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Equity & Diversity

Brighter Futures Predicted for Undocumented Youths

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 06, 2012 5 min read
Tony Choi poses at a bus stop in Palisades Park, N.J. Despite having a degree in political science and Spanish, the young man is unable to find legal employment and depends on public transportation because he cannot apply for a driver's license. A U.S. resident for 14 years, he is among the estimated hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth who were brought to this country by their parents.

With more than 1.3 million undocumented young people now eligible to seek relief from deportation and gain work permits and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down much of Arizona’s immigration law, some educators and advocates hope that more college and career opportunities will open up for youths who were brought illegally to the United States as children.

The June 15 announcement that President Barack Obama’s administration would halt deportations of undocumented youths younger than 30 and allow them to seek legal work permits bypasses Congress to implement portions of the DREAM Act, but falls well short of providing the path to citizenship proposed in that bill, which was blocked by Senate Republicans in 2010.

Under the administration’s “deferred action” policy, undocumented youths can be granted a deferment of removal proceedings for two years—with the possibility of renewal—and apply for work authorization if they came to the United States before age 16; are no older than 30; have lived in the United States for at least the past five consecutive years; graduated from or are currently in high school; are an honorably discharged military veteran; and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.

“I think this will give some of our students more assurance that they aren’t going to be sent back to a situation or a country that they don’t know or even remember,” said Michael J. Foran, the principal of the 2,700-student New Britain High School in New Britain, Conn. “I hope this means that our undocumented students will begin to have more meaningful opportunities and options.”

Though schools do not collect information on students’ immigration status, Mr. Foran said there are a “handful” of students in his school who could benefit from deferred action.

Ripples in Alabama

The deferred-action announcement, followed 10 days later by the Supreme Court decision overturning much of Arizona’s tough immigration law—including the provision that made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to seek employment—has especially heartened some educators in Alabama. The Arizona ruling casts Alabama’s similar, but even tougher, immigration law into uncertain legal territory, including the provision that requires school officials to ask for a students’ immigration status and report the data to the state education agency. That mandate was put on hold by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

“We won’t know for sure until we hear from the circuit court on this, but I am very, very hopeful that our students are going to be OK,” said William Lawrence, the principal of 1,200-student Foley Elementary School in Foley, Ala., a rural town near the Gulf Coast that is home to a large Mexican immigrant community.

Mr. Lawrence, who has seen many of the families that initially fled his community come back, believes the real test of how immigrant parents and their children interpret these new developments on the immigration front will be borne out in enrollment.

“I think the fear factor is still there,” he said. “Since this law took effect last fall, we have not had one undocumented student come in to enroll. My worry is that those kids are out there but they aren’t coming in to register.”

Schools’ Role

With the new deferred-action policy soon to be in place, immigrant students and their families are likely to seek help from school staff members, according to legal experts and educators.

“It’s often a teacher or a counselor who is one of the few people who may know about a student’s undocumented status,” said Bethany Li, a staff lawyer for the Asian American Legal and Education Defense Fund, which is providing free legal clinics in New York City, the first of which will be July 12, to advise immigrant youths who may be eligible for deferred action.

Said Mr. Foran, the Connecticut high school principal: “I think schools are often the one trusted government institution, so it’s important that we are prepared to give students and their families the best information we can and refer them to resources and organizations that can help them.”

Some advocates say they will be doing outreach directly to schools to provide accurate information that educators can use as a resource for students. One is Moises Serrano, a 22-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has lived in rural North Carolina since he was 18 months old. He said schools should offer support, however informal, to students like him.

“I never told anyone about my status, because I never wanted anyone to know,” said Mr. Serrano, who is now an organizer with El Cambio, a youth organization based in Yadkinville, N.C., that is focused on immigration reform. It is part of United We Dream, a national network that is pushing for changes to immigration policy.

“But it’s becoming safer for young people to be honest about their status,” he said.

Mr. Serrano, who graduated from high school in 2007, has mostly worked in low-wage jobs in factories and as a farm worker ever since. He said he did not have the means to pay out-of-state tuition rates for North Carolina’s public colleges and universities and does not have access to financial aid because of his immigration status.

Tony Choi, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from South Korea, agrees that school staff members can provide crucial support, both on how to prepare for the limitations that come with being undocumented and in pursuing options for higher education.

He also said it’s important for educators to be aware that not all undocumented students are Latino. He is organizing a new group of undocumented Asian youths in the New York-New Jersey region to push for the DREAM Act and support comprehensive immigration reform. A primary mission of the group, at least initially, is to create a “safe space” for undocumented Asian youths to open up about their status, he said.

“Growing up in New Jersey, I always felt like I was the only Asian student who was undocumented,” he said. “I didn’t realize that there were many more people like me who were going through the same thing. We just didn’t ever discuss it. It’s been very hush, hush in the Asian community.”

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