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The path to college for undocumented youth

Ali still remembers the exact date he arrived in the United States, June 5, 2006. Then, at the age of 15, he left his family, friends, and home country of Guinea, for the chance at a better education.

At the time he left West Africa, schools had been closed for months because of revolts in the streets and political unrest, so Ali’s father decided to send his son to live with an uncle in the Bronx to attend school.

Ali, a gentle giant, dreams of becoming an international business man, like his father. He shoots hoops with his friends after school at Crotona Park and plays cricket on the weekends.

Now a senior, as Ali studies vocabulary for the SAT and fills out college applications, his three-year visa has expired and plans for his future remain in flux.

Ali whose name has been changed in this story due to his immigration status, is one of 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school every year, according to a 2007 report from the Immigration Policy Center. Only 5 to 10 percent of them actually go on to college.

There is no federal law that bans illegal immigrants from attending college or higher education. But without access to federal and state financial aid, access to loans, and being able to work legally, the reality of attending college becomes bleak.

“I want to stay and continue my education; college is a big thing,” said Ali. “If I go from the 1st grade through the 12th grade and I learn all these things, and I don’t go to college, I think it is all going to be a waste.”

Berena Cabarcas, the principal and founder of Bronx International Community High School, where Ali attends school, said a lot of undocumented students give up on academics because they could not see how they could afford college.

“Those who did go onto higher education, paid full price at one of the City University of New York colleges, and had to work off the books to support themselves and their education, sometimes taking eight to 10 years to earn a bachelors degree,” said Cabarcas.

New York is one of 10 states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates if they graduate from a high school in the state.

But without a scholarship or financial aid, tuition at the State University of New York to obtain a bachelor’s degree can range from $13,500 a year for a commuter student to $19,200 a year for a student who lives on campus.

And at CUNY, a system that was once free for students, yearly tuition now costs $4,600 at senior colleges, and $3,200 a year at community colleges.

Last spring, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) reintroduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, known as the DREAM Act in Congress.

The bipartisan and controversial federal legislation openly supported by President Barack Obama and also Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who arrive in the United States before the age of 16, graduate high school, and complete two years of higher education or military service.

Upon high school graduation, students like Ali could apply for conditional legal status, which means they could work legally, obtain a driver’s license, qualify for federal student loans, work study, and would be protected from deportation.

After two years of college or military service, students would then be eligible to apply for permanent residency, and in another five years DREAM Act students could be granted citizenship.

“Many of these young people feel that this is their country. They have grown up here. They feel a part of the communities they live and they have been excluded in such a significant way,” said Aryah Somers, an attorney at The Door, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to youth in New York City.

Somers added, “The classic DREAM Act kid got here when they were 3 years old, are leaders or activists in their community, graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class, work 2 to 3 jobs, and are the first kids in their family to go to college.”

But without a clear pathway to citizenship undocumented students are very limited in their options and chances to go to college.

The last time the DREAM Act was introduced into congress in 2007, the bill was defeated by a 52 to 44 vote in the Senate. Every bill needs the support of at least 60 U.S. senators to be debated on the floor.

Opponents of the legislation argue that the bill would reward those who broke the law and would become a backdoor amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Others strategize that a standalone bill would lessen the chance for broader immigration reform, which also failed in 2007.

“The likeliest scenario for a major immigration proposal, like the DREAM Act, would be that it be taken up as part of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Brian Fallon, spokesman for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Fallon said that Schumer is drafting a comprehensive immigration bill with Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and that Schumer expects that the bipartisan bill could be ready for discussion as soon as the healthcare debate in Congress is concluded, most likely in 2010.

Although Fallon would not confirm that the DREAM Act or any other particular provision would be included in the Schumer bill, he did say questions about children brought to the country illegally and whether or not they would be provided an independent pathway to citizenship would be addressed.

As for Ali and the thousands of other children who could possibly be impacted by such a bill, their lives and futures in this country remain to be put on hold.


