FEBRUARY 25, 2016: “The secret of Paola Ramirez-Pena”

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Paola Ramirez-Pena, 17, is in two Advanced Placement classes this year. Her junior year she was in five. She is senior class president, is a member of two leadership clubs and sings in the choir.

She was North High School’s sole ambassador at Riverfest and is one of three students to represent her school on the Mayor’s Youth Council, a leadership body for the top student leaders in the city.

In November she was one of four student leaders chosen to travel to Nashville, Tenn., for the National League of Cities convention, where she had her picture taken with Vice President Joe Biden.

In the fall she visited the University of Kansas, where she’s planning to accept a scholarship.

But she has a secret that, until recently, she had not told her friends.

Although her family has lived in the U.S. for two decades and she was born here, Paola’s parents don’t have permission to be in the country.

“You’re trying to live a normal life because you don’t want to let people know that there is something different about your family,” Paola said. “But I mean, there is.”

That means that when she buckles the seat belt in her mom’s minivan, she’s always a little afraid.

When she was 9, she and her dad were pulled over for speeding on the way to the movies. Three police cars showed up, searched the car and arrested him. At the time she believed it was because she didn’t have her seat belt on. She thought her dad would be deported and didn’t want to ask the police to take her home because she was afraid they would take her mom too.

“I (had) nowhere to run to because the one is just as much of a target as the other,” Paola said.

Her parents’ status is in the back of her mind every time she invites a friend to the house. It pops up during class discussions. She thinks about it before vacation trips and changes stories she tells when she gets back. Her parents’ status has influenced what she wants to study in college and the career she imagines when she grows up.

Immigrants like her parents are such a controversial topic that there isn’t even a consensus on how to refer to them: illegal aliens, illegal immigrants, undocumented immigrants or a handful of other terms.

Earlier this year Paola’s mom, Gisela Pena, began doing something many immigrants here without permission are afraid to do: speak up. She helped bring immigration lawyers to Wichita and started a radio show about issues that affect immigrants.

One recent day at her mom’s shop, Paola said she was scared that all this new activity could mean that her mom could be torn away from her before graduation.

“Everything that I worked for has come to this point until now,” Paola said, wiping away tears that smudged the black paint she’d put under her eyes for spirit week at school. “And every morning she’s dropped me off, and every breakfast she has ever made me, and every field trip she has ever helped chaperone, every permission slip she’s ever signed, she won’t be able to see the end of it.”….Continue reading

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