Immigrants seek higher education in U.S.

Rebeca Trejo, Managing Editor for Electronic Properties

It seemed like the blinding yellow flame from the shattered gas lamp had engulfed her bedroom.

Maritza Contreras buried her face in her hands as a hot, blistering sensation pinched the nerves on her face. She jolted at first, but then there was nothing. Just silence. She went numb.

Upon regaining conscious from the explosion, the 17-year-old Honduran soon discovered third-degree burns that covered her entire face. This unexpected incident set in motion a chain of events that would forever change her life.

Contreras later met an American doctor, months after the accident, who worked with a humanitarian organization and promised to help her.

“Before I could stop myself to think about the decision I was making at such a young age, or even discuss it with my parents, I snatched three dresses from my closet and threw them inside a tiny suitcase, found a bus and hopped on,” Contreras said.

Contreras, a custodian at Loyola University New Orleans, said she obtained a U.S. visa for medical treatment through the International Hospital for Children, a non-profit pediatric community linking surgical resources to critically ill children in developing countries in Central America to receive cost-free reconstructive surgery in New Orleans.

“Going by myself scared me, I didn’t know anybody there and I didn’t know the language. But I knew this was a special opportunity,” Contreras said. “I knew my mother would not have been able to go with me because I was the oldest child in a family of 10. So I took a chance – a new opportunity in life.”

After she arrived in Louisiana, the 17-year-old spent the next three years undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery while living inside home away-from-home support programs, such as the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater New Orleans, which provides housing to seriously ill children.

According to Contreras, at 19-years-old, the doctors finished her surgeries and given that she hadn’t faced major difficulties when she previously applied for her medical visa extension, she petitioned to become a green card holder, starting the path to become a permanent resident. She added that even though she longed to see her family, she knew she had to take the opportunity.

However, Contreras’ visa renewal experience took an unexpected turn when her application took nine years to arrive.

“I became depressed when I saw the days, months and then years passing without any real legal response. But I had no other option but to wait because of my family,” Contreras said.

Under those circumstances, Contreras found herself unable to apply for a federal student loan and ultimately dismissed the idea of enrolling in college.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, Contreras is only one out of the 2.2 million young undocumented immigrants who are dealing with this reality everyday. In fact, according to the Immigration Policy Center, fewer than 6,500 students without legal status, out of the estimated 65,000 that graduate from high school each year, will go on to attend college. In contrast, only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college, according to College Board.

Not only was Contreras unable to pursue an education, she could not leave the country, obtain a social security number, apply for governmental health benefits, work under legal employment or even earn a driver’s license.

Without her permanent residency, she had to put her education on hold and work low-paying jobs for long hours just to help her family.

“Some days I felt like I was living inside an invisible prison. You can’t really do anything,” Contreras said. “After a while you get used to it and start to live under the radar. You keep moving forward because you know that this reality is better than the one back home.”

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States is legally required to finance the education of all students in grades K-12, regardless of their immigration status. However, this does not apply to higher education.

According to College Board, only 19 states in the country allow undocumented students to pay instate tuition, in most states, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities at over 1.4 times the cost of resident tuition.

In a study released by RAND, a nonprofit that analyzes data and research, the findings show that this contributes to the growing 10 percent of students who incorrectly assume they cannot legally attend college in the U.S.

Isabel Medina, law professor at Loyola, said there are numerous circumstances affecting this group’s ability to thrive in their surrounding environment. The main reason lies in the fact that most undocumented students who would actually be ready for college don’t apply because it is not economically possible and most fear deportation. She added that most are unaware of their options, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – policy that allows temporary permission to stay if they meet certain criteria, such as residing in the U.S. since June 15, 2007– and ultimately often graduate and resort to low scale or un-skilled jobs because they don’t understand the financial process.
“Some states explicitly allow undocumented students to attend college, however, there are many aspects that are unknown to them, such as college admissions, financial aids and enrollment processes,” Medina said. “We profess to value the youth as a society, sadly for the United States, they are not the highest funding priority.”

