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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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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.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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