Illegal immigrants at American colleges: big dreams, uncertain future

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 31 13:13:33 UTC 2006

Message-ID: <Pine.GSO.4.58.0605310909180.15333 at>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
Reply-To: lgpolicy-list at
Sender: owner-lgpolicy-list at
X-Listprocessor-Version: 8.2.09/990901/11:28 -- ListProc(tm) by CREN
X-Greylist: IP, sender and recipient auto-whitelisted, not delayed by milter-greylist-2.0.2 ( []); Wed, 31 May 2006 09:16:30 -0400 (EDT)
>>From the issue dated June 2, 2006

Illegal immigrants at American colleges carry big dreams into an uncertain

New York

Gabriel Martinez has made up his mind: He is not going to live in fear of
being deported. So when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in
December that would make his presence in this country a felony, Mr.
Martinez, an illegal immigrant and prelaw student at the City University
of New York, boarded a bus bound for Washington, D.C. There, he joined 30
other CUNY students to protest the bill. As Mr. Martinez, 23, marched
toward the Capitol, he held a sign that read "CUNY Students for the
DREAM," a reference to legislation that would allow some undocumented
students to obtain permanent residence and receive federal financial aid.
"Dr. King had a dream," he chanted. "We have a dream, too." "I've decided
to confront the system, to challenge it," says Mr. Martinez, who snuck
across the Mexican border with his mother and sister when he was 10 years
old and grew up in Queens, N.Y.

While the immigration debate has galvanized Mr. Martinez, it has driven
Jorge, another undocumented student, even deeper into the shadows. He now
avoids Latino neighborhoods, figuring that immigration raids are more
likely there. When he leaves work or class, he heads straight home to
Sunnyside, a mixed-race neighborhood in Queens where Latinos mingle with
white New Yorkers and immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. Married
two years to a permanent resident, he is putting off parenthood because he
does not want to be separated from his wife and child if he is deported.
"All my life is here," says Jorge, a 23-year-old business student at
CUNY's LaGuardia Community College, who asked that his last name be
withheld. "If I was deported, I would lose everything I've worked for: my
education, my job, my family. Even though I'm from Mexico, I don't belong

This spring, some 65,000 undocumented students will graduate from American
high schools, and 10 to 15 percent of them will go on to attend colleges
in the United States, according to estimates from the National Immigration
Law Center, an advocacy group for immigrants. While Congress debates what
to do about those students and the 11 million to 12 million other illegal
immigrants in the United States, Mr. Martinez's defiance and Jorge's
cautiousness reveal what life can be like for undocumented college
students, who are coping with an uncertain future.

Coming to America

Jorge came to the United States reluctantly. When he was 15, his parents
forced him to withdraw from the Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, the highly
selective high school he attended in Mexico. He still remembers the date
February 17, 1999 on which his parents told him that he would have to
leave. Six days later, he and his father crossed the border into Arizona,
accompanied by a 14-year-old guide, known as a coyote, whom his older
brother, who was already living in New York, had hired. U.S. border-patrol
agents caught a family who was traveling with them, but Jorge and his
father ducked into some bushes and eventually made it to a hotel, where
they spent the night. As he waited at the hotel with 35 other illegal
immigrants, Jorge wondered, "What am I doing here?" His family was not
poor: his mother owned a restaurant, and his father was a truck driver.
Together, they made $300 a week, a decent family income in Mexico.

Years later, he asked his mother, who crossed the border with Jorge's
sister in 2000, why they had moved. She said she had wanted to provide a
better future for her younger son and daughter. In America, he recalls,
his mother said, "Education is better, life is safer, and you can get a
job." Two days after crossing the border, Jorge flew to New York City,
wearing black jeans and a black winter coat so he would look like a
typical American teenager. He answered the airline agent's questions in
English, as his brother had taught him, and avoided eye contact with
passengers he recognized from home. When the plane descended over New
York, he marveled at the order of the city. "Everything was so straight
and perfect, all lines and squares," he says.  "It was beautiful."

