Equity & Diversity

As Graduation Day Nears, A 4.0 Student Hopes for a Miracle

By Robert C. Johnston — May 31, 2000 4 min read

Edith Carmona is in the Twilight Zone of immigration status known as “in-process.”

Technically, she has been in the United States legally since her father, a U.S. citizen, filed her application for permanent residency two years ago. For purposes of college financial aid, however, she will not qualify for in-state tuition until the application is granted. She has no idea when that will be.

Edith Carmona, 18, and her stepfather, Luis F. Palacios, are trying to settle her immigration status so that she can enroll this fall at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona.
—Robert C. Johnston

Ms. Carmona has been accepted to California State Polytechnic University- Pomona, and wants to study computer engineering. With a 4.0 grade point average from Huntington Park High School, where she will graduate this spring, she seems to have the brainpower. But until she is fully documented, she is ineligible for federal financial aid or the yearly in-state tuition of $2,000. Instead, she must come up with $10,000 for out-of-state tuition.

“At first, I was glad that I was accepted,” said the soft-spoken 18-year-old. “Now I get worried about it every day and get really stressed. For a while, I couldn’t eat and I was sleeping in class.”

Though Ms. Carmona is an exceptional student, her situation is not exceptional. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a notoriously large backlog of applications from illegal immigrants trying to obtain the “green card” that allows them to remain in the United States indefinitely. But Ms. Carmona’s case also raises questions about public perceptions and policies that tend to lump all nonresidents together.

“I’ve seen cases where the father has a green card and is going to get the children’s later, but leaves and the children have no green card,” said Swaim Pessaud, the manager of Project Discovery, a program in Northern Virginia that works with first-generation, college-bound students. She added, “Kids also do what the parents do and think the lawyers are taking care of it, and they’re not.”

‘A Quiet Place’

Ms. Carmona was born in Mexico City. Her mother, who was a maid, came to the United States in 1987 to care for an ailing friend. She left her 4-year-old daughter in the care of an aunt.

After the friend succumbed to cancer in 1991, Concepcion Carmona remained with the family in California, assisting the widowed husband and his two children. Eventually, when the younger Carmona was 11, her mother brought her to Los Angeles and enrolled her in school.

Even though Edith’s mother finished her formal education in the 3rd grade, she has always urged her daughter to take her bookwork seriously. “She cannot help me with my homework, but she gives me a quiet place to do it,” Ms. Carmona said of her mother.

By 1998, the widowed husband, Luis F. Palacios, was in love with his former wife’s helper, and the two were married. “I said to my two kids, ‘I need her as a companion and to care for us,’” recalled Mr. Palacios, who came to the United States from Ecuador in 1963 and became a U.S. citizen in 1988.

Soon after the wedding, he submitted the applications for residency and $2,000 to the Immigration and Naturalization Service on behalf of Ms. Carmona and her mother.

“We didn’t marry for the paperwork,” he said. “We really love each other.”

He was told that the applications would be processed in six months. That was two years ago.

“I call and call, but a machine answers,” Mr. Palacios said. “They keep us with music for hours and hours and they never answer.”

An INS official in Washington said that the agency does not comment on individual cases.

Now, the clock is ticking for Ms. Carmona, who does not know how she’ll afford college. If her parents can’t help—they are considering refinancing their house— she will likely enroll in a community college.

Positive Outlook

It’s not hard to understand why Cal-Poly was interested in her. Except for two classes in nearly four years, she has earned straight A’s. Just as impressive, however, is what she does in her spare time.

Ms. Carmona was picked as Los Angeles County’s junior library volunteer of the year for 1999. She earned the award after racking up 363 volunteer hours helping children on book reports, shelving books, and tutoring children in reading. An accomplished artist, Ms. Carmona even drew new covers for out-of-print books when their covers wore out.

“She brought her friends in and trained them what to do as volunteers,” said Janet Fattahi, who was then the children’s librarian at Huntington Park Library who nominated her for the award. “She’s not the typical volunteer.”

Ms. Carmona, who will graduate next month, is trying to stay positive.

Seated in the school’s college counseling center, the bespectacled teenager sounds like one of the motivational posters taped to the red brick walls around her. But there’s nothing trite in her voice: “Success is not a destination, but a journey,” she said. “Maybe the obstacles are getting harder, but they’re making me a better person.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as As Graduation Day Nears, A 4.0 Student Hopes for a Miracle

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