For Illegal Immigrants, a Harsh Lesson
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jun 24 15:42:07 UTC 2005
>>From the NYTimes, June 19, 2005
For Illegal Immigrants, a Harsh Lesson
By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
ESTEBAN NAVARRO'S disappearance broke a lot of hearts at Trenton Central
High School, where the dropout rate among Hispanic students is triple the
state average. Two years ago, Mr. Navarro, a quiet and gifted student, was
headed for top honors. His teachers said he was a star soccer player who
received a perfect score on the advanced-placement calculus exam and was
named class valedictorian. By senior year, the long-haired teenager was
being courted by Princeton, where he took advanced math classes.
But by spring 2003, when he was a senior, Mr. Navarro's plans to attend
college unraveled. As the son of illegal immigrants, Mr. Navarro, who was
born in Costa Rica, had no Social Security number. Had he been a citizen,
his parents' meager income as a cook and a house cleaner might have
qualified him for financial aid, but federal law barred him from receiving
assistance. Afraid to risk flouting federal law, Princeton and other
leading universities could not process Mr. Navarro's applications,
according to several people with knowledge of his situation. And at
graduation, as the principal called on him to deliver the valedictory
speech, Mr. Navarro had already dropped out - his dream of becoming a
mathematician dashed in a tangle of immigration laws.
"He just gave up," his 19-year-old brother, Julio, recalled. "He didn't
even put up a fight." Mr. Navarro refused to talk about his situation for
this article. Now 21, Mr. Navarro, who had attended school in the United
States since the first grade, works in a pizza shop outside Philadelphia.
Nor is the plight of Mr. Navarro an isolated case. Currently, about 60,000
high school students who have spent nearly their entire lives in the
United States are considered illegal immigrants, according to the Urban
Institute, a research organization in Washington. And because 56 percent
of them are from low-income families, the cost of college is out of reach.
One solution is embodied in the In-State Tuition Act, first introduced in
the New Jersey Legislature in 2003, which would allow illegal immigrants
like Mr. Navarro to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates.
Without legal status, these students, who currently number about 28,000,
are charged out-of-state rates that are prohibitively expensive for most
of their struggling families. To qualify for in-state status, according to
the legislation, students would have to prove that they had attended a New
Jersey high school for at least four years and planned to apply for
Languishing in the Legislature
The bill, which has languished in the Assembly and the Senate Education
Committee for two years, has the support of the New Jersey Immigration
Policy Network, a coalition of students, charities and civil-liberties
organizations. "Immigrants feel abandoned and isolated, and it's
particularly painful for youth," said Ryan Lilienthal, an immigration
lawyer in Princeton. "They feel they belong here but are stigmatized
because they lack opportunity. If we are not careful and close the
education door, who knows what direction they will pursue? We've got to
find ways to get them legal immigration status."
Opponents believe that the bill, if approved, would strain classrooms and
budgets at public universities and provoke tension between legal
immigrants who might not qualify for lower tuition and illegal immigrants
who would. "If someone from Philadelphia wants to go to school in New
Jersey, and an illegal is getting in-state tuition, that angers students a
great deal," said Jean Oswald, executive director of New Jersey
Commission on Higher Education. Consequently, the measure faces an uphill
battle, as does a bill pending in Congress that would allow illegal
immigrants to apply for federal college assistance.
In New Jersey, many advocates of the measure blame racial politics for
stalling its passage. "The main perception among the immigrant community
is that they are experiencing disguised racism," said Carlos Avila, 21, a
leading supporter of the act. "They feel it's a tool of power and a tug of
war in an economic sense. The Latino immigrants have the economic power,
and that sometimes threatens other communities - Anglos and
The issue is particularly pressing in New Jersey, which has the
fifth-largest immigrant population in the nation. Some migration studies
say that as many as 500,000 residents are illegal immigrants, although the
real numbers are hard to determine because these immigrants live largely
in the shadows for fear of deportation. They often shuttle among low-wage
jobs as cooks, construction workers and janitors. Their children tend to
attend low-performing schools and drop out early to help their families
scratch out a living. Even so, their children are integrated in the public
schools, which by law are not allowed to question a family's immigration
status. Once there, the children receive mixed messages. For instance,
last year - to ease the transition of those with limited English
proficiency - state high schools provided bilingual programs for 342,482
students. But when the college process begins, they face insurmountable
odds and often receive bad advice.
So far, federal and state laws have sent immigrants mixed signals, too. In
1982, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public school students in
kindergarten through 12th grade could not be denied an education because
of their immigration status. A decade later, the national Immigration
Reform and Control Act of 1996 largely cut social benefits to illegal
immigrant families, including access to federal financial aid. The law
also included a provision prohibiting in-state tuition rates for illegal
After 2001, California and Texas were the first states to counter that act
with laws to treat illegal immigrant students as residents if they had
been educated almost exclusively in the United States. Those two states
were followed by Utah, Illinois, Oklahoma, New York and Washington.
But many New Jersey legislators are hesitant to act. "We just don't know
how it's going to play out," Ms. Oswald said. "We've been waiting to see
what has happened in other states with similar laws. What if one is
Despite Mr. Avila's contention that racial politics is slowing passage of
the measure, State Senator Ronald Rice, a black Democrat who co-sponsored
the In-State Tuition Act, insists that immigrants are an asset and should
not face obstacles in their quest for a college education.
'Cannot Say No to Students'
"We are who we are and cannot say no to students just because of where
they were born," said Mr. Rice, whose district includes Newark, where more
than 100 languages are spoken in the public schools. "They are going to
public school, they make friends and are doing well, and the only life
they know is America. We teach them the values of this country, then all
of a sudden when they turn 18, we say, 'The joke's on you.' It's
Such was the case with Dina, who joined the bilingual program at Trenton
Central High at age 13, when her parents fled Guatemala. Today, the
19-year-old Dina (who did not want her last name published) is still a
force at the school, where she has joined the fight for passage of the
In-State Tuition Act.
