By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Raleigh, North Carolina
Arely was an honour student in high school in California. She ran on the cross-country team and never missed a day of school.
Her dream was to become a high school teacher, but university proved too expensive.
She was not eligible for the discounted rates that local students pay for university in many US states, because she is an illegal immigrant.
Arely has a house and job but fears she could be deported
Students from other states and illegal immigrants are not entitled to local tuition in most states.
Arely had entered the US illegally from Mexico in 1993, aged 16, to join her family.
"It was easier to cross the border in those days. I came in with a friend of my mother's, pretending to be her daughter," said Arely, who asked that her last name not be used because of her legal status.
She did not want to come to the United States at the time, she said, but knowing what she knows now, she is glad she did.
In Guerrero state - one of Mexico's poorest - she had lived with her grandmother in a mud-brick house, where the family slept on the ground.
"There were five of us in one little house," she said. "We ate beans every day. We had no shoes. I started working in the crops at the age of seven.
"My parents decided to cross the border to get a better future."
After finishing high school, Arely took a job as a waitress, working 11 hours a day, six days a week, for about $500 (£270) a week.
Three years ago, she moved with her family from one end of the US to the other - from California to North Carolina - because the family's house was too small.
NORTH CAROLINA'S HISPANICS
About 600,000 in the state - 7% of the total population
Account for more than a quarter of the state's population growth, 1990-2004
Two in five newcomers are from abroad; another two in five are from elsewhere in the US, and one in five was born in North Carolina
45% do not have proper documentation
Source: Kenan Institute
Her parents bought a house the following year, and she bought one of her own the year after that. She is now working as a supervisor at one of the country's largest retailers.
The path she followed is one that many, many feet have trod in the past decade - North Carolina has the fastest-growing Mexican population in the US.
It even has a Mexican consulate in the state capital, Raleigh.
Once known primarily as an agricultural state, North Carolina has added a booming hi-tech sector to its economy, and immigrants, legal and illegal, are coming in search of work.
One in three new jobs created in the last decade was filled by a Latino worker, according to a study by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.
"Mexicans began to discover 10 to 15 years ago that there is more to the United States than just going vertically up from Mexico," Mexican consul Armando Ortiz-Rocha told the BBC.
"Floods of people are moving here not only from Mexico, but also from Texas, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California," he added.
They are working in construction - their single largest employer - agriculture, hotels and restaurants, Mr Ortiz-Rocha said.
The Kenan report painted a mixed picture of their economic impact, saying they cost the state an average of $102 per person each year, but also that they helped keep labour costs down.
Mr Ortiz-Rocha says the US faces two unrealistic options
"Hispanic workers contribute immensely to the state's economic output and cost competitiveness in a number of key industries," researchers said.
The report did not distinguish between Hispanics who were legal residents and those who were not, but it estimated that 45% did not have proper documentation.
North Carolina's two senators voted against a recent bill proposing stricter border controls but creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants - dubbed an "amnesty" by some of its opponents.
"Securing our borders and enforcing current laws must come first," Republican Elizabeth Dole said in explaining her opposition.
"I would support a programme that provides temporary worker permits to help bring people out of the shadows. But I cannot and will not support granting amnesty to those who have broken our laws and entered this nation illegally."
Senator Richard Burr, also a Republican, opposed the bill on economic grounds as well as law-and-order ones.
"The economic impact this legislation will have on North Carolina and the nation is staggering," he said, citing a Congressional Budget Office-estimated price tag of $79bn over 10 years.
"Taxpayers will carry the increased costs of providing federal benefits," he said.
The bill passed, despite their objections. It must now be reconciled with a stricter House of Representatives version before it can be forwarded to President Bush to sign into law.
A recent survey of US lawmakers by the National Journal, a Washington weekly, found that a significant number doubt that any immigration reform will become law this year.
Mr Ortiz-Rocha, the Mexican consul, said the US was caught between two completely unrealistic options: expelling the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants or allowing a significant portion of them to apply for citizenship.
Federico van Gelderen blames both Mexico and the US
"Are you going to be able to deport 12 million people?" he asked rhetorically.
If, on the other hand, the three to four million people who meet the proposed requirements all choose to apply for citizenship, it will take years to process the paperwork, he added.
Federico van Gelderen, a former chair of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, blames governments on both sides of the border for the current situation.
"This is a game both countries have been playing forever," argued Mr van Gelderen, who is originally from Argentina.
"The Mexican government is not only not taking responsibility" for its citizens in the US, "they are taking advantage of them," he said, citing the money they send home to Mexico.
'Consequence, not cause'
And he said the US had traditionally been happy to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration.
"Before 9/11 it was an economic decision: 'We need this labour.' Not a lot of politicians understand that behind the numbers and the money were people with needs.
"The mass of immigrants are not the cause [of the problem], they are the consequence of a system that benefited both sides."
He said he was frustrated by much of the US debate on illegal immigrants: "They are here to stay. People who talk about immigration don't understand how complex the issues are."
Arely, for one, hopes she is in the US to stay, but she cannot be certain.
"I have only a work permit, not permanent residence," she said.
She said she would apply for citizenship if the law were changed to allow it.
"I have been here 12 years - almost half my life. I have nothing back in my country. All my life is here."