Equity & Diversity

Talented, But Not Legal

By Robert C. Johnston — May 31, 2000 13 min read
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It wasn’t easy, but Sara earned straight A’s her junior year of high school. She did so by studying at night under a light bulb outside the garage where her family of four lived and shared a bed. When friends called her “crazy” for studying all the time, Sara reminded herself that this was the price of getting to college.

Next month, the polite 17-year-old will graduate from a Los Angeles high school with near-perfect grades. But Sara, who was 7 when her parents snuck her across the border from Mexico, can’t qualify for California’s in-state tuition or federal financial aid because she is an illegal alien.

Though she has taken Advanced Placement courses during school vacations and reads classical Spanish literature in her free time, she may never enroll in a four-year college. The tuition costs too much and her family is too poor. Her stepfather supplements his retirement pension by making jewelry and her mother, who doesn’t speak English, stays at home and cares for her younger brother.

This spring, as Sara watches her friends preparing for college or going to work, she feels painfully alone. But her dilemma is surprisingly common. In one Los Angeles high school, five of the top 10 students in this year’s graduating class are undocumented aliens, school officials say.

‘Best in Their Schools’

Here and across the country, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Saras: students who have overcome tremendous odds to succeed in school but whose immigration status—the result of their parents’ decisions—may bar them from the final steppingstone to the American Dream: a college education. At a time when concern about the continuing poor achievement among Hispanic and other minority students is at a high, and when colleges and universities are scrambling to attract qualified students from diverse backgrounds, some educators are beginning to question the wisdom of squandering this talent.

“We hear from recruiters all the time that some of these students are the very best in their schools,” said Rae Lee Siporin, the director of undergraduate admissions for the University of California, Los Angeles. “I don’t know what the solution is, but we are losing some very fine students.”

Cases such as Sara’s also illustrate the confusing and often conflicting consequences of immigration policy and the desperate gamble the people from outside the United States are willing to take to come here and stay illegally. These students often leave their teachers, counselors, and principals—who technically aren’t even supposed to know their immigration status—struggling to find ways to help them.

As she considers her future, Sara is hoping for a miracle—perhaps one of the rare private scholarships that doesn’t require U.S. residency. Her mother and stepfather say they filed her residency application soon after they brought her to the United States, but haven’t heard recently from their lawyer.

Like many immigrant families, their legal status is complex. Sara’s stepfather is a legal resident, though his wife is not. Sara’s brother, who was born in the United States, is a citizen though she is not. Many of these families have scant understanding of the options available to them and little money to spend on lawyers.

Lately, Sara’s mom has noticed a new fragility in her daughter’s voice.

“I feel so low,” said Sara, whose name, as well as those of most of the other young people interviewed by Education Week, has been changed in this story. And though the schools they attend are not specified in most cases, the students’ academic performance was confirmed through transcripts and interviews with school officials.

“I’m proud of what I do,” Sara said. “So proud that I study and am supposed to be one of the best students in the school. But it’s all falling apart. I feel like it wasn’t worth it.”

Growing Issue

Nobody can say for sure how many undocumented alien students attend the nation’s public schools.

The Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group that seeks stronger enforcement of immigration laws, estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 of the nation’s estimated 6 million illegal immigrants are between 15 and 19 years old. Federal laws require public schools to open their doors to them.

It is much harder still to estimate how many of these students are college material. School counselors are not supposed to ask students their legal status, though many children volunteer it. As one Los Angeles student explained: “They can’t help me get to college if I don’t tell them.” But school officials from California to Virginia and New York say they regularly see undocumented students reach the top of their classes.

At the Los Angeles school where five of the top 10 students are undocumented, one is the salutatorian with a 4.3 grade point average. He has been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, but says he will not attend because he can’t afford the out-of-state tuition of $15,000 a year. The in-state rate is $4,000.

Several miles away at another Los Angeles high school, administrators there say that 35 of the 102 seniors with GPAs of 3.2 or better are either undocumented or waiting for their residency paperwork to be completed.