Medina, who teaches constitutional and immigration law, said the immigration reform has not successfully address the needs of young undocumented immigrants in the DREAM Act, and that in general, states aren’t spending enough money to develop an efficient education system. She added that in order for this group to integrate successfully into society, the government has to give them support in a solid education, which will aide in decreasing their chances of working in the underground market where the possibility of exploitation is higher.

“Even though the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provides new opportunities,” Medina said. “There is still no specific process for many undocumented students to legalize their immigration status.”

Medina said she believed there has been a political failure in Congress because of their continuous refusal to adapt any meaningful reform having to do with the DREAM Act – a policy that would allow certain young immigrants to apply for temporary legal status in order to obtain permanent legal status, becoming applicable for citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military – even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers displays that there is a growing necessity for educated workers. She added that the current status of the dreamer type reform has been put on hold due to litigation brought in by organizations and political parties inside the country.

According to a study released by The Pew Hispanic Center, only 61 percent of undocumented students who arrive in the U.S. before the age of 14 go onto college, which is considerably lower than the rate for legal permanent residents who account for 76 percent or U.S.-born residents who make up 71 percent.

Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said one of the most significant barriers young undocumented immigrants face, besides factual legal inclusion, is that these groups experience poverty at twice the rate of students with native-born parents. She said that, in addition, there is a high percentage of parents who also tend to lack the education and skills needed to become self sufficient in the United States, making it unlikely that their families can afford the rising costs of tuition without access to federal grants and loans.

“It’s hard to generalize about this, but certainly census data shows that many are living in low income households,” Vaughn said. “Our research shows that 51 percent of immigrant-headed households qualify for welfare programs.”

According to Vaughan, who educates policymakers and opinion leaders on immigration issues, current immigration policies are in effect flooding the markets because they depress the wages and reduce opportunities for everyone. In a study released in 2013 by Educators for Higher Education, nearly 30 percent of undocumented children live below the poverty line.

“It would help if immigration levels were moderated so that there are adequate educational and job opportunities for all, opportunities that offer them chance to become self-sufficient and advance their circumstances,” Vaughan said.

Statistics from the Bureau of Labor display that, in 2008, workers without a high school diploma earned an average of $453 a week and had an unemployment rate of 9 percent, as opposed to workers who had a bachelor’s degree, who earned an average of $1,012 per week with an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent.

Vaughan said she thinks immigration policies should be designed to serve the broad national interest of proponents of immigration enforcement and expansion. In order for that to happen the number of immigrants allowed to stay in the country must be accepted and immigration levels need to be significantly reduce to avoid further adverse effects on the economy.

“Being undocumented means students do not have the same economic, social, and educational opportunities as many of their peers.”
Vaughn said. “That is like a cruel joke.”

According to Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense also known as KIND, the undocumented immigrant youth in the United States faces a critical service gap when it comes to exercising their rights, specifically when it comes to the due process. She said the process is unfair to the youth coming in because they usually don’t know what options are available for them to stay in the country.

“Integration programs are key,” Young said. “We must develop a fundamentally fair system that provides a pathway to citizenship, true access to the protections our country has to offer, a chance to live in safety and free from fear of deportation.”

Young, who served as chief counsel on Immigration Policy in the Senate, said she believes immigration supports the U.S. economy and that the nation needs immigrants to thrive. And while every student has a right to a K-12 education, the future of the U.S. economy requires more college graduates.

“The immigrant youth is this country’s future,” Young said. “It is in our best interests as a nation, and in line with our country’s values, that they should grow up to be healthy, productive members of our society.”

After living in the United States for 19 years, Contreras said she hopes to gain full citizenship when she passes her final naturalization exam.

“To be able to stop trying to fit in and finally feel like I belong,” Contreras said.