For the first few months, he bounced between jobs, working first at a
discount store, then at a bakery, and later at a restaurant. He lost one
job when the company closed, another when he overslept after working a
14-hour shift, and a third because his English was so poor that he could
not understand the cook's commands. Finally, he was hired by a
beauty-supply store, where he was paid $4 an hour to stock bottles of
shampoo and hair dye for 60 hours each week. He attended high school for a
few months, but had to drop out and resume full-time work when his father
and brother lost their jobs. Jorge tried to return to high school in 2000,
but by then, he was too old, so he got his GED at Lehman College, in the
Bronx. The following year, he enrolled at Hostos Community College, in the
Bronx, where nearly two-thirds of the students are Hispanic. It was there,
in an intensive English as a Second Language program, that he met his
future wife, Diana Ramirez, a permanent U.S. resident with a law degree
from her native Colombia.

It was hardly love at first sight. "We hated each other," says Ms.
Ramirez, 29. "She hated me because I was smarter," says Jorge with a grin.
Their rivalry, Ms. Ramirez explains, stemmed from a classroom debate in
which Jorge was assigned to defend men's rights, and Diana was told to
defend women's. "Everyone else in the room was quiet," she recalls, "and
we were yelling at each other." They were married in 2004. Although Diana
was a permanent resident, a status she gained after her mother became a
citizen under a 1986 law granting amnesty to some illegal immigrants Jorge
remained undocumented, stuck in legal limbo. He could get a green card, as
the husband of a permanent resident, if he returned to Mexico for an
interview. But if he left the United States, he would be barred from
re-entering the country for 10 years, under a federal law passed in 1996,
because he came here illegally.

Most of the time, the couple does not dwell on their differences in
status. But sometimes it sneaks up on them, like when they tried to rent
an apartment and were turned down because Jorge lacked a Social Security
number. Jorge's tuition bill is higher than Ms. Ramirez's, even though he
attends college part time; because he is an illegal immigrant, he is
ineligible for state and federal aid. Ms. Ramirez, who applied for
citizenship in April, says she understands the need to secure the nation's
borders to keep out terrorists. But she says Congress should create a path
to citizenship for immigrants like Jorge, people who are working hard,
paying taxes, and studying. Immigrants like him, she says, "deserve to be

These days, Jorge divides his time between Washington Heights, the New
York City neighborhood where he works at the beauty supply store, and
Queens, where he studies at LaGuardia Community College. To stay awake
during the 12-hour days, he drinks coffee compulsively, a habit he picked
up from his Colombian wife. On a sunny Thursday in early May, he looks
like most any undergraduate in his jeans and button-down shirt, with a
black messenger bag over his shoulder. The previous night, he was up until
2 a.m. finishing a paper on his personal goals because, like many college
students, he had procrastinated until the last minute. He is still trying
to decide which business degree he should pursue: small business, business
administration, business management, or international business. He figures
he will choose the major that accepts the largest number of the 20 credits
he earned at Hostos.

His dream is to graduate with a four-year degree from CUNY's Bernard M.
Baruch College, in Manhattan, attend business school, and start his own
import-export business, using the skills and contacts he has gained in his
seven years with the beauty-supply chain, where he has worked his way up
to jobs such as acting as a host for trade shows. But he realizes that
dream could be deferred if he does not gain legal status. "I worry," he
says, "if I graduate, am I going to be able to find a job?  Is my
education going to go into the garbage because I am not going to be able
to do anything with it?"

Congress Debates, Immigrants Wait

In large measure, Jorge's future is in the hands of Congress, which has
been debating comprehensive immigration reform since last fall. If the
U.S. House of Representatives prevails in negotiations with the Senate,
Jorge could face up to a year in jail for being in the country illegally,
and Diana could be prosecuted for "harboring" and "shielding" an illegal
immigrant. If the Senate gets its way, Jorge could become eligible for a
temporary visa and eventual citizenship, though he would have to pay a
hefty fine and undergo a background check. The Senate bill, which was
being considered on the Senate floor last week, would also create a
separate path to legalization for undocumented students, like Jorge, who
came to the United States before their 16th birthdays and have lived in
the country for more than five years. It would allow them to become
temporary residents upon graduation from high school.