Difficult Choice

There are certainly a higher proportion of such students in Los Angeles, a three-hour drive from the Mexico-U.S. border, than in other states and cities. This year, 70 percent of the Los Angeles district’s 700,000 students are Hispanic. But the problem is far from isolated.

An official with Project Discovery, a Northern Virginia program that helps promising youngsters become the first in their families to go to college, has seen growing numbers of undocumented students seeking higher education. In recent years, as many as 20 percent of the students she works with have been undocumented.

“In the past two years, the numbers have risen and are just getting higher,” said Swaim Pessaud, who manages the program. “They want to go to college and are doing the best they can.”

In Boston, Mandy Savitz, a counselor at the city’s Brighton High School, reports similar growth. “We struggle with this all the time,” she said.

But changing immigration policies to help such students would be a tough sell for a lot of politicians, said Jack Martin, the special project director for FAIR.

To let such children into public colleges or universities with state scholarships or tuition aid could deny such assistance to legal residents of the United States.

“There are presumably other bright students who would believe the benefit should not be going to that illegal alien,” he cautioned. “It becomes a question of who’s not getting the benefit.”

Policies Vary

Federal laws do not prohibit nonresidents from being admitted to colleges and universities. But they do bar undocumented alien students from receiving federal financial aid, such as work-study jobs, grants, or federally subsidized student loans.

“We do several matches with federal records to make sure that people are who they say they are,” said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. “If the information doesn’t match, we ask for documentation.”

There’s a strong incentive to observe the law. “If [undocumented] students get federal financial aid, even at a private school, all the school’s federal funding can be yanked,” said Matt Tallmer, a spokesman for the American Immigration Law Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that educates the public on immigration law.

While states generally exclude nonresident students from in-state tuition at four-year institutions, admissions policies at individual campuses are not uniform.

Nonresident applicants to the selective University of Texas at Austin, for example, are put into the more rigorous selection process for international students. The University of California and the State University of New York systems, in contrast, treat all applications equally for admissions— though neither provides nonresident aliens with financial aid.

Private colleges are often more flexible in both admissions and financial aid. While they do not offer federal aid to illegal aliens, they can use institutional funds to provide scholarships to star students, often through their international program.

That is hardly the rule, however. “If a student is in the country illegally, we don’t believe we should flaunt the law. We don’t work with them,” said John Lind, the vice president for enrollment management at the 1,250-student Southwestern University, a private liberal arts institution near Austin, Texas. “They may be wonderful and smart, but we don’t have the resources for those who are legal.”

Some community colleges are also more flexible.

The City University of New York community college system, with 21 campuses, offers in-state tuition to any student who can prove New York residency. Conversely, Houston Community College in Texas did not accept illegal immigrants until this year. In February, the college changed its rules to allow students without visas to enroll at out-of-state tuition rates.

In California, community colleges give in-state tuition to undocumented aliens who reside in the state and who demonstrate that they have applied to become legal U.S. residents. “If the student or parents take the appropriate steps to change their status, they can be considered residents for tuition purposes,” said Betsy Regalado, the associate dean of extended opportunity programs and services at the Los Angeles City College. “Some sites are more limiting though, and some are more understanding.”

‘You’re Undocumented’

In recent interviews, Sara and several other top Los Angeles students talked about their aspirations and what it means to be undocumented. Sylvia is 18 years old and a senior. Her mother, who has a “green card’’ giving her legal residency, brought Sylvia to Los Angeles from Mexico when she was 2 years old.

Sylvia always assumed she would go to college—at least until she began filling out financial- aid forms her junior year.

“I read about nonresidents and U.S. residents and asked my mom if I was a resident,” recalled Sylvia, who has since been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. “She said, ‘You’re undocumented.’ ”

Sylvia’s two siblings are U.S. citizens. Her mother filed paperwork several years ago to establish Sylvia’s residency. “The lawyers tell us they will contact us as soon as they know something,” Sylvia said. “But we keep waiting.”

For many illegal immigrants, the family’s immigration status is often a closely guarded secret and, as with Sylvia, is kept even from children.

