Equity & Diversity Opinion

The U.S. and Mexico Should Help Deported Students Access College

By Contributing Blogger — December 17, 2014 6 min read
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William Perez with U.S.-educated students in Mexico. He reports on their experiences as a part of his Fulbright fellowship. (Photo: Fred Sanchez)

By William Perez

MEXICO CITY—Having worked hard for 20 years for high school, college, and graduate degrees in the U.S., it never occurred to me that they would not be automatically recognized as valid in Mexico if I ever decided to live and work there. But that’s the case. How is it that two neighboring countries with such a long history of cross-border migration have not developed a simple process to recognize each other’s educational credentials?

Eloquently chronicled by Nancy Landa in her blog Mundo Citizen, the process to get U.S. degrees validated in Mexico is a bureaucratic nightmare. After being deported from the U.S. shortly after graduating from college, Nancy looked into continuing her education in Mexico. She proudly graduated from California State University, Northridge with top honors and had been elected student body president. When she inquired about the process of pursuing graduate school in Mexico, she hit a wall.

Landa had to get her U.S. educational credentials validated by the Mexican Federal Education Department, a process that could take months or even years. After doing more research, she learned that she could attend graduate school in England where her U.S. degree was automatically recognized. It was actually easier for her to go 5,000 miles away to a different continent to get her graduate degree. Nancy’s struggles are all too common.

When the Pursuit of Education Gets You Deported

My research on undocumented students in the U.S. highlights the numerous hurdles they must overcome to continue with their education after high school. For Henry (a pseudonym), his efforts to find a way around the obstacles he faced got him deported, as he described during his interview:

I thought that by moving to another state things were going be easier. I had saved some money for college...I was on my way to Chicago, but I never got there. When I got to Ohio there was a border patrol officer asking everyone for papers...when I saw him right outside the bus I got really scared...I locked myself in the bathroom but they started knocking on the door really hard...When I opened the door, the first thing he asked was, "United States citizen sir?" I said, "No, I'm not a citizen. I'm a student. I'm a college student."

Henry showed a lot of resilience after his traumatic deportation. His desire to continue with his education remained strong. “I studied really hard, about eight hours a day, non-stop,” he said. His efforts got him accepted into UNAM, one of Mexico’s most prestigious universities. The school refused to recognize any of his previous college coursework in the U.S., so he had to start all over. Despite that, his college acceptance gave him a renewed sense of purpose and a way to cope with the separation from his family still in the U.S., “I was really excited! It helped me with my sadness. I was missing my father so much. School is probably the only place I feel safe here (in Mexico).”

They Didn’t Go to School To Work at a Call Center

Due to the educational bureaucratic hurdles and limited employment options, a large number of deportees and returnees work at call centers where their native-level English proficiency is a valued asset. Most require at least a high school degree but, unlike Mexican educational authorities, they readily accept U.S. education credentials. Although they pay well relative to average Mexican wages, the working conditions are difficult, and the turnover is very high. Henry worked at a call center when he first returned. He recalled, “I didn’t want to work in a calling center. Working at a calling center is the worst. As soon as I got accepted into UNAM I quit. I got paid really good money, but no way.”

Not everyone is as fortunate as Henry. Although 72% of the young adults we surveyed have at least a high school degree and 75% aspire to earn at least a B.A. degree, only 29% had enrolled in college at some point, and only 5% had earned a B.A.

Many participants in our study simply gave up when faced with such an overwhelming process; others remain hopeful they’ll eventually be able to figure out the process. Even after years of trying one young woman said, “I’m afraid to go to school here. I don’t know the process. I haven’t been in school for five years.” After spending several years figuring out the Mexican educational system and eventually enrolling in college, Susana still thinks about what she would have done with a college education in the U.S.: “If they would have granted me the opportunity to go to college, to stay, and have a job there, I would have done great things for the U.S. for giving me the opportunity. I would have found a way to pay it back.”

A Binational Policy Imperative

The lack of awareness by Mexican society, including educational authorities, about the reality of deported youths highlights the need for better binational policies to address this problem. U.S. educators must engage in a dialogue with their Mexican counterparts to develop strategies to support returnees. We need to recognize the return migrant youth diaspora with American sensibilities as an opportunity for strong bilateral relations. Efforts should include coordination between American and Mexican educational institutions to create efficient and timely processing and issuance of school records. Both countries should promote a more seamless educational transition by reducing bureaucracy, lowering fees, and streamlining procedures. A binational education taskforce could identify obstacles, recommend actions, and monitor procedures to facilitate trans-border school movements. Such cooperation could be achieved by establishing an education task force within the Binational Commission currently maintained by the U.S. and Mexico state departments.

Migration affects the lives of tens of millions of persons in the U.S. and Mexico. Families migrate, separate, return, and reunite back and forth across the border: many times even within the span of a generation. Current immigration laws fail to recognize the transnational reality of their lives. As Hector noted at the end of his interview:

I hope that one day people can see how hard it is for someone like me, somebody in our situation...It's not just something physical that defines you, but it's psychological and it hurts when you do everything to feel normal over there (U.S.) and when they find out you're not normal it's like...it's something you believe so much and you find out it's not real... People who truly want to be there (U.S.) deserve a chance to show that they can contribute...I hope that those people who are working hard to be someone in life get the chance to prove that they should stay.

There is a need to increase awareness in the U.S. and Mexico about the effects of deportations on youths’ psychological well-being as well as educational and occupational attainment to develop effective and humane binational integration policies. The inadequacy of immigration policy in both countries makes it difficult for immigrants to become integrated and make more substantial contributions to both societies.

The hundreds of thousands of youth deported or forced to return to Mexico after growing up in the U.S. have the potential to contribute significantly to a binational economy that draws on each country’s comparative advantage. A large skilled population that is culturally and linguistically grounded in both countries could play a significant role in reducing the historical animosity and mistrust between the U.S. and Mexico.

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William Perez (BA, Pomona College; Ph.D., Stanford University) is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar/Visiting Researcher at Colegio de México (COLMEX) in Mexico City. His research focuses on the social and psychological processes associated with academic success and higher education access among immigrant Latino students. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading academic experts on undocumented students. In 2009, he received the Mildred Garcia Prize from the Association for the Study of Higher Education for his book, We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream. His most recent book, Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, was selected for the 2013 Critics Choice Award by the American Educational Studies Association. Follow @williamperezphd on Twitter, Become a fan on Facebook

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