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The Education Trap 

In California, many undocumented immigrants are offered cheap college tuition, only to find they can’t get jobs after they graduate.

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010
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Prerna Lal worked her way through CSU East Bay, vacuuming and cleaning toilets at office buildings 30 hours a week. Not your typical college gig, but the 25-year-old Fiji native can't legally hold a job in this country and needed one where people don't check papers too closely.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science, she dreamed of going on to law school, hoping to become an attorney and maybe someday a professor. But those jobs require a Social Security number, and no amount of studying could get her that.

So, like many graduates facing a bad job market, Lal decided to stall by going back to school. She blazed through a graduate degree in international relations at S.F. State University.

The plan was to buy time until her permanent-residency petition could be considered in another couple of years, allowing her to apply for a federal loan to help pay her law school tuition. Lal had come to the United States at age 14 with her father, who was enrolled at CSU and had a student visa. She never returned to Fiji; she stayed in the Bay Area — as an illegal immigrant.

Lal got some bad news shortly after graduating from S.F. State in 2007. She received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, informing her that because of a delay in processing applications, she had aged out of her current petition as a child of a permanent resident (her mother), and now fell into a less-prioritized category as the adult daughter of a permanent resident. She was pushed to the back of another potentially 10-year-long line. "It's bullcrap," she says.

Sick of waiting to become eligible for government loans, Lal applied for law school last year. She'd always dreamed of going to the top-tier program at the University of British Columbia, of which many family members are alumni. She was accepted, but last month the final insult dropped: The Canadian embassy rejected her student visa application. Since Lal was living illegally in the United States and no longer had ties to her home country, she was seen as a risk of overstaying a visa in Canada, too.

"I'm stateless, pretty much," Lal says. "I've been derailed over and over and over. I just got to pick myself up and move on again."

This fall, she'll be going to law school at George Washington University. She'll rack up even more time in the United States illegally. She'll get a degree she won't be able to use here, since illegal immigrants can't become members of the bar. Lal is set to wait at least another six years for her visa application to be processed. By then, she'll be 31. "You have to wait from 14 to 31 to get papers in this country — are you fucking kidding me?" she says.

Lal and other illegal immigrants with college educations still have reason for hope: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — the DREAM Act, for short. The pending bill would give a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and attend college or serve in the military. An estimated 36,000 high school graduates each year would qualify for help under the bill.

Lal has turned lobbying for the bill into her job, cofounding the DreamActivist.org national network, flying to Washington, D.C. to lobby congressional aides, blogging on Change.org about "8 Reasons to Pass the DREAM Act as a Standalone Immediately." Her peers have conducted hunger strikes and marched for the law, and President Barack Obama has touted it along with his calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Yet it appears there will be nothing immediate about this fight: Congress, in a midterm election year, has responded with crickets.


Jaime Torres walked into S.F. State's main bookstore on the first day of summer school and headed straight for the graph paper. He had already bought his genetics and cell biology textbooks on Amazon — $100 cheaper than the bookstore price, he calculated. The sandwich he had put in his North Face backpack that morning would save him $7 come lunchtime, and he saves rent money by living with his parents. When your dad works illegally as a waiter and you're an aspiring doctor, every dollar counts.

At the cashier's request, Torres flashed his student ID card, which bears a photo of the young man with a shock of spiky black hair and Mayan features that often get him mistaken for an Asian on campus. The card is his only identification, other than the Mexican ID and passport at home in his San Rafael apartment building, filled with Latino families for whom the manager sometimes doesn't bother to keep the hot water running. His passport says he's a native of Oxkutzcab, Yucatán. He can't pronounce the name of the town his teenage parents left behind almost 20 years ago, taking a bus across the border with their 1-year-old son. Soon, the young Torres was absorbing "one, two, three" from Sesame Street. Now he studies DNA.

Jaime Torres could be the DREAM Act's poster child, though that isn't his real name. It's hard to put your name on a cause when you're afraid of being deported. At San Rafael High School, he sat in honors and advanced placement classrooms, one of the few Latino faces among rows of whites and Asians. His classmates' parents were doctors and engineers. Torres thought becoming a doctor would deliver the luxuries that eluded his father working 14-hour days at a restaurant and his mother at a daycare.

Torres didn't dare tell his classmates what his parents did, or that he was illegal. Around Latino students, he hid his dreams, afraid of being called a sellout. In the end, he chose S.F. State for its affordable tuition, which he has covered with several private scholarships.

Torres is one of a growing army of students who are stuck after California lawmakers passed AB 540 in 2001. The bill allowed any student who had attended a California high school for three years and graduated to pay in-state tuition rates. With a yearly savings of roughly $5,000 for a full-time community college student to some $23,000 at UC Berkeley, college became feasible for an aspiring generation of illegal immigrants.

The University of California system estimated it had about 400 potentially undocumented students paying in-state tuition on its 10 campuses in the 2007-2008 school year, the last for which data is available. The California State University system estimates it has 3,600 AB 540 students, including 166 at S.F. State, though it's unknown how many are undocumented and how many are other types of eligible students (such as citizens who attended California high schools and have returned for school after moving away). Community colleges had 34,000 AB 540 students in the 2008-2009 school year. None of the systems require students to specify their immigration status.

Torres dove into his freshman classes with the vigor of knowing he could be deported any day, mystified by the students who sauntered in with tales of how wasted they got the previous night: "With immigration raids, if some day they come and snatch me, that would be the end of it," he says. "That's why I work hard."

Beyond academia, Torres joined a handful of undocumented students lobbying for the DREAM Act. They called their fledgling club IDEAS, or Improving Dreams, Equity, Access, and Success; he became its president last fall. The group hosted a conference last year that drew 175 attendees, including undocumented students, counselors, and parents. Among the presenters was the San Francisco–based nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration, which has given 31 scholarships to Bay Area immigrants since 2006. Its website includes a list of scholarships that don't require Social Security numbers, alongside guides for teachers like "Telltale Signs: Tips for Identifying Undocumented Students." (They: "1. Use passports as their primary form of identification. 2. Refuse to participate in prestigious programs despite their high academic achievements ...") Torres won a $5,000 scholarship from the organization last year.

When Torres delved into activism, he confessed to a favorite professor that he was thinking of abandoning molecular biology for political science. She told him to take her Disparities in Cancer class before making a decision. Torres learned how inequalities like environmental racism and insurance battles can affect health outcomes for minorities. He saw that becoming a doctor wasn't a way to escape from his community, but to help it. "Science can promote social justice," he says. "That captured it for me."

Yet a medical license requires a Social Security number. As Torres watched Arizona Governor Jan Brewer sign SB 1070 this spring, which mandates law enforcement officers to attempt to determine the immigration status of people they suspect to be here illegally, he started to lose hope. Why would a state punish its illegal workforce?

"From a capitalist point of view, you want to oppress your workers. You want them to not have any rights," Torres says while sitting in a Hensill Hall lab, where he helps a professor research the inclusion of minorities in clinical trials. A sign he painted with "No ICE please" for a protest was perched in the window. "But when this [Arizona] bill passed, it destroyed this whole premise I had. It's like, what is this based on? And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, this is based on hate.'"

Torres' answer to the forces he cannot control is hard work, though he knows each day closer to graduation is a day closer to confronting a sobering reality: Without eligibility for government financial aid, how will he ever afford medical school?

"I try not to dwell too much on it, because when I think too much about it, it seriously depresses me," he says. "I'm just going to run into this wall as hard as possible."


One Thursday in late June, after getting home and heating up some food left by his mom, Torres sat down at his desk in front of his MacBook and dialed up a conference call. Uriel from Berkeley was already waiting, and soon more immigrant students, many of them undocumented, rang in: Anyelli and Yolanda from Davis. Myra from Santa Cruz. Torres had coordinated the call to discuss how to mobilize students from far-flung campuses for protests to hasten passage of the DREAM Act. But first he wanted to talk politics.

Torres said he had noticed a rupture in the movement, between those who want the act passed as a stand-alone bill and those who want comprehensive reform for all immigrants. Torres explained he didn't want the DREAM Act students to leave all the other illegal people behind. "The DREAM Act will legalize [us], but will it fix the system?" Torres asked. "This is an issue of justice. We're here to fix the system."

Another student piped up: "I don't feel this is two issues. They're the same, just for different demographics ... and I don't understand why we have to divide it into two and just get [reform] for ourselves."

Anyelli continued: "One of the main points people make is that comprehensive immigration reform is not actually a bill. So if there's no bill, why push for it at this point? Whereas the DREAM Act is a bill that can be pushed." Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced a comprehensive bill in December, but there has been little movement on it.

Despite the growing pressure, the DREAM Act legislation has been languishing in Congress since 2001. The current version introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and an almost identical bill introduced into the House of Representatives by Howard Berman (D-Calif.), give conditional residency status to undocumented immigrants aged 12 to 35 who entered the U.S. before they were 16, have lived here continuously for five years prior to the passage of the bill, have graduated from high school or earned a GED, and have good "moral character," meaning they haven't been convicted of serious crimes. Under Durbin's bill, they would be eligible for federal work-study programs or student loans, but not federal grants. The candidates are given six years during which they must complete two years of college (the bill doesn't specify how many credits or what grades they must earn) or serve two years in the military. If they do so, they can become permanent residents and then apply to become citizens. If they don't, they can be deported.

Advocates argue that the country has already invested in years of public K-12 education for the students (a right for illegal immigrants protected by a Supreme Court decision), and the law would allow them to give back in the form of talent and taxes. In a 2006 paper, West Point law professor Margaret Stock argued that the act, which also requires all men to register with the Selective Service, would be a boon to lagging military recruitment numbers.

Yet when the Senate was deciding whether to take up the bill in 2007 — a vote on whether there should be a vote, essentially — conservatives against any measure that rang of amnesty went wild. FOX News bashed the bill with the caption "Bad Dream." Radio host Michael Savage said on air that he hoped students conducting a hunger strike in San Francisco in support of the bill would "starve to death."

The Bush administration, which supported comprehensive immigration reform, released a policy statement on the day of the vote saying the bill would create a "preferential path to citizenship for a special class of illegal aliens," one that would unfairly allow them to get green cards before many waiting in line lawfully outside the country. In the end, the Senate voted 52-44 against taking up the measure.

Now, with President Obama saying young people shouldn't be punished for the actions of their parents and pushing for comprehensive reform, some DREAM Act–eligible students have gotten more confrontational in their activism. Four undocumented students walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., in March; students staging a sit-in were arrested in Senator John McCain's Tucson, Ariz., office in April; and 10 others held a 10-day hunger strike outside Senator Charles Schumer's office in New York City in June. Around the same time, a phalanx of students staged a mock graduation outside Senator Dianne Feinstein's office at One Post, from which fake immigration officers deported them right off the stage, and a caravan of DREAMers from across the country descended on Washington last week to lobby Congress.

The blog PostSecret, which gathers artistic renderings of anonymous readers' confessions, put up a suicide threat: "I have lived in San Francisco since I was young ... I am illegal ... I am not wanted here ... I don't belong anywhere ... This summer I plan to jump off the Golden Gate." Even if it was a stunt, it drew attention to the cause by spurring press coverage and thousands of people joining a Facebook page created by a Canadian woman.

Advocates say it is promising that they now have 40 cosponsors in the Senate — including two Republicans and California Senators Barbara Boxer and Feinstein — up from just three in 2007. Yet Steven Camarota from the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative Washington-based think tank in favor of tougher border enforcement, says the bill still faces stiff obstacles. First, few Democrats, especially ones from states unfriendly to illegal aliens, want to legalize undocumented immigrants in an election year. Second, the industries that are key in lobbying Republicans to legalize their workforces — sectors such as hospitality, food service, building maintenance, and construction — don't benefit from legalizing college-bound kids. Lastly, the pro-reform lobby doesn't want to promote the DREAM Act at the expense of the great majority of other illegal immigrants who would benefit from comprehensive reform.

"They say, why have a contentious battle over just a fraction of the population?" Camarota says. "Their fear is that Congress will go, 'Whew, that was a political battle [after passing the DREAM Act], now we don't have to come up with a solution for the other eight or nine million.'"

While Congress stalls, the problem only continues to grow. State Senator Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) reintroduced the California DREAM Act in February, which would make undocumented students eligible for state financial aid. Though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed similar bills, saying it makes less money available to lawful residents, state senators defiantly passed the current version. It's now making its way through the Assembly.

But only the feds can give the students legal status. Until that happens, a college degree is just a ticket to a life in immigration purgatory.


It's 3:50 p.m., and Eva's replacement at a diner south of San Francisco is almost an hour late. Still, she smiles as she places two burgers before the couple in a window booth, then tells the cook in Spanish to separate the hash browns from the skewers on the next order.

"She'll be here any minute now, mi hija, I'm sorry," says the manager at the cash register, who has known Eva since she started at the restaurant after graduating from high school eight years ago.

Eva smiles once again, and if you didn't know any better, you might think she was content. Hardly. A year ago, she graduated from S.F. State with a bachelor's in international relations. She founded the undocumented student organization that Torres now heads, pledged a coed service fraternity, and worked on Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan's doomed U.S. House campaign — all while waiting tables 20 hours a week to bankroll her studies without financial aid.

But one year out of school, the 25-year-old still waits tables at two restaurants on the Peninsula, thanks to fake papers she bought for $180 in the parking lot of a San Jose shopping center. (Eva is not her real name.)

At 4:05, her replacement finally saunters in. Eva clocks out, and walks to her well-worn Dodge in the parking lot with an S.F. State sticker in the back window and her graduation tassels dangling from the rearview mirror. She throws her apron on the backseat alongside foreign policy magazines and her Bible, and exchanges her black work sneakers for sandals that show off her French-tip toenails.

Eva drives out to the beach at Pacifica, where she often meditates between shifts at the burger joint and a chain restaurant while taking in the surfers and the seagulls. She settles down on a concrete wall, and her smile disappears. "When you graduate, it's like a slap in the face," she says.

Eva had hoped to go to law school, yet she bombed her LSATs — still struggling with timed tests in English — and has had problems finding the motivation to try again when she can't afford law school. She dreams of working on policy for the United Nations, a job that would allow her to travel. A small porcelain globe hangs around her neck, a gift from an American friend who graduated with the same major and is already working as an aide in the Salinas district attorney's office.

"She's doing all the things I should be doing," Eva says. Her eyes tear up behind her rhinestone-emblazoned retro glasses. "It just makes me wonder, maybe if I had papers I could do that kind of stuff."

When Eva was 13, her mom paid a coyote $3,000 in house-cleaning and waitressing cash to lead the girl through the Arizona desert. Back in the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit, Eva had been a top student with wicked volleyball defense. But showing up to San Jose High Academy for her freshman year without speaking English, "I came to be the wetback." The U.S.-born Latinos mocked her attempts at English, so she befriended the chola girls in her ESL classes with thick eyeliner and blue sureño shoelaces weaving through their Nike sneakers. She was soon one of them: In her senior year, she pinned down a girl in the school parking lot and pulled her hair, and got suspended for a week.

But once her counselor moved her from ESL to mainstream classes, Eva thrived. She raised her GPA to a 2.0 in order to join the basketball team. When she found out she didn't have to pay international student tuition at De Anza Community College, she enrolled, but having earned Cs in nearly every class through high school, she knew it would be a struggle. For four years, she drilled her English in language and writing classes and worked through math, statistics, and French. Finally, at age 22, she transferred to S.F. State. Stepping onto campus, she felt like she'd won a second lease on life. She graduated with a 3.4 GPA, an unlikely success.

On a recent Thursday, Eva sat at a pod of desks in a classroom at James Lick High School in San Jose, invited to demystify college for ninth-graders in a summer program for minority kids who would be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

"I am one of the few who was able to graduate when I didn't have papers," she says, drawing some smiles from the Latino students. "We crossed the desert just like that," she says, sliding her hand across the desk. "Just like that."

The students have questions, and soon comes the zinger she'd been dreading. "How did college prepare you for your career?"

