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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

Undocumented—with College Dreams

Haunted by his immigration status, a bright student persists on the road to college.

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Is the migra [immigration official] going to get on the bus today? Every day, I think this might be the day that I don't make it to school, that my mom gets a call that I've been picked up." For 19-year-old Sergio, an undocumented immigrant student and English language learner in California's San Diego County, his immigration status is as much a part of his school experience as are textbooks and tests.
Like so many others, Sergio's mother left her children in the care of relatives and moved, without immigration papers, to the United States to find work and a better life for her family. Although she sent money and letters home, the family was separated for eight years. Sergio has never known his father.
When Sergio was 13, he and his younger sister learned they were going to be reunited with their mother in the United States. They got a call instructing them to wait alone in a dirt lot at midnight in Tijuana, near the border, dressed in their best clothes. A woman arrived and explained that they would pose as her children, returning to the United States after a late-night family gathering. Feigning sleep, the children crossed the border without incident—and without immigration documents. Their mother had paid $2,500 for each of them from money she had saved from her day job in construction and her night shift as a janitor. That night still haunts Sergio.
The reunion was bittersweet. Although Sergio and his mother initially were elated to be together again, it soon became clear that they had grown apart during their years of separation. This sense of alienation is common among families that have been separated for long periods of time and can complicate a student's efforts to adjust to the United States and learn English.
Sergio is not alone. Although exact figures vary, it is estimated that there are more than 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, as well as many more immigrants who have legal residency. Mexicans and other Latin Americans make up about 80 percent of this population, with the remaining 20 percent coming from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Approximately 2 million undocumented immigrants are under 18 years of age, and nearly all are English language learners (Passel, 2005). Clearly, schools will be better equipped to meet these students' needs if they understand the unique issues facing these young people.

Challenges at School

Sergio attended one of the theme-based small schools located on the campus of what used to be a large, comprehensive high school in the San Diego area. At that time, more than 75 percent of the students were English language learners; an undetermined number of these students and their families were undocumented immigrants.
Sergio and I met when he was a freshman enrolled in my English as a second language class. He had always been a good student in Mexico, and his drive to succeed in the United States was obvious. He was diligent with all his assignments, and although I speak Spanish fluently, he insisted on speaking to me in English. He quickly moved to the top of his class. Although he was not afraid that the school would report him to the authorities, Sergio did not at first reveal to his teachers that he was undocumented. "I never wanted my teachers to know. I thought that you might feel sorry for me and make the classes too easy or that you just wouldn't understand this part of me," he explained.
Although he didn't want special treatment, Sergio did need to feel that his teachers genuinely cared about his success. The good teachers in the school were those who had high academic and behavior standards in their classrooms. Sergio disapproved when some students labeled demanding teachers as racist: "It's like [the students] wanted someone to feel sorry for them or to give them easy work just because they were learning English. What a lame excuse!" To Sergio, teachers who expect a lot of their students seem to believe that the students can meet those expectations. "We already have enough stuff in our lives telling us we can't be something," he said. "We don't need the teachers doing it, too."
Sergio's ambition to succeed academically, and his refusal to use his language and immigration status as an excuse for failure, exacerbated his sense of alienation:[The other students] would accuse me of "acting white" because I wanted to speak English and do well in school. I heard words likecoconut and Oreo, which really hurt. I'm just trying to do the best I can for myself and my family, and it's like I can't do that and be Mexican, too.
Sergio's difficulties at home and with his peers are, unfortunately, not unusual among immigrants and English language learners (Zhou, 2003).