After six years, they would be eligible to become permanent residents if
they had completed at least two years of a bachelor's-degree program or
served for at least two years in the U.S. military. That provision, which
was taken from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors
Act, known as the Dream Act, would also repeal a section of federal law
that requires any state that offers in-state tuition to illegal immigrants
to provide the in-state rate to all out-of-state students. "It recognizes
that young people who are brought here at an early age are going to stay,"
says Joshua E. Bernstein, federal policy director for the National
Immigration Law Center, "and that we should educate them, rather than
penalize them."

Opponents of the Dream Act say it would reward illegal immigrants for
breaking the law. "No one who has come into the country illegally should
be rewarded with permanent residency," says Jack Martin, special projects
director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It
encourages additional illegal immigration." Ten states, including New
York, offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, though such policies
have prompted lawsuits in several states.  New York circumvented the
federal law by basing eligibility for in-state tuition on graduation from
a New York high school, rather than on residency.

At the City University of New York's four-year colleges, in-state tuition
is $4,000 a year, compared with $10,080 a year for out-of-state students.
At its community colleges, including the one that Jorge attends, the price
is $2,800, compared with $5,320. Since the House passed its bill
containing strong penalties for illegal immigrants in December, sporadic
protests and rallies have cropped up on college campuses across the
country, from Oregon State University to the State University of New York
at Stony Brook. College students have also turned out for citywide
protests in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, among other cities,
though in far fewer numbers than the legions of high-school students who
have cut class to attend the rallies.

Meanwhile, conservative students on a handful of campuses are conducting
campaigns of their own. At Drake University, in Iowa, students from a
fledgling group known as Citizens for Tight Borders ignited a firestorm in
March when they posted signs on the campus highlighting the economic costs
of illegal immigration. One of the posters read: "Our country is under
invasion and we're the ones paying for it!" Shortly after the posters
appeared, Drake's president, David E. Maxwell, sent a message to a campus
Latino group assuring them that Tight Borders "in no way represents the
university or our values as a community." Mr.  Maxwell says he sent the
letter after students from La Fuerza Latina told him they found the
posters humiliating and asked him, "Do they not want people like me at

Danielle L. Sturgis, a journalism and sociology double major at Drake and
a founder of Citizens for Tight Borders, says she was taken aback by the
president's message. "I never expected to be singled out by an
administrator," she says. "His effort to appease one group has left us
feeling that he's valuing certain people, certain organizations, over
others, and that's not the idea of universities."

Young Activists

Immigration debates may flare up on more campuses if advocates for
undocumented students can rally greater support for their cause. Mr.
Martinez, the pre-law student from CUNY, believes the push for immigration
reform is the definitive civil-rights struggle of his generation. An
idealist in wire-rim glasses and red Converse sneakers, he cites three
inspirations in his life: his mother, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara. On a
Friday afternoon in early May, he discusses student activism with his
girlfriend, Marisol Ramos, in the student lounge of the college she
attends, Hunter. It has been a challenge mobilizing students at CUNY, they
say, even though there are more than 3,000 illegal immigrants on the
campus, and Hispanics make up more than a quarter of the student
population. For the first rally, in Washington, they recruited 30
students. An April rally in New York drew 50, and a May rally in New York
attracted 60.

"It is hard, because the different student groups have different
ideologies," says Mr. Martinez, a student at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice. "We're trying to bring the business students and the socialists
together." Mr. Martinez and his family crossed the U.S. border at Tijuana
in 1993, lured by his aunt's tales of America's wealth and opportunity.
"She would come visit, bring us nice things," he recalls. "She'd describe
the U.S.  like heaven, and New York City like a dream city." When he
arrived in the country after a three-day trek through the California
desert, reality set in. The family had traded their bamboo hut in the
Mexican countryside for a cramped two-bedroom apartment they shared with
12 other people in Astoria, a Queens neighborhood.

