As a young boy, Dan-el Padilla was abandoned by his father, shuffled
through homeless shelters and always worried about his family's
next meal. Now at 21, Dan-el is on his way to Oxford, after graduating
at the top of his class from Princeton University with a degree
in classics and a certificate in educational policy.
He sounds like the archetypical American success story. Once
Dan-el leaves for Oxford, however, he may not be welcomed back.
Dan-el, who first came to the United States in 1989 at the age
of 4, is an illegal immigrant. His family came from the Dominican
Republic so his mother could receive temporary special medical
attention; they decided not to go back.
While Dan-el no longer worries about where he will sleep or eat,
he has found navigating through the United States immigration
process to be a complicated and troublesome experience in its
own right. The experience has profoundly shaped Dan-el's opinions
about immigration -- an issue many of his peers care about as
topic of immigration can trigger strong and emotional responses
from young people. Generation Next is coming of age at a time
when a nascent war on terror is changing the way people feel about
security, freedom and what opportunities America should grant.
A 2006 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics suggests that
31 percent of 18-25-year-old college students in the United States
agree with the statement, "Recent immigration into this country
has done more harm than good." Twenty-seven percent disagree
with that statement, while 40 percent had no opinion.
The debate falls closest to home for those members of Generation
Next who are immigrants themselves. There are nearly 5.2 million
immigrants of various national and ethnic origins in the United
States between the ages of 18 and 25, according to a 2005 tabulation
by the Pew Hispanic Center. That's 12 percent of Generation Next.
Like Dan-el, nearly 2.5 million immigrants between 18 and 25
in the United States are undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic
Center. Of all the undocumented immigrants in this country, nearly
one quarter belong to this generation.
Dan-el may be undocumented, but he identifies with the United
States. He did, after all, grow up there -- albeit arduously.
Dan-el was raised in homeless shelters and shady apartment buildings
in New York City. His one respite was school. He developed an
interest in classic literature at an early age and saw a good
education as his ticket out of the ghetto.
Dan-el worked particularly hard to overcome the language barrier
he faced in the United States. His mother did not speak English,
and he learned under trial by fire in poor public schools. It
was a rough experience, Dan-el said.
"In a way, to be American has meant you check your cultural
identity at the door," he said. "What's been particularly
disheartening to me about the immigration debate and ancillary
issues like language is that people say, 'Now that you're in America,
you have to act American.'" It isn't necessary to explicitly
request that immigrants learn English, Dan-el said, because the
pressure to do so is already there.
In his opinion, people are unsympathetic toward immigrants because
of the individualistic nature of the "American dream."
"People think, I succeeded on my own terms, and if people
can't, there's something wrong with them, or they're to be blamed
for the problems they've encountered," Dan-el said. "I
think that's kind of perverse."
While he is skeptical of whether the reality of the American dream
can match its rhetoric, Dan-el doesn't deny that it has applied
to his life. "When I was younger," he said, "I
would ask myself, 'Could I have done this anywhere else?'"
Ultimately, Dan-el would like to pursue a career in teaching
in the United States. He would also like to help shape educational
policy. Because he is not a legal resident of the United States,
immigration law says that if Dan-el were to leave the country,
he would not be able to return for 10 years.
He is excited to study at Oxford, however, and plans to leave
this fall. He will apply for a waiver to re-enter the United States
to visit his family in the summer. Dan-el says his lawyer is "cautiously
optimistic" that the waiver will be granted.
He said he will always call the United States home.
are many things that have been passed down to me about life in
the Dominican Republic, but what I know and love is here,"
he said. "I can't imagine being away from that for too long
-- I feel as American as anyone who was born here."
Like Dan-el, first generation American Kimberly Salem has always
felt completely American. But the older she gets, she said, the
more important it is for her to embrace her identity as a Palestinian
Kimberly, 24, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., with a Caucasian
mother and a Palestinian father. Her father immigrated with his
family from Ramallah to the United States in the 1950s, when he
was 7 years old.
Kimberly's childhood memories are filled with family. Every weekend
she and her cousins would play outside, behind her uncle's deli.
On Sundays, the whole family made the compulsory trip to church
in the morning; in the evening, everyone congregated at her grandmother's
house for supper.
Many people in Generation Next feel close to their families --
in fact, 65 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 see
or talk to a parent every day, according to a 2006 study by the
Pew Research Center. Kimberly, however, said she thinks that the
tight bond her extended family shares is a function of their strong
connection to their culture and homeland.
"It's just that mentality that it takes a village to raise
a child," she said. "People in our culture, whether
Christian or Muslim, are very strong in faith. Family and God
are what you live your life by."
Kimberly is Christian. Her mother is Baptist, and her father
is Greek Orthodox. She grew up attending two separate churches.
People aware of Kimberly's ethnicity often assume she is Muslim,
but many people think she is Caucasian because of her blond hair,
she said. Sometimes people will make derisive comments about Arab
culture, unaware of her heritage.
"Sometimes you feel like everyone in the world thinks if
you're Palestinian you're a terrorist," she said. "People
lump everyone together with those few extremists."
As she has gotten older, Kimberly said, her Arab-American identity
has become more meaningful to her. She now works in the Detroit
area at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, a nonprofit organization
that serves the Arab-American community. Chaldeans are a segment
of the Iraqi Christian population. One of the programs that Kimberly
helps run is the Cultural Tapestry Initiative, which teaches cultural
tolerance and understanding to groups such as schools and businesses.
Familiarizing oneself with a culture clearly helps a person understand
current events, Kimberly said; this is especially important to
Kimberly since the conflicts are personal for her.
made an attempt to understand the full history, not just what
happened two weeks ago," she said. "But you realize,
I still have uncles in Ramallah, and there was a bomb in the market
While Kimberly has grown to appreciate her identity as an Arab
American, finding a place in American culture can be difficult
for some first-generation Americans.
Adrian Renteria, 21-year-old social worker from East Los Angeles,
said he does not identify himself as American or Mexican.
"I guess people would take it as self-hatred, but it's not,"
he said. "I respect both sides."
Adrian's father came to the United States at age 17, after having
worked in Mexico since he was 5 or 6. His mother is an American-born
citizen of Mexican descent. When he visits his family in Mexico,
Adrian said, people see him as an American.
"Here, they'd rather call me a Mexican because of my features,"
he said. Designations such as Chicano or Mexican-American are
no better. "The whole hyphen -- that's kind of an insult,"
he said. "Like, what -- I'm not American?"
Growing up with a turbulent home life situated in gang-ridden
neighborhoods did not help Adrian's ideas of what he could make
of himself in the United States. Adrian was never in a gang, but
just about everyone around him was. "That started at a very
young age because I had cousins already gangbanging, and to me
it was a normal thing," he said. "I looked up to a lot
of these guys."
After shadowing gang members throughout his high school years,
Adrian was shot in 2003. He spent some time in jail as a result
of the incident.
Now Adrian is a mentoring coach for All Peoples Christian Center,
a nonprofit social services organization in Los Angeles. He oversees
about 60 students at John Adams Middle School, teaching them about
things like proper nutrition, birth control and "just whatever
I feel that they wouldn't learn on their own and they won't be
taught at school," he said.
Along with mentoring, Adrian is focusing on rapping. Many of
his relatives are musicians, and he grew up with fond memories
of local mariachi bands, he said. That influenced his love for
all types of music.
"I can relate to hip hop more [than to Mariachi music],"
he added. "It's just a little more expressive I feel on my
-- By Stephanie Condon, Generation Next