Obstacles Along the Way

Sergio had never considered attending college in the United States, or even in Mexico, despite the fact that he had always been an outstanding student. He thought it was just too far out of his reach: too expensive, too difficult, too intimidating.
But things changed for him in the spring of his freshman year. When our first seniors were accepted to college, I posted their names over the whiteboard in the front of my classroom. "Your name in lights," I called it. That first year, there were only five names, but by the fourth year, we had 13 names "in lights." When Sergio saw all the Hispanic names there, he began to think his name could be there, too.
But the path to college was completely unknown. "No one in my family had ever gone to college before," he said, "and I didn't even know where to start." Sergio and I talked often about what he would need to do to get into college and to be academically prepared for college-level work. I encouraged him to enroll in the low-cost summer classes available at the local community college. The idea both intrigued and scared him, but together with a friend from school, Sergio enrolled in computer and English classes that summer.
He began to gain confidence in his abilities and in his potential for succeeding in higher education. "I was so impressed with the dedication of those college students," he said. "I wanted to be like them. They really cared about their future. It was so different from my classmates at school." The lack of opportunities for higher education may well have dampened the motivation of Sergio's classmates, as it does for many other immigrants and English language learners (Cornelius, 1995).
Sergio also attended extended day classes at school four evenings each week to ensure that he would have enough English credits to be eligible to apply to a university. Students who are classified as English language learners must, in general, take additional coursework beyond their English as a second language or English language development classes to obtain the credits necessary for university entrance.
However, extra classes are not always available and often depend on funding and staffing issues. Also, throughout his high school years, Sergio's family endured repeated financial upheaval. Sergio was fortunate to be able to attend extended day classes for the few months that life was stable and income was regular. But many interested, eligible students are not able to attend because of work or sibling-care commitments; their income and assistance are necessary for the survival of the family. This sense of family responsibility is common among many immigrant groups (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995).
Sergio had a chance to visit several colleges, once as a freshman in my class and once as a junior during a five-day school-sponsored trip to 10 California colleges and universities. These experiences helped demystify the college world and motivate Sergio to do the hard work necessary to attend. However, the odds were against him: In the United States, the high school graduation rate for English language learners is far below that for native English speakers (Kohler & Lazarin, 2007), and only about 1 in 20 undocumented high school seniors attends college (Protopsaltis, 2005).
For many students, standardized achievement tests are the litmus test for whether they will be successful in life. Failing the test means failing at the future. Each year at Sergio's school, many English language learners repeatedly failed the exit exam, which prevented them from obtaining a high school diploma. Twenty three states currently require an exit exam for graduation from high school, including five of the six states with the highest immigration and English language learner populations (Center on Education Policy, 2008).
But Sergio easily passed the California High School Exit Exam on his first attempt, which further helped build his confidence and reinforce his dreams of success. His teachers had always told him that he was smart, but now he had "real proof." "The people who graded that test didn't know me," he said. "So they couldn't just tell me I was good because they liked me."
In addition to his academic and part-time work efforts, Sergio became increasingly involved in school clubs and government. But his immigration status was a constant presence. When other students were planning field trips to Los Angeles and New York, the possibility of an encounter with the migradeterred Sergio from taking part. Although immigration officers do not normally interact with minors, older students run the risk of detention or deportation if they are caught. The Border Patrol will sometimes board public transportation or conduct patrols in areas that immigrants frequent.
The threat of detention became real for all of us at school when Sergio was a junior. Lisa, one of our 18-year-old college-bound seniors, was detained by the Border Patrol while she was waiting for the trolley. She was transported in handcuffs to a detention center, where she was held for more than a month. School staff members wrote letters on her behalf, and students organized a car wash to raise money for her legal fees. She eventually returned to school but did not attend the university to which she had been accepted. The emotional scars of her detention were just too great.
It was only when Sergio and I began discussing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that he confided to me that he was undocumented and would not be able to get financial aid. Although California is one of 10 states that allow undocumented immigrants who have met certain residency requirements to qualify for instate tuition rates (Russell, 2007), students without social security numbers are not eligible to receive state or federal financial aid, including most student loans. Only three states make some state aid available to undocumented students (Russell, 2007); the remaining states charge undocumented immigrants out-of-state tuition rates.
Many private or foundation-type scholarships also require a social security number, what we came to call the "magic number." Undocumented students can qualify for a variety of awards from private groups, but the awards are normally smaller than those granted by larger foundations and professional associations. A university education is simply out of reach for many of the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate annually from U.S. high schools (Protopsaltis, 2005).
A local university was Sergio's only option because, to save on housing expenses, he would have to live at home with his mother. In addition, he was not prepared to travel out of the area and risk the Border Patrol checkpoints north and east of San Diego each time he returned to visit his family. It was just too threatening.