A National Honor Society student, Dina was awarded a scholarship to a
local two-year college, where she is studying to become a nurse. Since
Dina is an illegal immigrant, she is using a false Social Security number,
and she declined to identify her college for fear of jeopardizing her own
education and that of others.
Visiting the school librarian, Joan Bennett, one day last March, Dina -
president of the Bible Club last year at Trenton Central High - embraced
Ms. Bennett, who was her former adviser.
"You don't see her kind of leadership very often," said Ms. Bennett, who
has been teaching at Trenton Central High, where 22 percent of the
students are foreign-born, for 35 years. "Dina has a gentle manner. She's
sweet. But she's a fighter."
Six years ago, Dina's family fled Guatemala in the aftermath of the
guerrilla war in which a million people were either killed or disappeared.
Like Mr. Navarro's family, they arrived as tourists and then overstayed
Unable to speak English, Dina had a hard time adjusting at first. But
after two years in a bilingual program, life started to turn around. Last
year her father talked about returning to Guatemala, and she said she
suddenly realized that "I don't know anybody there - I don't know anything
except the food."
Dina wants to be a professional, and although her parents are wary, they
support her. "My father told me, 'You can take your decision but
everything has consequences,' " she said.
"I know I am taking a risk, but if I don't who will?" she said. "You
cannot live with this kind of worry - whether the police will stop me
driving or whether I am sick and have to go to the hospital. It's an
oppression you feel."
Today, Dina's father, who was a chemical engineer in Guatemala, is a
factory machine operator. The family pays taxes and just bought a house,
relying on relatives who are legal immigrants to sign mortgage papers.
But the cost of sending Dina to a four-year state college is out of reach.
Rutgers charges $16,667 for out-of-state tuition and fees, almost twice
the amount that residents pay, and the cost of an education at the state's
private colleges would be far higher.
That also complicates life for 15-year-old Mitchell, a French citizen of
African descent who arrived at Trenton Central High two years ago. "I want
to be a lawyer and go to Princeton," Mitchell said with an air of
confidence and only a hint of accent.
He had no choice when his mother decided to remarry and move to the United
States. Mitchell had attended a rigorous school just outside Paris, where
the government would have subsidized his university education. But the
annual total cost of attending Princeton, where he would like to go, is
$41,380 and out of the question.
Not Many Consider College
Based on New Jersey Census figures, there may be as many as 100,000
illegal immigrants in the public schools. But in 2003, the last year for
which figures are available, only about 1,200 had actually considered
applying to college, according to the New Jersey Immigration Policy
Ms. Oswald of the state Commission on Higher Education disputed those
numbers. "We can't assess the impact, because we do not have accurate
figures," she said. "We just don't know how it is going to play out."
Moreover, opponents of the In-State Tuition Act question whether New
Jersey can afford to provide lower tuition rates to those here illegally
when the loss of revenue to colleges and universities, already because of
budget difficulties, are considered. "We don't have any more room," Ms.
For its part, Rutgers took no position on the In-State Tuition Act in
testimony at hearings in 2003, but expressed concerns about its legal
"One of the underlying issues from a policy perspective was the inequity
this bill would create in a litigious state like New Jersey," Sharon
Ainsworth, director of state relations at Rutgers, said in her testimony.
"There is a whole category of students whose parents are here working on
visas. We would be providing a benefit to an undocumented student and not
to a documented one."
Mr. Avila, whose family arrived illegally in the United States from
Ecuador when he was 6, said, "My father told me the reason he crossed the
border was because he would wake up each night and wonder how he would
In 1985, his parents left their children with grandparents and worked
illegally in California picking lettuce. The children joined them several
years later, and the family gained legal status under the 1996 national
amnesty. Today, Mr. Avila's father publishes a Spanish-language newspaper
in Trenton and he is a political science major at the College of New
Mr. Avila, who speaks rapid-fire English and Spanish as he presses for
passage of the In-State Tuition Act, arrived breathless and late to an
immigration conference in February that was attended by Dina and Mitchell.
He darted to the podium with the confident air of a candidate for public
"I see people in my life who need help that I can give to them," said Mr.
Avila, interspersing passion with statistics. "These kids work hard for
all four years. They are top-notch, some of the best minds in America."
He then introduced Dina, whose English faltered as she fought back tears.
"My father just took me on an airplane to this country," she said. "Now I
can see for myself and think for myself. I feel more American than
Guatemalan. I want to become a professional, if it takes 10 years. I am
working to save money. I want God to help me, and you to help me do it.
Like Martin Luther King, we have a dream."
'These Kids Are My Heroes'
Robert Miranda, who has been teaching at Trenton Central High for 19
years, said, "These kids are my heroes."
Mr. Miranda, a straight-talking history teacher, said: "A great majority
are law-abiding, in search of the American dream. In the next few months
and years, we will see a relaxing of the laws. Once the phobias start to
recede, we'll see the economic impact of one person becoming an engineer,
a doctor, a lawyer. They buy houses, cars, pay taxes and generate so much
purchasing power. It feeds our economy. It's good business."
Immigration papers arrived in April for the Navarro family. But they were
too late for Esteban, who gave up his dream to go to college two years ago
and cut off all contact with high school friends and teachers.
"It hurts me a lot," said his brother, Julio, who recently graduated from
high school and plans to attend Middlebury College, where he was awarded a
scholarship. "When you are growing up, you hear of family members, really
smart, who ultimately end up in roofing or as janitors. I see a lot of
kids get the door shut in their face. You don't hear many success stories.
It keeps me up a lot of nights, wondering why."
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