Thirteen years later, his mother works as a wigmaker, and Mr. Martinez is
studying international criminal law. He takes an economics course at
Baruch College and an immigration-law course at the CUNY Graduate Center.
His girlfriend, a 21-year-old senior at Hunter, and a U.S. citizen, traces
her activist roots to a childhood spent in clothing factories. Her
parents, who crossed the Mexican border in the 1970s, when they were 19
years old, could not afford day care, so her mother would take her to the
clothing factory where she worked in New York, earning $15 for each $300
dress she spent three days making. While her mother sewed, Marisol slept
in the bins where cloth for the dresses was stored. In her mind, she can
still hear the rhythmic humming of the machines.

When she enrolled in Hunter years later, she joined United Students
Against Sweatshops, an international student movement that supports better
labor conditions for industrial workers. But she says she became
disenchanted with the group when some upper-income students from Columbia
University could not fathom why she could not skip work to hand out
flyers. Today, Ms. Ramos works as a youth coordinator at Esperanza del
Barrio, teaching undocumented children of New York street vendors about
safe sex, education, immigrant rights, and activism. Many of the young
people end up following their parents' path to working on the streets,
unable to afford the cost of college. Ms. Ramos sees the Dream Act as the
best hope for these students and has organized them in support of the

'Like I'm Stuck'

Mr. Martinez and Ms. Ramos met five months ago, at a Catholic church where
they were collecting signatures for a petition supporting the Dream Act.
They find this ironic, since they are both atheists. Christians "believe
in fate I believe in free will," explains Mr.  Martinez, who, nonetheless,
wears a gold cross around his neck to keep his mother happy. Since their
unlikely meeting, Mr. Martinez and Ms. Ramos have worked together,
mobilizing students on their respective campuses for rallies in support of
the Dream Act. They are planning a protest for graduation time and have
been trying to drum up support from administrators and faculty members.
They hope that Matthew Goldstein, CUNY's chancellor, who has written to
Congress in support of the Dream Act, will renew his call for passage of
the bill.

Mr. Martinez says his mother worries every time he goes to a rally, but he
goes anyway. "I'm not going to be limited because I'm afraid of
immigration authorities," he says. Still, he admits that sometimes he gets
nervous, like during a recent march, when protestors paused in front of
the New York headquarters for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Services. Ms. Ramos says her friends ask her why she would date an illegal
immigrant. After all, he cannot accompany her on trips home to Mexico. And
if the House bill passes, she could be prosecuted for aiding an illegal
immigrant. "Think about your future," they urge her. "You could be with
someone else, enjoying your life." "But," she tells them, "I am enjoying
my life."

Over lunch in the Hunter cafeteria, the couple plot their future together.
They will buy a house, maybe a two-family rowhouse so Ms. Ramos's parents
can live next door. Then they will open their own restaurant, perhaps a
worker-owned restaurant like Colors, a cooperative started by former
employees of Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. "Restaurants
are all we know," explains Mr. Martinez, who works as an intern for the
Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, a Manhattan cooperative
organization that helped finance Colors and is teaching other restaurant
employees how to create worker-owned restaurants. His stepfather is a cook
in an Italian restaurant; Ms. Ramos's father is a cook at a seafood
restaurant on City Island, in the Bronx. Ms. Ramos manages her family's
finances, and the talk of the restaurant investment makes her nervous.
Putting down her veggie burger, she covers her face with her hands. "It
scares me," she says.

More frightening is the thought that Congress could fail to pass
immigration legislation, preventing Mr. Martinez from becoming a citizen
and making full use of his diploma. "He's so smart," she says. "I don't
want him to work menial jobs." Mr. Martinez shares that concern.
"Sometimes I feel like I can't do anything with my life," he says, "like
I'm stuck." He believes that Congress will ultimately decide to help
undocumented students, however. "We're going to fight until we get
something," he says, "and we will get something." But first, the two
activists must study. After lunch, they rise from the table, Marisol bound
for class, and Gabriel for the library.
Section: Students
Volume 52, Issue 39, Page A30

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list