Published Online:

College-Bound: Undocumented Students on Uncertain Path

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments


Since the day nearly a decade ago that Maria and her four siblings came here from Durango, Mexico, she has called this place her home.

Maria, then 7 years old, was happy to be reunited with her parents, who had left Mexico a few years earlier in search of work here.

In the years since Maria's parents enrolled her in 3rd grade at a public elementary school, she has thrived. Now a senior at Camelback High School with a 3.1 grade-point average, she wants to go to college in the fall.

But Maria is afraid that the next step may not be easy, because she is living in Arizona as an undocumented immigrant. And while federal law guarantees students like her a free public education in grades K-12, that is where the promises end.

Students such as Maria--whose name, like those of other undocumented students in this story, is a pseudonym--are often caught in a morass of misinformation, confusion, and fear that results in barriers, perceived or real, against their efforts to continue their education.

And in some places, the obstacles are multiplying.

In California, for example, a recent court decision requires all undocumented students--even those who live in the state--to pay the higher out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

One provision of the controversial Proposition 187, which California voters passed last fall, denies undocumented students admission to any of the state's public colleges and requires school officials to report any such applicants to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The measure also calls for barring illegal immigrants from receiving most social services, including public K-12 education. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

The courts have blocked implementation of Proposition 187's education provisions while lawsuits challenging them are proceeding.

Regardless of what state undocumented students live in, one of the highest hurdles they face is being barred from the largest source of financial aid for college students--grants and loans from the federal government. In effect, that closes the campus door for many undocumented students, who tend to come from poor families and are often the first generation in their families to even contemplate college.

Recently, as part of a welfare-reform measure, the U.S. House of Representatives moved to restrict federal student aid for some classes of legal immigrants too.

Uncertainty Looms

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children are entitled to a free K-12 public education regardless of their immigration status.

Some civil-rights advocates and educators question the wisdom of federal and state policies that they say contradict the message of that landmark ruling in Plyler v. Doe. If it is in society's interest to have all children finish high school, they ask, why not also encourage their studies beyond that level?

Others argue that a line must be drawn somewhere on government accommodation of illegal-alien students and that the present limit is appropriate.

No one knows how many students like Maria are moving through the nation's public schools. California, which is believed to be home to 40 percent of the country's estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants, is educating up to 400,000 undocumented students in grades K-12, according to state estimates.

Many teachers and counselors who work with undocumented students say that school represents a safe haven for those children. But after high school graduation, life becomes more complicated.

Schools are not supposed to ask students about their immigration status. The High Court in Plyler feared that such questions would have a chilling effect on students and their families. So when students face college-admissions and financial-aid applications that ask whether they are U.S. citizens, many balk.

"I started looking at the college-aid books, and they all said legal resident or citizen," Maria said recently, tugging at a small hole in her Levis as she sat in a counselor's office. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

Pat Hernandez, one of two bilingual counselors at Camelback High School, said she is not sure what will happen to Maria.

Maria's grades are not likely to win her a state academic scholarship or prompt a private university to subsidize her education. But if she were a legal resident, her family's income would make her eligible for federal aid that could smooth the way to nearby Arizona State University or a community college. Perhaps she could clean hotel rooms and make enough money to pay for one or two community-college courses like other undocumented students Ms. Hernandez has known. But, Ms. Hernandez said, those students often become frustrated and drop out.

"Many times we don't know until the last minute whether they make it" into college, she said.

So Ms. Hernandez and Patricia Burch, the school's other bilingual counselor, push community colleges--where tuitions are more affordable--or encourage students to enroll in the district's vocational-education program, even if the students have the grades to make it in a four-year college.

'A Waste of Potential'

For Ms. Burch, situations such as Maria's are frustrating.

"It's a total waste of human potential," she said. "The sad part is these people aren't going back to Mexico; they're here to stay."

Sometimes even getting students to apply for college is problematic. Many students look at the standard federal-aid form most colleges use--which asks for citizenship and residency information--and give up.

Others see the term "resident" in college literature and assume it means a legal resident of the United States. In Arizona, unlike some states with substantial immigrant populations, the rules allow students like Maria to qualify as state residents and pay the public colleges' lower in-state tuition.

But such a misunderstanding shows the level of confusion about these students, said Susan Clouse Dolbert, the director of undergraduate admissions at Arizona State University.

"There's a lot of misinformation," she said. "Students think somehow we're going to report them to the I.N.S."

Meanwhile, Rosa, a student a year behind Maria at Camelback High, said she fears she will not make it to college, though she earns A's and B's.

Her older sister, who graduated two years ago from the school, also had good grades and college aspirations. But she could not get financial aid, and now she works at a car wash in town. Neither of their parents went to school past the elementary grades in their hometown of Morelos, Mexico.

Rosa's mother earns less than $6 an hour on her two shifts as a hotel maid, and her father is a dishwasher. There are no college savings. "I want her to have a career," her mother said in Spanish. "I don't want her to work with her hands like we do."

Gray Areas

The system is so muddled and the rules surrounding state residency are often so vague that whether a student makes it past the obstacles often comes down to the sympathies of the college-admissions or financial-aid officer looking at the student's file, said Michael A. Olivas, the director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center.

More often than not, undocumented students are not mentioned in any laws or rules governing policies at public universities, leaving much room for interpretation, according to Mr. Olivas and officials from a number of national higher-education groups.

"It's a classic example of how higher education has not caught up with the K-12 realities," said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Residency requirements, for example, are set by a number of entities depending on the state. But there is little enforcement of how consistently they are applied, said Charles S. Lenth, the director of policy studies for higher education at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Florida and Texas, both states with large immigrant populations, have rules that say to establish residency, a student must be a legal immigrant. But in New York, undocumented students can establish state residency but cannot receive state aid, according to officials from the State University of New York and the City University of New York.

But between those black-and-white policies is the gray area where most of these students fall, Mr. Olivas said.

Many of the hoops that colleges ask students to jump through conspire against undocumented students. For example, as part of determining residency, many colleges will ask for a driver's license or insurance papers. But in some states undocumented immigrants cannot get a driver's license.

"College-going requires a lot of paperwork. That's difficult if you live in the shadow of the law," said Mr. Olivas, who has done extensive research on undocumented students.

'Can't Get There From Here'

The gray area is familiar territory for Samuel Laroue Jr., the director of admissions and registration for Miami-Dade Community College in Miami. He regularly hears from high school principals throughout Dade County who are worried about a top student--usually Haitian or Latin American--who is undocumented and cannot afford the higher out-of-state tuition.

"These students just can't get there from here," he said.

Linda Loya, a counselor at the heavily Hispanic Huntington Park High School near Los Angeles said she worries about what higher out-of-state tuitions will mean for the 25 undocumented students at her school who had planned to attend California State University next fall.

"They're caught in the middle," she said. "How do you prepare them for something like this?"

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories