PITTSFIELD -- Maria and her brother, José, both students at Berkshire Community College, moved from Ecuador to the United States about three years ago to reunite with their mother.
They'd spent nearly 10 years apart from her.
"Now I can say I have my family," Maria said. "I always had it in my mind that I'd never see my mother again, but things work out."
José obtained his U.S. citizenship within a few weeks of enlisting in the Army. Maria, a permanent U.S. resident, is eligible to apply for citizenship in May 2014.
But as federal lawmakers craft an immigration reform package and argue if it should include a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants, their mother and the rest of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. remain in limbo, unsure if or when the Department of Homeland Security will come knocking.
Originally from Ecuador, Maria and José, whose names have been altered so as not to identify their mother, had to say goodbye when "madre" left for the U.S. They were 12 and 10, respectively.
Because of their mother's sacrifice, Maria is a year away from her degree and is applying to medical school. José is nearing his associate degree in business.
‘To help heal people'
Years earlier, their father had abandoned the family and crossed the border illegally into the U.S. When he left, Maria was 5.
That was all she really knew about her father, Maria said.
To help with living costs in Ecuador, Maria's grandparents and cousins moved in. The arrangement worked for a while, until Maria's mother noticed her daughter's brilliance.
Achieving high marks in all her classes, Maria was gifted. Had she access to educational opportunities, Maria could be anything she wanted to be in life.
But there was only one profession she wanted to pursue: A doctor.
"I've always wanted to be a physician, to help heal people," Maria said. "But my mom knew we couldn't afford college."
The family was struggling financially making it hard for Maria to stay in middle and then high school. A university education seemed out of the question. So Maria's mother did the only thing she could to realize her daughter's destiny: She turned to the United States of America.
She packed what few belongings she felt safe to bring and found someone who could smuggle her into the U.S. There, she hoped to find work and earn enough money to send back to the family in Ecuador.
Maria's mother boarded a small ship. Several major storms threatened to capsize the vessel as it sailed the Gulf of Mexico. She was left to fend for herself: She spoke little to no English, and when the boat finally made land in the U.S., she had no idea where.
Maria's mother endured. Eventually, she made her way to the Berkshires. Here, she got a job working in a factory by day and took various cleaning jobs at night.
"To look at what she suffered through to help us, it's hard to think about," Maria said. "But it's motivation also, to do everything I can to make sure it wasn't for nothing."
Working in the factory, Maria's mother fell in love with a man. And some months later, the two were wed. But the union wasn't considered legal because she's undocumented.
Maria's stepfather -- she considers him her dad -- petitioned to have her and José come to the U.S. -- as residents, however, because he adopted them from Ecuador.
Maria and José's reunion with their mother became a reality.
"My mom works hard, she always pays her taxes. These politicians need to do something so she can be a citizen without having to go back to Ecuador and be away from my dad, from us again."
A common story
Eleanore Velez, the multicultural student adviser at BCC, an immigrant from Mexico who became a U.S. citizen several years ago, said stories like Maria and José's families echo throughout the country.
"Something has to be done to help these students and their families," Velez said. "For Maria's future, [her mother] had to go through so much and Maria and José carry that with them always."
Velez said immigrant students from all countries face that same fear.
"They are just trying to figure out life, how to write their next chapter," Velez said. "They shouldn't have to worry about being deported because they may have overstayed their visas. What do they have to go back to?"
The legislators crafting a bipartisan law that could change immigration forever aren't expected to have the bill ready until after the Easter break which runs through April 5.
"In this political chess game, the immigrant is still the pawn," Velez said. "They're all struggling to make something of themselves with terrible uncertainty and it needs to stop."
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