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The challenge of life as an illegal

Note: The names of the four men in this story &

Pedro, Paco, Mario and Juan &

are nicknames used to protect their identities. All conversations were done in Spanish and translated into English.

It is a peaceful noon with bright sun. A group of men hang out in the parking lot in front of their houses talking in Spanish.

notices her cell phone ringing in her car. But she ignores it to keep enjoying the conversation. After a while, she opens a small door at the bottom of the garage and goes inside, without knocking.

"I'm a member of this family," she says figuratively. The dining room is filled with the smell of Mexican traditional dishes. "Smells nice," Lady says looking at the leftovers on the table covered with white tablecloth. "I often eat here."

A man with a shy smile under his cap greets Lady as she arrives. "Pedro" has known Lady for five years. She teaches Spanish at Southern Oregon University and has become friends with Pedro and the others who live in this crowded home.

On the wall, there are framed pictures of their families in Mexico. Pedro crossed the border to come here in 1995.

"La linea" is the famous line through which these immigrants unofficially cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Most pay $3,000 to $5,000 to guides known as "coyotes" who smuggle them in trucks or across the desert. But Pedro didn't have enough money, so he took a different, tougher route called "el cerro." He walked through the mountains, and found his way north, finally arriving at this house where the families of Mario, his sister-in-law, live.

"I had to come," Pedro says in Spanish, which is translated by Lady.

After he had made it, his two sons, "Paco" and "Juan" came too. Altogether, 12 relatives now share this three bedroom house. It is a little crowded, but Pedro says he is happy because everyone could come here successfully.

Pedro, Paco, and Juan are agricultural workers for a local company. They always work together and send money to the rest of their family in Mexico. The small yard at their house is filled with green grasses and colorful flowers. A hammock hangs between the trees.

It is now "home" for Paco and Juan. They have established their lives here and have no plans of leaving. But in December, Pedro planned to return to Mexico. He has not seen his wife or his other two children since he came here 11 years ago. He says he probably won't come back to the U.S. since he is too old to cross the border again. He smiles at his two sons, wrinkling his tanned face.

Despite his many years here, Pedro has trouble feeling like a part of the community. Some of the family members don't have citizenship, and they feel the anti-immigration power of the government. They know that the growing number of Hispanics in the neighborhood can upset the non-Hispanic residents.

Some neighbors have called the police with their concerns. Although the complaints against Pedro and his family are small, they face fear whenever the police step in. When they have trouble communicating, they rely on Lady to help translate and find solutions.

Pedro says they trust Lady because she has been nice to the family.

"I know what it's like to be an immigrant," says Lady. She came to the U.S. from Panama in 1988 to study English with a visa. She entered Southern Oregon State College and married her husband after graduation. She lived in the U.S. as a "resident alien" first, then took the citizenship test and passed in 1995. Lady says getting citizenship gave her the right to participate in the politics.

"I truly believe in the power of voting," she says. "I wanted to have that power."

Although Lady succeeded in becoming a citizen, earning a master's degree in political science and becoming a Spanish teacher, she has faces stereotypes and prejudice against Hispanics.

"It still happens," she says.

Once she met a woman at the mall and told her she worked at the school, The woman asked he if she was the janitor.

"Our accent makes them believe that we are not intelligent, " Lady says. "People fear what they don't understand,"

As the number of Hispanic residents in the community increases, the gap between non-Hispanic and Hispanic residents grows. The situation makes the lives of the her immigrant friends that much harder.

"They cannot do small things although it is really simple," she says.

For example, the street light in front of their house was broken, but they couldn't get any help. After several weeks, they finally called Lady and she called the electric company. —

Several miles from her home, Lady has other friends living in trailer houses. She says more than one family lives in each colorful trailer. She enjoys hanging out with them and tells them about jobs when she finds them, and suggests their children attend the education program for Latino children at SOU during the summer.

The voice message Lady has left for callers on her cell phone is in both Spanish and English, a reminder of the gap she bridges each day between two cultures. She is glad to help her friends. But she also understands the burdens of illegal immigration.

"I don't know how, but there should be some kind of regulation," she says. "This country cannot support everyone."

In Panama, she majored in public administration. She says the problem of immigration is not unique to the United States. Panama has a problem with Chinese immigrants.

"It's a hard thing to have an opinion because I can see both sides of the situation," says Lady. She says she can see why Americans are worried about immigrants. "These people are coming here without knowing the culture." For example, putting a seatbelt on a child is not required in Mexico. She says she saw many Hispanic children without fastening seatbelts in their cars.

"At the same time, I feel sorry for people who have nothing although they want to do common work."

Lady says she knows how hard her friends work. "They earn much more money than I." Lady laughs. Each of family members in the house pays $100 a month to share the rent and they also send money to their families in Mexico.

Lady leaves the room and goes out into the shining sun. Paco, leaning on his black car, softly waves his hand to say goodbye. Lady's phone starts ringing again. "I live with a cell phone!" she says with laughter and finally answers, "Hola?"