Graduation with no greencard, what happens next?

Carol Morales

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Ana is a graduating student with no future.

Ana, psychology major, isn’t thinking about getting a job in her field of study. She isn’t even thinking about life after college.

“I don’t really like to think about what I am going to do after graduation,” she said. “I mean, what can I do?”

Ana is an undocumented student and there isn’t much she can do without a social security number, even if she has a master’s degree.

“All I know is that I am lucky to even be graduating from a four-year institution,” she said. “I know there are a lot of smart undocumented students out there who unfortunately don’t go on to college.”

William Perez, assistant professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, is currently working on a study of the educational experiences of immigrant students. According to Perez, out of an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year, only few actually continue to higher education.

He said high tuition costs tend to keep undocumented students away from higher education.

The primary goal of the study is to gather information to help politicians and the general public better understand the needs of undocumented students, Perez said.

“We need to let them (politicians and society) know that we are loosing a lot of gifted students,” said Perez. “Many of them drop out, (and) they don’t continue because they know that due to their legal status they can’t get a job after they are done with school.”

That is what Ana fears and why she doesn’t want to think about the future.

She is uncertain of what lies ahead. She knows because she doesn’t have a nine-digit number she won’t be able to pursue her profession. But that is a truth she is not yet ready to face.

Ana doesn’t want to break the law; she wants to work legally, but she doesn’t have a work permit. The laws are preventing her from contributing to this country, she said.

Ana’s family has been trying to legalize its status for more than 15 years, but her case, like many others, is stuck somewhere or lost in the process, she said.

Perez’s study, to be completed by August of this year, will serve as a way to record the achievements and accomplishments undocumented students like Ana are capable of.

One of the things that will emerge from these findings is a policy report illustrating what happens and what could happen to this highly accomplished group of gifted individuals if the laws change, said Perez.

In the next months, Perez and his team will be evaluating 200 interviews of current college-bound undocumented students and documented professionals who at one point were undocumented students themselves.

The team will be interviewing people who used to be undocumented, became legalized, and are now pursuing their dream, said Perez.

“We are interviewing people who are college professors, business leaders and professionals who wouldn’t be where they are now if there hadn’t been a law that legalized them,” he said.

Proving that laws can make a difference is especially important for Perez because according to him, a change in laws changed his life.

In 1986, the government passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) better known as the Amnesty Act in which thousands of individuals were legalized, including Perez.

After being legalized, Perez was able to attend a highly prestigious liberal arts college with a full scholarship. He then went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Stanford University. Perez is now a university professor with tenure track at a research institution focusing on research of social issues.

The main focus of the study is to ultimately encourage legislators at a federal level to pass laws such as The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act) which would benefit undocumented students. The DREAM Act, if passed, will not only provide all levels of federal aid for undocumented students but will also put them on the path to citizenship, said Perez.

In their effort to educate politicians and society in general about the difference these students can make, the team is working on publishing a book of the research findings.

“We want people who think that these kids aren’t achieving anything, to know that in fact they are,” he said.

After reviewing some of the findings, Perez said he sees a trend of very gifted students. Many of these students are graduating at the top 2 percent of their class, he said.

“These are very smart kids,” said Perez. “Many of them are valedictorians, who have received a lot of academic awards. They are not law breakers.”

David Moguel, assistant professor of Secondary Education, said kids shouldn’t be labeled as criminals, nor should they be punished for something their parents did.

“It’s unthinkable to go out and punish students for something that they didn’t do,” he said. “In most cases the students don’t even know that they are undocumented.”

Maria, an undocumented student who in 2004 graduated from CSUN and was recognized as the most outstanding graduating senior in her class, agrees.

She said she didn’t have a choice in her parent’s decision.

Maria said that at the age of three, when she crossed the border, she didn’t know what she was doing.

“I was very little,” she said. “I didn’t know that I was doing something illegal.”

Maria did not know she was undocumented until she turned 16 when, like all of her friends, she wanted to get a driver’s license.

Maria remembers her mother telling her that she could not get a license because she did not have a social security number.

That was when, according to Maria, she realized that the actions her parents made had severe consequences for life.

“I am not resentful toward them,” she said. “I have faced a lot of consequences because of what they did, but I am grateful for what they did.”

Having graduated at the top of her class and not being able to participate in filling out college applications was disappointing to her, though.

“I wanted to go to college like everyone else,” Maria said. “I had the grades to continue, but knew I couldn’t afford it.”

On Jan. 1, 2002, California’s AB 540 went into effect. The law allowed undocumented immigrant students who attended a California high school for three years or more, or who had received the equivalent of a high school diploma (such as a GED) to pay in-state tuition fees at public colleges and universities throughout the state.

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is significant.

Before AB 540, undocumented students at CSUN had to pay the out-of-state tuition fee of $10,170 each year, compared to a regular student’s $2,916 in-state tuition fee.

“I have lived in California all of my life,” Maria said. “It’s just not fair.”

AB 540 does not provide undocumented students with any type of state or federal financial aid.

Maria was able to pay for her tuition with the help of private scholarships. Although she is undocumented, she qualified for scholarships because they did not require her to be a permanent resident nor have a social security number, she said.

“I had always thought that by the time I finished college there would be some law that would benefit me,” Maria said. “But there wasn’t.”

Not really knowing what to do next, Maria decided to attend graduate school.

“I think that that was my only option,” she said. “I have to wait for some kind of law to come by so that I am able to work.”

Matt Strieker, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said undocumented students oftentimes go to graduate school after graduating from a university only to postpone having a degree and not being able to practice it.

“They know that they can’t work, so they decide to continue studying,” he said.

Maria said she believes that too many students, who are able to
go to college and receive financial aid, don’t take advantage of that opportunity.

“Oftentimes people who are born here (in this country) who have the right to all of these great things, like a driver’s license, the ability to work and the right to vote, don’t take advantage of them,” she said.

Ana, like Maria, said she believes a lot of people born here take things for granted.

“They don’t appreciate how good they have it,” she said. “Imagine what we (undocumented student) could do if we had similar opportunities.”