  1. Lorena
    Posted April 19, 2010 at 4:25 am | #

    I am currently a sophomore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign pursuing a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering. I owe this all to my parents whom without I would have the courage to be writing this. They have sacrificed so much for me and I will not let their sacrifice go to waste. Because of all they have done, I refuse to give up.
    Growing up I have always known that I was undocumented. Yet that did not stop me from dreaming that it would someday change. At first I hoped it would change in time for me to get a license, then in time to apply for college, now I hope for it to change in time for graduation so I can get a job. I have always been a top student, putting school first and expecting the best from myself. College was never a question. I knew that I wanted to go and that I would. Naturally I tried to live life avoiding the thought of my status and it worked very well. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community where I was one of very few Hispanics. To this day I have not told anyone about my status except for my current boyfriend. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and I always thought that by the time it could really affect me, there would be an immigration law passed allowing me to get my ‘papers.’ When I turned 16 all my friends were getting their licenses and I could not join in that experience even though I had taken driver’s education right there next to them. That did not stop me from driving though. I know it is a risk that I brought upon myself, but I was not afraid. My parents bought me a car and I took part in the American teenager experience. When I turned 18 my permit expired. My parents didn’t want me to drive under the same constant fear that they drive with everyday, so I got a legal Michigan license. That was my first fear conquered.
    Next came college. My parents expected me to get scholarships to pay for college, but it never crossed our minds that lacking legal status would hinder my chances of attaining them. I continued to make myself oblivious to the fact that I might not be able to pay for college and applied to top engineering universities, UIUC being my number one choice. The acceptance letter came, I accepted, but I still needed to find a way to pay close to 30 thousand dollars for one year’s tuition and room and board. Without surprise my parents came to the rescue by taking out a 20 thousand dollar loan and my dad taking up a second job. So the day came, I moved into the dorms and again tried to ignore a simple fact about myself that set me apart from the majority of my peers, yet keeping in mind the sacrifice that got me there. Now in my second year of college my parents were able to pay for tuition with tax money and savings and without having to take out a loan. As much of an accomplishment as this is, I know that if I would have been able to apply for financial aid or scholarships I would not be risking my parents health and well being by attending college.
    The barriers that I face now are some that affect my chances of getting a job after college even if I have legal status by then. The chances of attaining a job straight out of college are greatly increased by having research, study abroad, and internship experience. None of which I can achieve without being legal. Although the thought that once I graduate I still might not have the status that allows me to put my degree to work haunts me every day, I try to not let it get to me. It is definitely hard, but if I could give one piece of advice to other undocumented students that’s what it would be. I have thought about what I would do if the day of graduation comes and I still don’t have legal status. I have thought about possibly moving to Mexico, exercising my degree there while at the same time applying for a visa to work in the US. It would be very hard to leave my family and move to a country I don’t know, but I would if that is what it takes. I have also thought about taking my boyfriend up on his offer of postponing our big summer church wedding and just marrying at the courthouse so we can begin the process of me becoming legal. Although that seems like the perfect solution, I am very hesitant about it. I love my boyfriend so much and I want our wedding to be special, not a means for me to stay in this country. Yet this situation is still 2 years away, and I will deal with it when it presents itself. Right now I am focusing on my schoolwork, making the best of out of my life in college, and showing my parents how much I love them and appreciate all they have done.
    I know many don’t share my experience, and by reading the situations other are in, I consider myself very lucky. My parents and I came to the United States when I was just one year old. They came to provide a better life for me and they have. They have worked very hard since the day they got here and from that hard work they have provided me with things that even some legal Americans don’t have, and I don’t take that for granted. If I had the choice I would not have my life any other way. If I had not been an undocumented student I would not be the person I am today. I have learned how far unconditional love for a child can go, to appreciate everything I have, and to have compassion for everyone in this world. When the day comes that I am finally a US citizen I want to share my story to show that attaining your dream is possible with hard work and perseverance.

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