Carl Schusterman, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer, sees it often. “They go through school as football stars, cheerleaders, and with straight A’s,” he said. “When they try to get to college, their parents come and ask me how to tell them they’re illegal. It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating.”

And there’s no guarantee that an application for residency will be ready in time for college. An application to establish residency can take years, immigration lawyers say.

Sylvia knows that her dream is slipping away. “I see kids who don’t have as good grades as I do going,” she said, speaking in a whisper. “It’s sad. But I’m getting over the tears.”

At another Los Angeles high school, Celia is one of four members of her school’s academic decathlon team who is undocumented. Though she has a 3.7 GPA, she didn’t even apply to college because she knows she can’t afford it. Her father confessed to her that several years ago, when he had amassed the $1,000 fee to file her immigration paperwork, he stopped ina bar first and never made his appointment.

“I say, ‘How could you do that? What about me?’” the dark-haired teenager lamented. “He feels bad now. He says, ‘You know, mi hija [my daughter], I was wrong. It really hurts me.’”

Miguel, 15, has never missed a day of school since enrolling here three years ago. Last year, he was tapped as his middle school’s top student. But due to his family’s recent arrival from Mexico and new immigration laws, they are among the least likely to get legal residency. His father, who repairs shoes, rides the city bus each morning with Miguel to school.

The family is hopeful that he will one day attend college in the United States, but they understand that it’s a long shot. “God closes some doors,” his mother said, “but opens others.”

Marco, a senior at an East Los Angeles high school, didn’t apply for college in California because his documentation is a year from being final. Thanks to scoring a stellar 1470 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT, he won a full scholarship to a private East Coast school.

The affable teen, who studies at night in the bathroom of their two-bedroom apartment rather than disturb his two younger brothers, said common sense would dictate more lenience to undocumented alien students: “We should have a more Darwinian approach,” he said. “We shouldn’t be subsidizing someone who is not as good or is less qualified than someone else. It’s not as good an investment.”

Uphill Battle

Some policymakers agree.

California Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a Democrat from Los Angeles, authored a bill last year that would have allowed undocumented high school graduates from California to pay in-state tuition rates. They would not have been allowed to receive state or federal grants, however.

The bill would have applied only to students who attended California high schools for three years, graduated, were accepted to a state college, and promised to legalize their status. The change would have affected up to 9,000 college students, mostly at the community college level, supporters of the bill estimated.

Critics attacked the bill for giving illegal immigrants higher status than U.S. citizens from other states who attend college in California and pay the higher tuition. The lower house passed the bill last summer, but it is now stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, had said he would not sign the bill because he feared conflicts with federal law.

Observers point out that the proposal went further than a similar idea proposed five years ago by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco.

“Our phones were jammed up by angry people who thought this was un- American,” said Bill Mabie, a spokesman for Sen. Polanco, a Democrat. “But these students can’t just go back to their country. They don’t know another country.”

That argument doesn’t win any points with Evelyn Miller, a spokesman for the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a Huntington Beach-based group that avocates for stricter immigration laws. “Illegal aliens are criminals. They remain in this country illegally,” she said. “Here we are harboring criminals. This is why we are against (the tuition proposal).”

Many educators, however, noting the current demand for highly skilled workers, say that helping such students would pay dividends in the long run.

“You have the Silicon Valley asking for more workers. Well, here’s a talent pool,” said Burt Rosenberg, the assistant principal of International High School in New York City. “If there’s going to be sympathy for these people, it’s now. The economy is booming.”

But any changes in state or federal law may come too late for this year’s crop of talented illegal students, many of whom see themselves taking menial jobs, settling for less-rigorous classes at a community college, or even taking more dramatic steps.

Sara’s family is increasingly worried about her future. Some relatives want her to marry, thinking that could help her chances of qualifying for in-state tuition. They even have a willing suitor in mind, but Sara recoils at the idea. “I want to get married when it’s the real thing,” she said.

And while it would surprise her friends and classmates who believe she is going away to college, Sara hopes she will be able to attend community college this fall. “My friends don’t know about this. It’s so embarrassing,” she said. “I know it happens a lot, but this is happening to me.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Talented, But Not Legal


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