How two sisters deal with different immigrant legal statuses

Sisters share childhood secrets, shopping trips, cultural heritage, even the occasional favorite outfit. But in Miami, Suany Galo, 16, and her big sister Reyna Lopez, 20, do not share U.S. citizenship.

Both sisters were born in Honduras, one of the most politically unstable countries in Central America. According to the U.S. State Department, Honduras is plagued by human rights violations and deepening poverty and violence, particularly against women. Partly because of that instability, Lopez was able to enter the United States with her mother as a legal immigrant in 1999. Now she is a U.S. citizen.

Suany and twin brother Maykol Galo came a year later as toddlers, propelled by their mother’s fears of the same violence and instability that has caused many human rights organizations to pull their staffs out of Honduras.

Initially the toddlers were driven to California without immigration documents to stay with their grandmother, later joining their mother, father and older sister in Miami.

They are among the 17 million people living in the United States as a split-status family. The sisters were raised under the same roof and attended the same schools for most of their lives. Yet their legal statuses have made their attitudes diverge.

Suany is the only undocumented family member living in her household. Her twin brother attends a residential school in Melbourne. When she left Honduras, their mother was only able to receive documentation to bring one child, so she decided to bring her eldest, Reyna.

“I can’t be upset over the choices my mother has made,” Galo said. “I’m sure there is a reason for her decisions. I mean, it would’ve been great if she could have brought all three of us at the same time, so we would not have had to go our separate ways at such a young age.”

When they first arrived in Miami, Lopez said she and her mother had a hard time assimilating to American culture. They spoke no English and the parents still speak only Spanish at home.

Now appearing as American as any other student at South Dade Senior High School, Suany Galo is a rising senior. Enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, she said she hopes to attend college at Florida International University.

She currently lives in Homestead with her parents, both granted U.S. citizenship, four U.S.-born younger siblings, plus her aunt and uncle.

As the only undocumented immigrant in her household, Galo is not alone. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 400,000 undocumented immigrant children have U.S.-born siblings.

Though her younger siblings have advantages and opportunities as citizens that she does not, Galo said she feels no resentment toward them.

“I don’t feel any jealousy toward my siblings for being citizens. Sometimes it’s just a little bit upsetting because it wasn’t something I could control,” Galo said. “The split status in our family doesn’t cause any tension – we all see each other the same way and treat each other equally.”

Galo said she respects her parent’s decision to move their family to America. Understanding the violence and economic instability in her homeland, she said she would have done the same.

“I consider myself a Honduran – I’m proud of where I come from, my background, my culture,” Galo said. “But my parents brought me to America so I can have a better future, so, at the end of the day, I feel lucky – I’m blessed.”

As the first in her family to attend college and graduate from high school, Lopez knew she wanted to build a better life for her family. Because her immigrant parents only speak Spanish, they have to work long hours at menial jobs for minimal wages. She grew up practically raising her sisters and brothers and hopes her degree can create a better life for her six-month-old son and set an example for her younger siblings.

“I decided to go to college because I don’t want to end up like my parents. They have a routine of waking up every day and just going to work,” Lopez said. “I want to provide something better for my family.”

Lopez said she believes in the “American Dream,” but worries about the adversity undocumented immigrants face.

“They don’t get paid equally, and they don’t earn minimum wage. They are the ones that have to go and work on the fields – especially here in Homestead,” Lopez said.

“They forget what their American Dream is. The American Dream is really hard when you don’t have the legal rights to be here.”