by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Rosa Marino, Eduardo
Eduardo is 17, earns top grades, plays varsity sports, and boasts an impressive list of extracurriculars that makes him an ideal candidate for any four-year college. But there’s one thing he’s lacking that causes anxiety about the future.
“I don’t have a Social Security number,” he says.
With or without that piece of paper, Eduardo has plenty of dreams. He plans be the first in his family to earn a college degree.
“I want to help my father, who has trouble holding a job without documentation.”
Eduardo moved here from Mexico when he was a baby. Through hard work, he has excelled academically and socially. As he grew up, he felt “different” from his friends who were born here. Sometimes his classmates made fun of him for being undocumented.
Now just weeks away from graduation at Godinez Fundamental High School in Santa Ana, Eduardo mulls college options.
“Everyone should have an equal chance, without obstacles, to go to college,” says Eduardo, who is somewhat nervous about an interview later in the day regarding a scholarship at a local university.
Helping undocumented students
Eduardo is one of 2.5 million students in the country known as DREAMers, who hope legislators will approve their path to citizenship. California has the highest percentage of undocumented students in the nation — about 350,000 — according to an NEA study. Of these, only 5 to 10 percent go to college.
Helping students like Eduardo fulfill their dreams and navigate the complex web of state and federal laws presents challenges for school employees like Rosa Marino, Eduardo’s counselor at Godinez.
“I have 30 students who are undocumented,” says Marino, Santa Ana Educators Association. “Many are very open about it and come to me asking for help. With others, I have to tread very gently. I let them tell me when they are ready. I share my personal story: I was born in Mexico and came here when I was 7.”
In those days it was easy for her parents to find a sponsor, fill out papers and obtain green cards allowing them to live and work here legally. Her undocumented students, on the other hand, live in fear and must jump through hoops to legalize their status.
But some things haven’t changed, observes Marino.
“It is a tremendous adjustment. I came here not knowing a word of English. I understand that each student has to take their time processing information from one language to another. Some do it really fast, some take longer. Also, immigrants are poor. They want a better life and are willing to work hard.”
Taking steps toward legalization
Eduardo recently filed for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), authorized by an executive order President Obama issued in 2012 providing deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who enter the country before 16. An applicant granted deferred status will not be deported and qualifies for a work permit renewable every two years. However, because the program is merely an executive order, not a law, it could be overturned by another president. For this reason, Marino counseled Edwardo to consider careers that could be transferable to other countries if necessary. He is planning to major in international business.
Some students are fearful when it comes to applying for DACA, because while they may qualify for deferred status as students, their parents and siblings may not. However, all DACA information is strictly confidential, says Marino, so Eduardo and other students should not let fear be a deterrent from filing.
Since 2001, California DREAMers have qualified for in-state tuition under AB 540. Before that, when they were charged out-of-state tuition fees, college was unattainable for most.
The California Dream Act was signed into law by Gov. Brown in 2011. Under AB 131, undocumented students can apply for Cal Grants and scholarships awarded by public colleges and universities. To qualify, they must attend a California high school for at least three years and graduate from a California high school. They must attest that they have filed an application to legalize their immigration status, or will file an application as soon as they are eligible. (To be considered for state aid, students must complete the Dream Application at www.caldreamact.org.)
Under AB 130, another part of the Dream Act, undocumented students can receive money through private scholarships.
Information submitted for California Dream Act applications, like DACA applications, is strictly confidential and cannot be used against the student or family members.
Eduardo is eligible for in-state tuition, Cal Grants and scholarships, but not for federal Pell Grants or loans that many students rely upon to finance their education, even though his father pays taxes through a Taxpayer Identification Number. If Eduardo applies to colleges in other states, he will likely be charged the higher international tuition rate — the same as a student from another country. He can’t enroll in Covered California for health care coverage, study abroad, or visit relatives in Mexico and be allowed to return.
While the new laws are helpful, being undocumented has taken a toll.
“At times it was hard to stay motivated. There were times I didn’t want to go to school,” he admits.
His worst fears came true when his aunt was deported. He cries at the memory of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) taking her away.
“It was just heartbreaking,” he recalls, wiping away tears. “She had three daughters that we took care of. We were very close. It was very hard on my family.”
Living in limbo
“My students don’t like to share that they are undocumented at first, but once they hear they can trust me, they share,” says Mary Jewell, a Spanish, history and English teacher at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego. “It’s not their fault. They were brought here by their parents with the intention of giving them a better life.”
Her students, many of whom are under 16 and too young to file for DACA, live in uncertainty.
“They worry they might get deported or not be able to work. Without feeling you are part of the system in some way, what’s the motivation to work hard?”
One 18-year-old student was picked up by ICE while waiting at a trolley station on her way to a volunteer job. She was put in a detention center. Teachers wrote letters of support. She was released and is now in college.
“My school is close to the border, and a lot of the kids are afraid to go on field trips to visit colleges, because they have to pass immigration checkpoints,” says Jewell, San Diego Education Association. “When the kids see the border patrol go by, some hold their breath. They are minors, but fear is there. Some of them worry about their parents being deported.”
Even students who are in elementary school live in fear of deportation, says Oscar Ramos, a third-grade teacher at Sherwood Elementary School in Salinas, where families are mostly migrant farm workers.
“It affects them whether they know it or not,” says Ramos, Salinas Elementary Teachers Council. “They end up keeping a low profile and limiting their exposure to the community. It keeps them from seeking any kind of help because there’s fear that there might be a raid. It’s a distraction from academic work. They may be asking, ‘Is my dad going to come back from work today? What about my mom?’”
Growing up in a labor camp, Ramos experienced raids firsthand. He saw baby sitters and close friends of his parents hauled away for deportation. Some adults thought it was funny to yell “Immigration” and see him run, lock the door and hide under the bed.
