February 3, 2006

The ‘Paper Ceiling’ – undocumented students hit barriers after graduation

By Nick Guroff

BERKELEY — Brenda ran Los Angeles’ citywide marathon representing John Adams Middle School. After finishing at the top of her age group, she felt “on top of the world.”

Then she told her track coach that she wanted to go to college. He told her it wasn’t going to happen, because she was undocumented.

Eight years later, Brenda is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley. The California Dream Act of 2001 allows undocumented students to attend public universities for in-state tuition — and allowed Brenda to prove her coach wrong.

Brenda will be among the first class to graduate since the law went into effect. But her opportunity for advancement may end on graduation day, as she tries to find her way into a job market from which she is legally barred.

“I’m back in the same situation,” she said. “What do I do now?”

The Supreme Court has ruled that immigrants have a right to an education regardless of citizenship. Undocumented graduates, however, cannot work legally in the United States.

With the job market closed to them, some soon-to-be graduates are finding reasons to prolong their college education. The hope, according to Horacio Arroyo, a youth organizer with the Coalition on Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, is that the law might change in the near future, making it easier for these students to naturalize and enter the work force.

Arroyo is in touch with undocumented students at colleges across the California. “A lot of them are looking for a second major right now,” he said.

Only about half of undocumented high school students will make it to graduation. Of those, less than half will go on to college. Only 15 percent will earn a degree, according to Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

In high school, even promising students like Brenda can be timid about seeking support for their college aspirations, said Arroyo, whose organization advocates for undocumented students interested in higher education.

Brenda, Arroyo recalls, approached the coalition seeking help for a friend. “We were amazed at the story she told, and at what her friend had been through. We encouraged her to bring her friend by.”

The story Brenda told was her own.

Brenda was seven years old when she was carried across the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas in 1989. Her family settled near the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Brenda grew up in a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment with her parents and three younger sisters.

Brenda’s father found work in the textile mills, where he has worked for minimum wage for the past 16 years. Brenda did her part throughout high school by working in “the alleys,” L.A.’s fashion district, where she made $35 a day selling dresses priced at $80 or more.

After joining the coalition, Brenda participated in rallies, meetings with legislators and press events. That fall, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the California Dream Act. Brenda enrolled at U.C.Berkeley in January, 2002, the month the law went into effect.

Jack Martin, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), is critical of the California Dream Act and of similar proposals at the national level.

“Our first responsibility is to legal residents in this country,” he said. “We are not opposed to [undocumented students] studying here, we would just like to see them study as foreign students — which they are.”

FAIR estimates that taxpayers pay $7.4 billion a year to educated undocumented students in public elementary and secondary schools. When states like California allow these students to pay in-state tuition at public universities, he added, taxpayers cover that, too.

But Stephen Levy, senior economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, said the math is not that simple.

“When we talk about ‘our kids,’ we talk about investment,” he observed. “When we talk about unauthorized immigrant kids, we talk about cost.”

Levy pointed out that the difference in lifetime earnings between a high school and a college graduate can be close to a million dollars. Increasing the earning power of undocumented residents, it follows, would increase tax revenues.

Brenda said her parents are excited about her impending graduation — “I think they have the hope that I’m going to support them.” But for the past four years, Brenda has had difficulty supporting herself. Undocumented students are ineligible for state or federal financial aid, and work is hard to come by without papers.

Brenda has been lucky to find part-time work with a local nonprofit, but it’s not enough — she’s been late on every tuition payment. Each time, she’s had to go to the dean’s office and explain her situation.

Now she’s wondering how to explain to her parents that a college diploma may not mean what they think it will.

“My parents are older now,” she said. “My mom has diabetes. My sisters are growing up. How am I supposed to help?”

“I really don’t have any hope for the future,” said the soon-to-be college graduate. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Nick Guroff is a freelance writer studying journalism at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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