work and save for college as she continues to wait on her sibling visa. More importantly, she said, it will alleviate the constant fear under which she and her family have lived for years.
Once a police officer was driving behind their car, she said, and she was terrified that they would be pulled over and she would be discovered, taken away from her family. She was 15 at the time.
"I think I was holding my breath the whole time," Diana said. When the officer drove by, she said, "a huge weight came off my chest."
Her brother has been taken into custody in the past, despite having legal papers, she said, and the police officer made comments to him about how he wished Illinois had the same laws as Arizona, where her brother could be held indefinitely. Arizona also has passed legislation that still would deny driver's licenses and similar services to those approved under DACA.
Eventually, Diana hopes she will have the freedom to come and go as she pleases. She never got to see her grandparents in Mexico again before they passed away. And she hopes people will reconsider their attitudes toward people like her.
"They say we don't pay taxes, but we pay taxes like anyone else. It's unjust to say those comments," she said. "They tell us to go back to a country we don't remember."
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at email@example.com or 239-2501.