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Strange Education: Out of the Shadows

Undocumented students find their voice

 by Sam Friedman
 published on Thursday, April 20, 2006

Think you're stressed? Undocumented students live in constant fear of deportation and know they can't work after graduation.
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Think you're stressed? Undocumented students live in constant fear of deportation and know they can't work after graduation. "Every day I ask myself why I am going to school," says one undocumented student. "I feel like my degree is going to be of no use."
 

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It was a long time ago, but 23-year-old ASU student Luz* will never forget the day she ducked through a hole in a fence somewhere near the Mexican border town of Nogales and found herself in America. Although she was just 8 years old, Luz says she vividly remembers both the fear and relief as she, her mother, and four brothers and sisters, safely negotiated the border and joined their father on the other side.

Growing up in the Sunnyslope area of Phoenix, Luz settled into a pretty average American upbringing; she learned English, went to school and made friends.

It was only when she approached adulthood and realized she couldn't get a job, a driver's license or a credit card, that her illegal status started to sink in.

Now 23 years old and about to graduate from ASU, Luz is again acutely aware of her illegitimate standing. Without a Social Security number, she knows there is no way she will find a job.

"Every day I ask myself 'why am I going to school,'" she says. "I feel like my degree is going to be of no use."

According to The Urban Institute in Washington D.C., over 65,000 undocumented students graduate annually from U.S high schools.

But because their parents brought them here illegally, they face a limited chance of completing their education or working legally.

Undocumented students don't qualify for most financial aid and cannot lawfully be employed during or after graduating from college.

Instead many turn to the underground economy in order to put themselves through college.

Wendy*, another undocumented student at ASU, says she has stayed afloat thanks to a string of jobs that "nobody else wants to do." For three years before college Wendy was paid $5 a day to wash dishes at a Phoenix restaurant and now works as a landscape gardener with her brother.

"The pay is better now," she says. "More like $5 an hour. But for a woman it's back-breaking work in 90-degree heat."

Like many students in similar positions across the country, Luz and Wendy are focusing their hopes on a piece of Federal legislation called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act. This bill would allow undocumented students to apply for legal residency if they have graduated from high school and lived in the U.S for at least five years.

However, despite broad bipartisan support, the DREAM Act has consistently failed to make it through Congress.

Reintroduced for the last time on April 16, the bill faces a last-chance vote in the coming months.

Fearing another disappointment, Luz, Wendy and other undocumented students are finally coming out of the shadows to start lobbying in favor of the bill. On April 26 they will join other student organizations like Campus Greens and the Young Democrats in a "Solidarity Rally" organized by the Social Justice Coalition to highlight all social justice issues. The rally will be held on Hayden Lawn, April 26, from 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.

Luz, who will be speaking at the rally, says previously it's been difficult to put herself in the public eye for fear of deportation.

"Sure I'm scared," she says. "But this is an important platform to raise awareness. At the moment the consensus seems to be against the bill so we need to convince important people like President Crow that our struggle is legitimate."

But some critics say the DREAM Act is far from legitimate. Rick Oltman from conservative public-interest organization, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says the bill would only encourage more immigrants.

"Fundamentally these people need to [go to] college in their own country where they're citizens," he says. "We need to stop giving people the message that if they get across the border everything will be alright."

Although undocumented students in Arizona qualify for in-state tuition and private scholarships, they are excluded from all forms of federal or state aid -- like grants, loans or scholarships.

This means many undocumented students struggle financially throughout their time at ASU, according to Maria Elena Coronado, who advises undocumented students on a range of academic and emotional issues at the ASU Multicultural Student Center.

"The catch-22 is that students are able to get a degree but then can't get a job," she says.

Coronado says the reality is that most of the undocumented students she deals with were in the top five percent of their high-school graduating class.

Though she's been here for 15 years, Luz says she's still waiting for the opportunity to fully integrate.

"It's frustrating because I feel American," she says. "It's just I need the The DREAM Act to help me fulfill my dream and become a working individual, able to help this society."

*Due to the sensitive nature of this story, and the legal implications for its subjects, SPM decided to use only the first names of any undocumented student quoted.

Reach the reporter at sam.friedman@asu.edu.



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