"Well," she laughs quickly, "I don't have a career yet." As the groups rotate, her answer becomes more vague. "Yeah, it gives a lot of knowledge and the ability to interact with other people. It does prepare you." The kids eagerly write down her answers. She never tells them what she does now.

On the days when customers are nice, tips are good, and the Serenity Prayer ("God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ...") tucked behind her order pad keeps her centered, life is passable. But then there are the other days. "I just have these days when people are, like, on a mission to make your life miserable," she says. "That's when it's like, 'I went to school, I spent so many sleepless nights so I wouldn't have to be here.' That's when it gets hard."

Eva is mulling giving the DREAM Act one more year, and then applying to law schools in Canada or the U.K. If all else fails, she may head back to Mexico and hunt for a job in hotels or in export. If she leaves, she'll lose her eligibility for the DREAM Act, since she must be here five years continuously before it passes. So for now, she's buying time. "I'm not ready to give up the dream yet," she says.

College has changed Eva, if not her career. When one student asked what she'd be doing if she hadn't gone, she says she'd probably be married with kids, living paycheck to paycheck and watching Spanish-language soap operas all day. Instead, she slips into Peet's in her free time, poring over the Christian Science Monitor or autobiographies of world leaders to keep her sharp. When a customer at the diner suggests she hang out at the country club to nab a rich man to marry, she just laughs. "I'm only 25; I don't need to worry about getting married," she says.

College has also changed her family. Eva's younger brother graduates from high school next year, and wants to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. Whether the DREAM Act passes or not, Eva plans to help pay his tuition and hook him up with a job at the same restaurant.


On a sunny Saturday earlier this month, Prerna Lal was one of many DREAM Act–eligible students descending on Dolores Park for an international potluck picnic: wontons, Korean pork buns, pastel de tres leches, Inka Kola, pupusas. Most of the attendees were in the country illegally. The parents of the scholarship winner in sequined flip-flops chatting about starting at S.F. State this fall have been fighting a deportation order for a decade. A woman in a UC Berkeley T-shirt turns out to be the student who coordinated the Civic Center hunger strike in 2007. Three years after graduating with an architecture degree, her idealism seems worn as she explains she's working as a secretary and photographing proms.

The occasion? One of Lal's friends and fellow activists decided she couldn't wait for the bill anymore, and is leaving the country. Beleza is Chinese by blood and Brazilian by birth. She is 23, yet has the bearing of someone a decade older. She earned a bachelor's in sociology from UC Berkeley with highest honors in 2008, and since then has been filling her time by tutoring, babysitting, and interning at Educators for Fair Consideration. Beleza reported only $12,000 in income last year, compared to her husband, Giovanni, who dropped out of school at 14 when he came illegally to the United States from Mexico to help his parents clean buildings and schools. Giovanni started his own janitorial company three years ago, and says he earned more than $100,000 last year.

Beleza planned to attempt exactly what Lal had just failed at: getting a Canadian student visa for a graduate program in urban studies at the University of Toronto. There's a risk she'll face the same obstacles — she's been in the United States illegally, and has few ties to her home country. "If I were a betting man, I'd say they're not going to accept it," says David Cohen, a Toronto-based immigration attorney, when told the details of Beleza's case. She plans to tell the truth other than one key component: She does, indeed, plan to stay in Canada after she graduates and become a permanent resident.

Beleza will do one thing differently than Lal. The day after the picnic, she will return to her native Brazil, since she's supposed to apply and interview for the student visa from a county where she legally resides. Leaving the U.S. is exiling herself, the reason Lal decided to subvert the rules and apply from the United States. Immigrants who've lived more than one year illegally in the country are barred from re-entering for 10 years.

"Once I'm out, I'm out," Beleza says calmly while packing the last eight years of her life into three suitcases at her Excelsior home the night before the party. "I don't think I'm coming back."

Beleza will also lose her eligibility for the DREAM Act she worked so hard to help pass. But she says it's no longer worth living in the United States: "I like to be in charge of my own destiny. Here, I'm just waiting." The morning after the party, she boarded her plane without a tear. Giovanni plans to join her next year, or if he happens to get deported — whichever comes first.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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