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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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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.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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