Renata Teodoro is alone against the world. Everyone in her family has given up on the United States, especially after her mother and brother were deported to Brazil.
They want her with them, but the 25-year-old Teodoro can't leave. She's been here since age 6 when her family crossed the border. America is all she knows. She's working herself through the University of Massachusetts, just landed a sweet nonprofit job helping students and feels a great future can be hers -- influencing public policy and the law, her major.
It's a dream that just won't die. Not now. Not as Congress considers reforming the nation's broken immigration system to provide a route to citizenship for Teodoro and the country's 11 million other undocumented immigrants -- an overhaul not seen since the landmark amnesty of 1986.
Teodoro's hopes were boosted last year when President Barack Obama issued an executive order exempting young undocumented immigrants such as herself from deportation for at least two years if their parents brought them illegally into the country as children. She now works legally under a permit and shares a $1,300-a-month apartment with two others in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood.
This week, the Senate approved a sweeping bill that would bring that vast population out of an underground-like life, reuniting families such as Teodoro's that have been cleaved by deportations.
But even if the measure gets through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it won't be the immediate godsend as some may think, Teodoro said.
In an example of how the proposed reform would play out differently for different families, Teodoro would have to wait at least five years to secure citizenship, a shorter route than most because she was a child when brought here. Once those five years pass, she would then be able to petition for her deported family's return.
The entire process for a family reunification could realistically take as long as seven years, especially if further militarization of the border would have to be planned in writing before any reforms take effect, she said.
Add in how her mother was deported six years ago, and 13 years would pass before the Teodoro family could share an American home again.
Her example is how the overhaul of America's massive illegal immigration may be measured -- by a half or full generation of time. The last major reform was 27 years ago. And Teodoro said she can wait seven more years, if she must, for her family to be reunited.
It's the price of the American dream, she said.
"It's very hard for me to think about the numbers, but at the same time it makes me happy that I haven't given up, and I continue to fight for what I believe in, and when we win, it will feel good," Teodoro said.
Mother and child reunion
This month, Teodoro and two other undocumented immigrants brought over as children saw their mothers for the first time in years during a brief and emotional reunion at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The only thing separating mother and child was an 18-foot border fence, a stark reminder of how Teodoro's deported mother now cannot re-enter the United States for 10 years, a ban shared by the two other moms.
As if for the first time in their lives, they touched each other's faces and hair, their arms groping through the slats.
"Why? I just ask why? I just want to be with my kids," said Teodoro's mother, Gorete, who took three planes and two buses over 48 hours to travel from Brazil to the Nogales, Mexico, fence. "I lived in America in Boston for 15 years -- why deport me? I clean house for them."
Gorete Teodoro illegally crossed the border at Tijuana, Mexico, in 1993, with her three children to join their father who arrived earlier. The parents separated after her father was denied U.S. asylum in 2001.
In 2007, immigration agents arrested her son at the family's Boston house and then deported him. During that arrest, authorities found Gorete Teodoro's Brazilian passport in the home and threatened to return for her. She surrendered to authorities and was deported, taking the youngest of her three children with her to Criciuma, Brazil.
That left her daughter Renata Teodoro alone in Boston, working and attending college, despite her mother's pleas to give it all up.
Renata Teodoro's two friends at the border reunion also have deferred status: Carlos Padilla, 21, of Seattle and Evelyn Rivera, 24, of Altamonte Springs, Florida, near Orlando. All three are part of a movement called United We Dream, the nation's first and largest immigrant youth-led network advocating reforms.
Though they share similar passions about reform, an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system would change their lives in different ways.
Padilla: A Mexican family's tale
If it weren't for an illness in his mother's family in Mexico, Padilla would now be enjoying the company of both his parents in the United States, though they are divorced.
Padilla's parents, brother, and sister -- his entire family -- were all living in the United States as undocumented immigrants. But in 2008, his mother voluntarily decided to return to Mexico to care for her father.