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News :: Education : Globalization : Human Rights : Labor
Living in the Shadows: Undocumented Children Strive to Succeed
by Sofia Jarrin-Thomas
Email: sofiajt (nospam) yahoo.com
09 May 2005
Modified: 12:06:28 PM
As an immigrant, Araceli has a hard time feeling like she belongs. She fled social unrest in Guatemala with her family when she was only five years old, speaks English better than Spanish, but has been forced to live in the fringes of society because she is considered illegal. “I’ve been here for sixteen years. I consider myself an American,” she said.
The first time she found out about her status was when she tried to apply for college and was told the benefit of a higher education did not apply to her. One year after graduating from high school with a 3.5 GPA and unable to work legally in this country, she feels uneasy about her future. “Put your self in my shoes. I want an education and a career,” she said.
As ruled by the Supreme Court in Plyer vs. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, in 1982, undocumented children have the right to attend public schools through grade twelve, but when they graduate from high school their amnesty ends harshly. High school graduates without legal immigration status cannot legally work, can attend college only as international students at out-of-state tuition rates, and are not eligible for federal student aid.
Currently, state and national officials are reviewing laws to try to integrate some of the 790,000 plus children who live illegally in this country. The Dream Act, at the national level, would grant resident status to immigrant children who have been in the country for more than five years, for finishing high school, and having a clean police record. The In-State Tuition Bill in Massachusetts (H-1230), endorsed by the House Ways and Means Committee, is the option for immigrant young adults to pay in-state college tuition as long as they have lived in the state for at least three years and have graduated from high school.
Araceli and several other students joined forces two years ago to advocate for the above legislation under the United We Dream Tour. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) and a few other organizations, the tour stopped in 10 locations across Massachusetts and Rhode Island in April of 2005 alone. Last year they traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet students from all over the US and lobby for the above legislation.
“In Washington, DC, we had a target to get 65,000 petitions [to support the Dream Act] and got more than 100,000. It was really good experience for us. People came from Chicago, Texas, California, Florida,” said Araceli.
In 2001, California and Texas were the first states to enact legislation allowing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Similar legislation has been passed in Utah, California, New York, Illinois, Washington, and Oklahoma, and it is being considered in another 14 states.
Texas legislators based their decision partly on research presented by Texas House Research Organization (THRO), which indicated that not helping students' attend college resulted in much greater costs to the state by contributing to an uneducated workforce. By 1998, the number of dropouts in Texas had increased to almost 1.2 million with the costs estimated at $319 billion.
Last year in Massachusetts, the bill unanimously passed Board of Higher Education but was vetoed when it reached Governor Mitt Romney’s desk in October 2004.
“In general, the governor wants to make it easier, not more difficult, for students to afford college in our state. But, at the same time, he vetoed this measure last year because we should not make it easier for illegal aliens to violate federal immigration law, and we shouldn’t excuse those violations of the law by giving illegal aliens the same benefits we provide our citizens,” said Shawn Freedman, a spokesperson from Governor Romney’s office.
Proponents of the law say that it would benefit the economy in the long run by having an educated work force. “Of course, the more opportunity we can provide to enhance the education levels of our workforce, I think it’s a positive thing for the economy,” said Susan Houston, Executive Director at the Massachusetts Alliance for Economic Development made up of 45 plus industries in real state, finance and law, design, architecture, and trade.
With a 3.9 GPA and a 1200 score on his SAT, Cristian would be a perfect candidate to fill an empty chair at one of the state’s colleges. He fled Colombia’s violence with whatever he could fit in one small suitcase and the clothes on his back. “I had to leave all my medals behind, all 15 of them hanging from the mirror in my room,” he said. These were academic achievement medals he had won while attending a Catholic boarding school in Medellin.
“In terms of status I think what has been created in the last 20 years in this country is apartheid for immigrants, and the reason why I say apartheid is because there’s a legal structure that puts immigrants in a different place,” said John Wilshire-Carrera, a lawyer at the Harvard Law Refugee Clinic. “So on the one hand the walls have gotten thicker but have also gotten higher. It has become harder to move from being undocumented to being documented, and I think that has really affected kids a lot,” he said.
“Immigrants have become scapegoats for anything bad that happens,” said Ms. Heloisa Galvaço, founder of Brazilian Women’s Group and long-time immigrant rights activist. She said that US policies are targeting illegal immigrants unjustly, that the culture of fear and distrust that has erupted since September 11, 2001, has forced many immigrant children under a further layer of invisibility.
Claudia Rodriguez, Bilingual Counselor at East Boston High School, placed most of her hopes this year on Camilo, one of Cristian’s classmates, who also arrived illegally to this country and will graduate with a 4.0 GPA. Camilo is a member of the Junior ROTC program in his high school and successfully completed courses last summer in Virginia Military Institute, one of the top military academies in the United States.
With the help of Ms. Rodriguez, Camilo submitted this past December an application for admission to Hamilton College through the Posse Foundation’s Dynamic Assessment Process, a program run with private funds used to identify students in urban areas who are often overlooked by the admission process.
Camilo talked about a best friend who had fewer alternatives and decided to go back to Colombia instead. “He loves it here but he doesn’t have [legal] papers,” said Camilo, “He says that he wants to go back to his country and have all the rights he can have there, instead of remaining here and live in the shadows.”
At East Boston High School, administrators take students’ cases one by one. Francisco Guernica, program director for 9th grade, said that some of the undocumented students can get very emotional. “Just the other day I was talking to one of them and he was saying that he sees no reason for finishing high school because there is no way for him to move forward. So I was telling him that you never know what life is going to present you with in the future. You should think about things that way, not just giving up.”
As 1.9 million boomers approach their retirement age, according to the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), the number of prime age workers is projected to decline in the next 20 years, leaving a potential labor shortage in Massachusetts. Their research found that foreign immigrants were responsible for 82 percent of the net growth in the state's civilian labor force between the 1980s and 1997.
From 1990 to 2000, the Latino population in Massachusetts grew by 49.1%, according to the John W. McCormack School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts. Among the overall Latino population, recently arrived immigrant children account for about 10% of all children under 18.
On December of 2004, Camilo took the morning train alone to New York State for the fourth time to be interviewed by Hamilton College’s admission officials. He was one of 500 candidates who applied for the scholarship and this time was no longer nervous although he couldn’t believe he had made it this far. The interview was long in the presence of six officials, but the final decision did not make itself wait. Camilo received a call the next day to learn that he would receive a full four-year scholarship to study at Hamilton College and that the school would issue a student visa for him. Finally, the doors of opportunity had opened up for him.
“I’m feeling pretty good, pretty excited about it. At least now I’m going to be able to go to college,” said Camilo. Now that he will have an international student visa, the first thing Camilo thought was going back to Colombia to see his family again: cousins, aunts, uncles and his stepfather, whom he had not seen in four-and-a-half years.
Cristian, meanwhile, is hopeful and unwavering that the rules of the game will change soon for him as well. Out his large group of Latino friends, he is the only undocumented one. They often joke around with him about his “American heritage” because he has the lightest skin of the group. “It’s hard to see them go to college. All I can do is wait,” he said.
Feature photograph by Cory Campbell.
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