“It’s a feeling like no other. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know where you fit in.”
When his students talk to him about their fears, he tells them he understands, and reminds them that if their parents are deported, they will eventually come back.
“I let them know that there are people in the school and community who will help them through whatever happens if they need emotional, financial and other support. Other adults will be there for them.”
DREAMers are not just Latino
Anthony Ng was born in the Philippines. After years of living with his grandmother, he moved to the U.S. in 2001 to join his parents, who had moved here to start a business.
Ng assumed he had moved here legally. But when he asked his mother for his Social Security number so he could travel to a leadership class in Washington, D.C., with high school classmates, his mother got “very quiet,” and he realized something was wrong.
He didn’t have one.
Unable to take out student loans, Ng worked to put himself through UC Irvine, graduating in 2011. Finding employment was difficult, because DACA was not yet in effect and he could not work legally.
“Immigration is a touchy subject, and lots of politicians seem to forget that it’s about families and peoples’ lives,” says Ng, a spokesperson for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “America was created by immigrants, and that’s what makes us a unique country.”
Arlene Inouye, treasurer of United Teachers Los Angeles, talked with Ng at a meeting to advance the rights of DREAMers and has asked him to speak to her colleagues about his struggle.
“When most people think of DREAMers, they think of Latinos,” says Inouye, a third-generation Japanese American. “But about 10 percent are Asian or Pacific Islanders, with Hmong and Vietnamese the fastest-growing groups — and among the most impacted by poverty.”
People tend to think of Asians as the “model minority” whose members are highly educated in high-paying professions, says Inouye, a speech-language pathologist. But many live in poverty and struggle.
Student immigrants feel as they though they are living in two worlds, she relates, with one foot in their family’s culture and another planted in the modern world. They act as interpreters for their elders and sometimes take on parental responsibilities.
UTLA has accepted DREAMer student interns and supported them at rallies and marches.
“When we do these things, students know they are cared about, and that they can trust us and ask us for help.”
Emerging from the shadows
Jose Rosas, 25, attended CSU Northridge every other semester so he could work in between and save money for tuition. He says it’s been a struggle, but it’s worth it. He is nearing graduation.
“We’re just as capable and determined as other students. We want the same support and opportunities any student is entitled to.”
Rosas, who was born in Mexico and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is active in Dreams To Be Heard, an advocacy group on campus, as well as other student activist groups.
So is Selene Salas, a Northridge student who describes herself as an immigrant rights activist who is willing to “knock on doors” to spread the word that undocumented students need support and equity.
“I won’t stay quiet about my legal status,” says Salas, who has worked at flea markets to support herself. “I’ve had really hard days and cried when I was out in the rain picking up bottles, cleaning houses or working at a bridal store under the table. I had no other options than to go to college. I want to be a success in life like anybody else.”
These Chicano studies students represent the new breed of undocumented youth who are no longer willing to live in the shadows. They are marching, protesting and lobbying for equity. Offering these students strong support is Theresa Montaño, a CTA Board member and Chicano studies professor.
“I have always been a community activist,” says Montaño, California Faculty Association, CSU Northridge. “I was born in Los Angeles. But being a Latina, there is no way to escape the immigration issue. It’s your issue, whether you were born here or not.”
Montaño offers DREAMers emotional support and practical advice, and counsels them to file for DACA and receive benefits under the California Dream Act. She admits that at first she worried that if they revealed personal information to the government it could lead to a “witch hunt,” but she is relieved to see it isn’t happening.
“Yes, I absolutely encourage my students to legalize their status,” she says.
She supported the efforts of students to open a campus resource center for DREAMers. Approved last March, the center will be the first of its kind in the 23-campus CSU system.
Montaño has nothing but admiration for her undocumented students, who sometimes support parents and siblings as the “breadwinner” of the family.
“I am amazed at what they are capable of doing. Many of them have become peer counselors and have stepped up to help others. They are not just DREAMers, but also dreamers in spirit, who are brilliant, working hard to improve their schools and learning English as a second language.”
Need for immigration reform
When Tom Airey asked student Aida Gonzalez what she planned to study in college, there was an awkward pause. She confided that she didn’t know if she could even go to college because she is undocumented.
“I felt just devastated,” says the economics and world history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School. “And just understanding the injustice made me want to do something about it. To me, it humanized the situation and showed that not all of my students have the same opportunities to make a college or career happen. They are vulnerable and can be deported. DACA is just temporary. We need real immigration reform.”
The Capistrano Unified Education Association member asked some of his friends to contribute to a college fund for Aida, who is now 22 and raising her younger sisters while attending community college to study nursing. He sponsored a prayer breakfast at his church with the theme “God is Undocumented” and asked four undocumented students to speak to the congregation.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. It was really powerful.”
Since then he has participated in marches, visited his congressman, and worked on behalf of immigration reform, because he believes it is the right thing to do. During his economics class, he brings up “myths” about immigrants, such as the misconceptions that they are taking jobs away from others or are criminals.
He points out that Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, recently published a report that four out of 10 homebuyers are Latino and that most immigrants learn English, get jobs and contribute to society. According to a recent CNN International survey, the majority of Americans believe the government should legalize the status of those who are undocumented instead of deporting them.
“We are making progress at the state level, but we have a long way to go when it comes to immigration reform,” says Montaño. “For one thing, access to affordable health care is still lacking. But immigration is a national issue — and many of us are looking forward to the Obama administration being able to pass a comprehensive immigration policy.”
The recent focus has been on college students and contributions they can make to society if and when they become legal, she observes.
“It’s a good place to start. But we must remember that students are members of a family with siblings and parents. It’s time for everyone to come out of the shadows.”