Young Illegal Immigrants Get a Chance to Learn but Not Earn

Posted July 12th, 2010 in Uncategorized and tagged , , , by steve

(From the Arizona Daily Star)

Juan’s room shows a life shaped by American education. It’s painted in the colors of Dallas’ Thomas Jefferson High School, his new alma mater. Trophies and medals brag for him: top 10 percent of his class, captain of two sports teams, a district first-place finisher in track, an almost perfect SAT score, the only football player in band. He’s a poster child of American schooling, with wishes to enter the military or teach English.

Neither option is open to Juan, who has grown up in the country illegally. Now he must realign his goals to fit his immigration status.

Thousands of high school graduates like Juan are discovering the dichotomy between a federal law that ensures their education and one that prevents them from using it.

“I never saw myself as an immigrant,” said Juan, a toddler when his family brought him from Mexico. Like the other students in this story, he is being identified only by his first name.

“I’ve been a Dallas boy forever. So it’s a bad feeling, knowing 17 years of study with regular kids — doing better than them — and I can’t even go out and find a job.” Federal law bans public schools from denying admission to illegal immigrants. Between 50,000 and 70,000 of them graduate each year from American high schools. No such law exists for public universities, though 10 states including Texas provide some form of in-state tuition aid to illegal immigrants.

Juan will attend the University of Texas at San Antonio. But in sharp irony to the country’s education ethos, a degree will not boost his career. Juan can’t gain legal employment without a Social Security number, meaning he can return to Mexico with his acquired skills or do the same work as his relatives here. He has decided to major in business administration because he knows a bit about mechanics from his uncle and won’t need to show papers to open a shop.

“Opportunity comes for people who work hard for it,” said the 18-year-old, echoing the mantra he learned in school. “Something might happen to reward me.”

Their legal paradox has become a central issue for illegal immigrant students, said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington who studies the demographic.

“Our laws treat children and adults differently, but they don’t allow for the life course of children becoming adults,” he said. “It produces a jarring effect right around junior or senior year when that comes into play, and they realize the experiences they have had up until then are not going to prepare them to move forward as adults.” Because of this, he said, only 5 percent to 10 percent of illegal immigrant high school students continue their educations. “From a policy standpoint, from a governmental standpoint, it’s a real waste of our talent. It’s a loss of investment we make in young people, who have skills and experience. The best they can hope for is to get into some graduate program and stall for time while they wait for legislation to pass.”

That proposed legislation is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act, a previously defeated bill that would create a path to citizenship for students. Immigration experts say it may have a greater chance of passing this year than a comprehensive immigration package. More than 100 members of the U.S. House have agreed to support the measure.

But that doesn’t make it likely. The shadow of Arizona’s new law cracking down on illegal immigrants has stretched to Texas. A current lawsuit by the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas challenges the in-state tuition law. Accounts of detained Texan college students — from attendees of Harvard University to the University of Texas at Arlington — are increasingly common.

Despite initial discussion to allow undocumented students into the military, the state Republican Party opted to oppose amnesty at its convention in June.

“Everyone is quick to blame the enforcement of the law,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Nobody wants to attribute blame to parents who made a conscious decision to violate the law.” Others sacrifice for it, he said. “When you admit a kid to the University of Texas who is in the country illegally, by definition you are excluding somebody else. That kid also worked hard and his or her family didn’t break any law.”

Texas awarded about $33.6 million in state and institutional financial aid to these students between fall 2004 and summer 2008, which also includes those who are not legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens.

U.S. citizens “are having trouble making ends meet and can’t pay tuition for their own kids,” said David Rogers, the coalition’s attorney for the lawsuit, who believes the fragile economy and Arizona backlash will spawn greater restrictions for illegal immigrants.

David, another illegal immigrant, leaves the political wars of immigration reform to others. He tries not to think about it. He’d rather talk about fighting in the Army.

Half-deflated graduation balloons hang in a two-room apartment the 17-year-old shares with his extended family. If he had his own room, he said, he would display his ROTC medals — best sharpshooter, battalion leader, dedicated cadet. The certificate he keeps in a protective folder says he exemplifies “the high ideals and principles which motivated and sustained our patriot ancestors.” David realized he didn’t belong in that category when he tried to join the military.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “You just go there and are brave enough to fight for the freedom of the United States. I would be fighting for my country.”

Instead, he will attend Brookhaven College in the fall and redirect dreams toward a career in Christian rap.

Thomas Jefferson High principal Eddie Conger sees more students like David every year, Texan dreamers suddenly aware they will relive their parents’ lives.

“Yes, we need to secure our borders,” he said. “But you’ve got to look at these kids that we have educated and allow them in because it’s in the best interest of our country.”

Viriviana, an undocumented student who attended Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, just graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin. She’ll start a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University this fall. Then she’ll wait.

“It feels like my status is my worst enemy,” she said. “It’s preventing me from doing what I was taught to do.”


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