Only 5 percent of undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools go on to college, according to an oft-cited 2004 report by the Urban Institute. However, in June President Barack Obama issued an executive order halting the deportation of young undocumented immigrants.
Marty Forth, senior director of teen programming for the YMCA of Greater New York’s 22 branches, now wonders if a wave of teens will be coming to counselors and social workers for the first time looking for help understanding the new rules.
In the past he says these kids kept their status to themselves, now Forth said, “ I think they are going to come out asking for help.
“When they come in they are like everybody else,” said Forth, “Each situation is unique. No matter what — whether you’re legal or illegal — each counseling, each guiding, each hand-holding needs to be different.”
That makes for a daunting task because 15 percent of undocumented immigrants living in the United States are children. That’s 1.8 million children who in many instances grow up unaware of their immigration status. Today an estimated 65,000 young undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
Following the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v Doe, undocumented children were guaranteed an education from kindergarten through 12th grade, However, the decision didn’t address college education, and in the absence of any federal legislation, each state is left to decide for itself whether to allow undocumented immigrants to attend public universities at all, to pay the higher out-of-state tuition, or to pay the lower in-state tuition.
Several states do not offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, among them North Carolina where Carla (who asked that Youth Today use only her first name because of her immigration status) settled after crossing into the United States from Mexico illegally with her family when she was 11. She would eventually graduate from a N.C. high school. Carla says that when it came time for her to begin looking at colleges she knew she had to go to a private school, despite her high GPA and a transcript filled with advanced placement and honors courses.
“Even though I got into North Carolina State I couldn’t go because the [out-of-state] tuition was $24,000,” Carla said. “I couldn’t afford it.”
She was accepted to four private schools, eventually choosing Marymount University, a private Catholic school in Virginia, where she recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She says she might not have made it were it not for her high school counselors who kept her from getting discouraged.
Forth says access to college is one of the biggest concerns of the undocumented teenagers he has worked with. At the YMCA, in addition to recreational activities and programs that train teens to be counselors, the teens receive guidance about where to apply for financial aid and which schools will accept undocumented students. But, he says, many undocumented students never make it to college or drop out before they graduate.
“[T]hey want to succeed,” Forth said. “They want to progress. But they’re being held back, even though they want to contribute and thrive just like any other strong teenager. … And that’s really hard to watch because some of them are so capable and would be amazing in college.”
Esmerelda Ortiz, site director of the College Bound program at the Boys & Girls Club in Redwood City, Calif., said adding support for undocumented students was critical for her program, which provides tutoring, field trips and workshops to teens.
“Mentoring students through the college process is crucial for all our students, and we begin their freshman year when most enter our program,” Ortiz said. “However, we recognized that we need to provide more support for our undocumented students in understanding their situation and opportunities, especially with new developments that raise many questions for them.”
In California, undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges if they meet certain criteria, such as graduating from a California high school. To receive the exemption, the teens must submit a special affidavit.
“[W]e help undocumented seniors fill out college applications and the AB 540 Affidavit so that they may be charged in-state tuition for California’s public colleges,” Ortiz said. “I have also helped a couple students apply for scholarships.” She uses the Education for Fair Consideration website.
Scholarships are often critically important for undocumented students. Because they are not eligible for any federal financial aid, many undocumented students struggle to pay for college. Scholarships are often the only way they can afford to pay for their education, even if the state they live in allows them to receive in-state tuition.
Many immigration reform activists favor the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and who have been accepted into college. The bill has yet to pass Congress, but many activists believe President Obama’s recent change in deportation policy may push legislators to finally pass a version of the DREAM Act.
In New York, where the state Assembly is considering a law similar to the DREAM Act, the City University of New York already offers financial aid directly to undocumented students, Forth says.
“That’s generally the only option we can direct them to if they need help,” Forth said. “I mean, if they can pay out of pocket, then great.”
Texas also offers in-state tuition to undocumented students. At Americas High School in El Paso, where the student body is 98 percent Hispanic, counselors encourage undocumented students to apply for scholarships.
“And we encourage them to attend our college fairs and our financial aid night,” said Sylvia Cox, chair of the counseling department at Americas High School, “because usually we will have various counselors from the university or El Paso Community College, and they will help them and their families as well.” The counselors also make a point of interviewing every student each year and asking them about their hopes for their future.
But the counselors sometimes hear disturbing stories about how the escalating drug violence in Mexico has affected many of the students at her school, Cox said: “The kids are very honest. I’ll ask them what brings you to El Paso and they’ll just say, ‘My mom was kidnapped.’”
Another student arrived for his first day at the school with an aunt. Cox recalled how the aunt told her the clothes the boy was wearing were all he owned. He had left Mexico after his mother and another aunt were kidnapped.
But there are also many positive stories among the undocumented students, Cox asserted.
“I just had a student who straight out said, ‘Look, we left Mexico because of the violence,’” Cox said. The girl was about 15 years old when she came to the United States. “And her parents started completely over. They opened up a little business. When she was accepted at [the University of Texas], she started as a freshman and she just graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. She came from Mexico without speaking a word of English, and when she graduated she was fluent. And I’ve seen several students do that.
“If you give them opportunities they excel,” she added. “The paperwork will always be there. Put the pen down and give the students 110 percent of your time.”
Ryan Schill is the Assistant Editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.