Green Card Blues

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Though colleges are scrambling to recruit minorities, talented immigrant students are being turned away.

Sara should be starting college this fall. A polite 17-year-old who reads classics from Spanish literature in her free time, she's smart and ambitious. Last spring, she graduated from a Los Angeles high school with near-perfect grades. It wasn't easy: During her junior year, when her family of four lived in a garage and shared a single bed, Sara spent most nights studying outside under a light bulb. Friends called her crazy, but she reminded herself that this was the price of her ticket out of poverty—admission to a four-year college.

Sara, however, probably won't be going to college any time soon. When she was 7, her parents sneaked her across the border from Mexico. As an illegal alien, she can't qualify for federal financial aid or California's in- state tuition. And her family is poor. Her stepfather supplements his pension by making jewelry, while her mother, who doesn't speak English, cares for Sara's younger brother.

Sara is hoping for a miracle—perhaps one of the rare private scholarships that don't require U.S. residency. Lately, though, she has sounded defeated. "I feel so low," says Sara, whose name, as well as those of most other young people interviewed for this story, has been changed. Suddenly, her years of hard work seem for naught. "It's all falling apart. I feel like it wasn't worth it."

Sara's dilemma is surprisingly common. At one Los Angeles high school, administrators say 35 of last spring's 102 seniors with grade- point averages of 3.2 or better were either undocumented or waiting for residency paperwork to get approved. A few miles away, at another high school, five of the top 10 students in the class of 2000 were undocumented aliens. One was the salutatorian with a 4.3 GPA. He was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, but he's ineligible for the $4,000 in-state tuition and can't pay the full $15,000 cost.

Across the country are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Saras: students who overcome tremendous odds to do well in school but whose immigration status—the result of their parents' decisions—bars them from college, the final steppingstone to the American dream. There's a cruel irony to this: These talented students are being shut out of higher education at a time when colleges are scrambling to attract qualified minority candidates. "I don't know what the solution is," says Rae Lee Siporin, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of California at Los Angeles, "but we are losing some very fine students."

Fifteen-year-old Miguel is a top student at his Los Angeles school, but as an illegal alien, he probably won't get the financial aid he needs to go to college.
—Steve Goldstein

Nobody can say for sure how many undocumented alien students attend the nation's public schools, or how many are college material. Accurate counts are impossible; by law, schools are not supposed to ask students about their legal status.

Still, anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers aren't small. School counselors are among the best sources of information about undocumented students because kids seek them out for help. As one Los Angeles student explains, "They can't help me get to college if I don't tell them."

In California, some counselors have lobbied colleges and universities to change financial aid policies. Others have built networks of private colleges that help undocumented kids through institutional scholarships or international programs. "Highly endowed schools are increasingly willing to do this because they want diversity, and these are really smart kids," says Nancy Caine, director of college counseling at St. Augustine High in San Diego.

The problem is not just California's. Swaim Pessaud, an official with Project Discovery, a Northern Virginia program that helps promising young people become the first in their families to go to college, has worked with a growing number of undocumented students. In recent years, illegal aliens have made up as much as 20 percent of Pessaud's caseload. "They want to go to college and are doing the best they can," she says.

Officials at Boston's Brighton High report similar numbers. "We struggle with this all the time," says counselor Mandy Savitz.

Federal law doesn't prohibit colleges and universities from admitting non-U.S. residents. But illegal aliens aren't eligible for federal grants, student loans, or work- study jobs. "If [undocumented] students get federal financial aid, even at a private school, all the school's federal funding can be yanked," says Matt Tallmer, a spokesman for the American Immigration Law Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that educates the public on immigration law.

While states generally don't give in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, individual campuses within higher education systems are sometimes flexible. In California, community colleges give in-state tuition to immigrants who live in the state and have applied for U.S. residency.

Celia is one of four members of the academic decathlon team at her Los Angeles school who is undocumented. While she has a 3.7 GPA, she didn't apply to college because she knows she can't afford it. Years ago, her father confessed that though he had once saved enough to pay the $1,000 fee to file her immigration paperwork, he had stopped in a bar first and never made his appointment.

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

Many immigrant families keep their children's legal status a secret. Some teens learn the truth only when college beckons. "They go through school as football stars, cheerleaders, and with straight A's," says Carl Schusterman, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer. "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."

Miguel, 15, knows he's an illegal alien and knows he's a long shot to get into college. Last year, he was the top student at his Los Angeles middle school. But he only recently arrived from Mexico, and new immigration laws will make it tough for him to get residency. Still, his family is hopeful. "God closes some doors but opens others," his mother says.

Some illegal aliens argue that financial aid should be based on merit. Marco, who just finished his senior year at an East Los Angeles high school, didn't apply for college in California because his documentation is not yet final. But thanks to a 1470 SAT score, he won a full scholarship to a private East Coast school. The affable teen, who studied at night in the bathroom of his family's two-bedroom apartment rather than disturb his two brothers, says common sense would dictate more lenience to undocumented aliens. "We should have a more Darwinian approach," he says. "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."

A few policymakers agree. California Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a Democrat from Los Angeles, wrote a bill last year that would have allowed undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition rates. The bill would have applied to students who attended California high schools for three years, won acceptance to a state college, and promised to seek legal residency. Supporters of the bill estimated the change would have helped up to 9,000 students, mostly at the community college level.

Critics, however, successfully derailed the bill, arguing it was unfair to give illegal immigrants tuition breaks denied to other U.S. citizens—namely, out-of-state students. "Illegal aliens are criminals," says Evelyn Miller, a spokesman for the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which opposed the bill. "They remain in this country illegally. Here we are harboring criminals."

Many observers, however, argue that helping undocumented students could pay dividends in the long run. "You have the Silicon Valley asking for more workers. Well, here's a talent pool," says Burt Rosenberg, 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."

Sara's family, meanwhile, is 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 says.

Sara hopes she will be able to attend community college this fall. "My friends don't know about this," she admits. "It's so embarrassing. I know it happens a lot, but this is happening to me."

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Pages 34, 36-37

Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Green Card Blues
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