Undocumented Students Struggle Toward College

Reintroduction of Dream Act could mean legal status for college grads.

March 28, 2009, 1:18 PM

April 12, 2009— -- On a bright day on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley, 21-year-old Victor squints into the sun as another student comes up to him for a breezy chat.

In most ways Victor is like any other college student. He has a 3.4 GPA and he majors in ethnic studies. He wants to go to medical school. His dream is to be a pediatrician one day.

He has grand ambitions, but Victor may never actually reach his dream job, and it likely won't be grades holding him back.

An undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Victor is in some ways invisible. By law, he isn't allowed to be in the country. He doesn't have a Social Security number or a driver's license -- indeed, as far as the federal government is concerned, an identity.

As a small child, Victor was brought across the border after his father was murdered in Mexico. His family decided that it wasn't safe anymore for them, they left for the United States.

"I was five years old when we left Juahaca, Mexico. I remember the day," he says. "It was very early in the morning, I was a little bit scared but at the same time very excited because I was coming to this land of opportunity. I remember pretending to fall asleep as we crossed the border. The next thing I remember is waking up at McDonalds with a Happy Meal.

"I remember my first day here when I was in school. My mom took me and she said, son, here you go, it's a new beginning for us. I was scared, I started crying. I didn't know how to communicate with people in English, but little by little I started learning, watching cartoons, reading."

His teachers pushed him and with hard work Victor learned English, got good grades, learned the culture and grew up as any other American boy -- going to school, playing soccer, joining school clubs. Until one day, one club wouldn't let him in.

"It didn't really hit me until the eighth grade, when I went through a math program and they needed my Social Security number and I went home to my mom, I said, 'Mom can you find me this number, it's essential for me to apply for this program,' and she said, 'No you don't have one, because you don't have resident or citizen status here in the United States,'" says Victor.

Path to College Derailed by Immigrant Status

It was just the first in a series of obstacles that Victor would face.

Today there are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students in America just like Victor, who graduate from high school and have the potential to go to college. Most colleges across the nation have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to admitting undocumented students. They don't ask for Social Security numbers.

But the biggest barrier for these students is financing. They are not eligible for any federal aid. There is even a gray area when it comes to the legality of accepting private scholarships. There are 10 states -- California, New York, Utah, Illinois, Washington, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas -- that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. But the costs are still high, especially considering the students are not legally allowed to work.

"When it finally hit me that I wasn't going to be able to go to UC-Davis, it was really devastating because I had worked so hard, and I really wanted this, it was just gone like nothing because I didn't have any money," says another undocumented student, called Maria.

For the ones who do decide to go, many of them talk about living on campus like a "hobo." It's not unusual to hear them talking about scrimping for food and hiding out in library stacks as a place to sleep.

One undocumented student called Bridgette had straight As through high school, got accepted to Stanford and saved money from two years of babysitting. Two years paid for one semester.

In his first semester, Victor experienced similar financial pressure. After the thrill of getting the fat acceptance envelope, he found himself on campus on his first day, homeless. He crashed on a friend's couch. He would go to university events and hoard free event food for later. He kept going until he got sick and hospitalized from the pressure of college life. Victor had to drop out to go to community college for a few semesters. He eventually got a private scholarship that allowed him to go back to Berkeley.

Push for Change on Campuses

The chancellor at UC-Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, wants these rules changed.

"I am a very strong believer that people should obey the law," says Birgeneau. "These people were brought here by their parents. Many of them don't even know they were here illegally. So we need to provide them with a pathway to make sure that they are obeying the law."

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois wants to help give undocumented students that pathway, with the Dream Act. The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was originally introduced in Senate in 2001. It allows undocumented students to attend college and, with graduation, to become eligible for green cards. The act has had a tumultuous history in Congress, falling short of passage several times since 2001. On its most recent re-introduction, in 2007, it fell short by eight votes.

But last week Durbin's office once again reintroduced the act to Congress.

Passage of the act would make the dreams of students like Victor a reality. But opponents say the Dream Act would entice many more illegal immigrants to cross the border.

"What we are talking about is a huge amnesty plan, because that's what it's all about, it's about giving those people amnesty, because they are here illegally, and we're going to forget about that and we're going to subsidize that activity," says congressman Tom Tancredo.

"When you do that you have to also realize you're talking about amnesty for literally hundreds of thousands, literally millions of people. Because they way our system works, once a person is here and gets amnesty or gets a green card or obtains citizenship, they can then apply for and obtain the same thing for all members of not just their immediate family, but of their extended family."

Tancredo goes on to say that rewarding illegals with college degrees is in a way punishing those who worked hard to come across the border legally. Other opponents of the Dream Act say that it will severely strain an already overextended U.S. education system.

But the chancellor at UC-Berkeley says the country cannot afford to waste talent.

Call for Expansion of Educational System

"We need to access and educate and provide opportunities to every single talented person that we have here in the United States," says Birgeneau. "And if there are too many talented people, then we need to expand our educational system to make room for them. The United States is in a really difficult situation now in terms of our competition internationally. We cannot afford to throw away exceptionally talented and ambitious people."

For now, the Dream Act is the hope that Victor and thousands of other students hang on to. They hope that one day it will allow them to be more visible and start giving back to the society that raised them.

"I think nobody's going to take away the knowledge and the education I have received," says Victor with a smile. "However the possibilities of me contributing back can end with me getting deported. Every day I think about me potentially getting deported, but I can't constantly be living in fear and I have to continue to be optimistic and hopeful that one day I will be able to contribute back and one way or another with the Dream Act being passed."

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