For Me and For Everyone Else

As the window opened for university application at the beginning of Sergio's senior year, his nervousness and financial doubts grew. Getting accepted to a four-year school and not being able to pay for it would be heartbreaking, but not applying would be even more devastating. We both spent hours researching scholarships, revising application essays, and practicing for interviews. Sergio also attended several afterschool events designed to help students find funding for school.
The day Sergio got the e-mail saying that he had been accepted to the local university is one we will both remember forever. But when we found out that he was going to be awarded a large scholarship for which legal immigration status was not required—and when we knew a university education was going to become a reality—we both cried with joy and relief. Sergio's family was excited and proud that he would become the first in his family to attend a university.
Sergio graduated valedictorian of his high school class. He is now majoring in business and planning a minor in political science. Although he sometimes struggles with college-level writing and balancing his job with his studies, he finished his first semester at college with a 3.5 grade point average. He also has a keen interest in U.S. politics and history. "I live here. It's my country, too," he explained. "I want it to be the best it can be, for me and for everyone else. Just because I came here without papers and had to learn English doesn't mean I can't contribute something."

But Then What?

Job prospects after graduation for Sergio, and for the thousands of other students like him, are bleak. Although many undocumented immigrants purchase false social security cards, proper immigration documentation is required for any professional-level position. These graduates will probably have to return to their home countries to work. From there, they can then apply for a work or immigration permit to the United States. Sergio is planning to obtain a position with an international organization that will enable him to return to the United States.
U.S. taxpayers have already invested thousands of dollars in the education of students like Sergio. Forcing these students to leave the country to use their education and skills robs the United States of the return on its investment.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, introduced in committee in the Senate, and the American Dream Act, introduced in committee in the House of Representatives, acknowledge the importance of these students to the future of the United States. If passed, these acts would enable students who were brought to the United States as minors to apply for legal immigration status if they fulfill certain requirements, such as enrolling in a program of higher education and demonstrating "good moral character" (Lazarin, 2007). For now, thousands of students are in immigration status limbo, and the United States fails to benefit from their contributions.
Regardless of anyone's politics, English language learners and their families will continue to seek the opportunities available in the United States. Schools serving these students must address their needs if we are to help them become productive and responsible members of society. Sergio knows that it's going to be a long time before the United States is officially "his country, too," but he knows that it will be worth the wait.

Center on Education Policy. (2008). State high school exit exams: A move toward end of course exams. Washington, DC: Author. Available: www.cep-dc.org

Cornelius, W. (1995). Introduction and Overview. In R. G. Rumbaut & W. Cornelius (Eds.), California's immigrant children: Theory, research, and implications for educational policy. San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Kohler, A. D., & Lazarin, M. (2007).Hispanic education in the United States. Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza. Available: www.nclr.org/content/publications/detail/43582

Lazarin, M. (2007). The "DREAM Act" and the "American Dream Act." (2007). Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza. Available:www.nclr.org/content/publications/download/43340

Passel, J. S. (2005). The size and characteristics of the unauthorized migrant population in the U.S. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available:http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/61.pdf

Protopsaltis, S. (2005). Undocumented immigrant students and access to higher education: An overview of federal and state policy. Denver, CO: Bell Policy Center. Available:www.thebell.org/PUBS/IssBrf/2005/03UndocTuition.pdf

Russell, A. (2007). In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants: States' rights and educational opportunity. Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Suarez-Orozco, M. M., & Suarez-Orozco, C. E. (1995). The cultural patterning of achievement motivation. In R. G. Rumbaut & W. Cornelius (Eds.), California's immigrant children: Theory, research, and implications for educational policy (pp. 161–190). San Diego: The Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Zhou, M. (2003). Urban education: Challenges in educating culturally diverse children. Teachers College Record, 105(2), 208–225.

Mary Jewell has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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