The Silent Problem: The Plight of the Undocumented Student
Which one of these students should not be permitted to attend college, get a job, or join the military?
The issue of undocumented immigrants is a highly charged one. But as an educator in an urban high school, where it is estimated that as many as 20% of students are undocumented, it is also an issue that profoundly affects my school and me. As an educator with a teaching philosophy that is grounded in the belief that all students can achieve, and achieve at the highest level, I am faced with a great barrier when I find that nearly 1/5 of my students' educations stop at the end of high school. The DREAM Act and in-state tuition are two things that might help solve this problem.
Approximately 2.8 million students will graduate from U.S. high schools this year and go on to college, join the military, or take another career path. A group of about 65,000 students a year will not have this opportunity because they are undocumented immigrants (The DREAM Act Portal, 2010). In Massachusetts, students who are undocumented are ineligible for financial aid and in-state tuition. If they attend college, they must pay international student tuition. Undocumented students are also unable to join the military or get a driver's license, and, without a social security card, finding gainful employment is very difficult.
Most undocumented students who would actually be ready for college don't apply to college because it is not economically possible. These students are stuck in a legal paradox: the law states that they have a right to an education in primary and secondary grades, but then they have nowhere to go when they graduate. "While some states explicitly allow undocumented students to attend college, there are many grey areas that cloud the college admissions, financial aids, and enrollment processes. In addition, undocumented students cannot legally join their native-born peers in the workforce, where Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that educated workers are needed" (Gonzales, 2009, p. 1).
Currently undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. In most states, they are not eligible for state financial aid. Most private scholarship funds and foundations require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Hector was a student in my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class last year. When he was six years old, Hector and his mother made the long and dangerous journey from the mountains of El Salvador to the U.S., where Hector's mother hoped to find escape from the poverty, crime, and corruption in El Salvador. Hector didn't speak English when he came, but he learned the language quickly. He exceeded in school, earning straight As in his classes and winning many academic awards. Hector took seven Advanced Placement courses during high school, earning high qualifying grades on all of them. He was accepted to many prestigious colleges, including Boston University, Brandeis, Hofstra, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts — but he could not attend any of these schools. Without financial aid or scholarships, he was unable to afford the high rate of tuition. Hector did everything right. But his journey to success ended when he graduated from high school and was faced with the reality that he would not be able to go to school or find meaningful employment. Hector felt more American than Salvadorean, but he now had to face the fact that he would be paying for the rest of his life for a decision that was made for him when he was six years old.
I have seen Hector's situation duplicated over and over. Each year at graduation there are those hardworking and intelligent students who have nowhere to go. Or worse — I see the students who drop out because they realize how futile their situation is. It makes no sense to them to stay in school when they will only be able to earn minimum wage anyway.
Undocumented immigrants are those that came to the U.S. without proper documentation and entered the country illegally. In examining the issue of whether undocumented immigrants should have access to jobs and higher education, it is important to foresee what would be best for society. The economic advantages of higher education for both workers and the economy are clear. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers without a high school diploma in 2008 earned an average of only $453 a week and had an unemployment rate of 9%. Contrast that with workers who had a bachelor's degree, who earned an average of $1,012 per week, and had an unemployment rate of 2.8% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008). Studies of undocumented immigrants who have achieved legal status through the Immigration and Reform Contract Act (IRCA) of 1986 reveal that legal status brings fiscal, economic, and labor-market benefits to individual immigrants, their families, and U.S. society in general. The U.S. Department of Labor found that the wages of those immigrants who received legal status under the IRCA had increased roughly 15% five years later (Smith, 1996). Given a chance, now-undocumented students could improve their education, get better paying jobs, and pay more taxes.
Some people think that illegal immigrants would take college spots away from American students. However, experience shows that access to higher education helps kids without burdening institutions of higher learning. Ten states — Texas, California, Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska — have passed laws permitting undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition if they attended and graduated from high school in the state. The experience of these states reveals that the number of undocumented students is far too small to deprive native-born students of college admissions slots or financial aid. For instance, three years after Texas allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates, the total number of students paying in-state tuition to the state's colleges and universities amounted to only 0.36 percent of all students in the Texas public education system (Strayhorn, 2006, p. 5). In addition, the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation estimates that if an in-state tuition bill is passed, it would probably result in $2.5 million of extra revenue for the state (Massachusetts Taxpayer Association, 2010).
Given a chance, undocumented students can help fill the growing demand for highly skilled workers. Nine of the fifteen occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow at least twice as fast as the national average between 2004 and 2014 require an associate's degree or higher. In four of the higher-skilled occupations, immigrants accounted for a significantly greater share of workers than in the U.S. labor force as a whole in 2005. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010). If undocumented students were able to attend college, they could fill many of these much needed positions.
The DREAM Act
In 2007, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was reintroduced in the House and Senate. If passed, this legislation would permit undocumented students to begin a six-year process leading to permanent legal status if, among other requirements, they graduate from a U.S. high school and were brought to the U.S. when they were age 15 or younger, and at least five years before the legislation is signed into law. To complete the process, students would, within the six-year period, be required to graduate from a community college, complete at least two years towards a four-year degree, or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. These individuals would qualify for in-state tuition rates in all states during the six-year period.
If the DREAM Act passes, undocumented youth who have gone to college will have a path towards legal residency and work. The U.S. could tap into the great strength that is today's youth. The DREAM Act seems to be a great solution to a difficult problem. Since students would have to be in this country for five years before the act passed, it would not open the floodgates for more illegal immigrants to enter the country. Students would have to "earn their keep," so to speak, by entering college or joining the military. The DREAM Act would give hope to hundreds of thousands of young people who can contribute a great deal to our country. Further, in-state tuition would allow students to become educated, and it would provide a huge source of revenue for states. Immigration reform is greatly needed, and this would be one step in the right direction. One would have to argue — what would be better for this country, this state, and for society? An uneducated, undocumented immigrant or an educated one? I think the answer is clear.
For more on this issue, read "Law of the Land?" in Scholastic Administrator. The New York Times Upfront has also addressed the problem of undocumented immigrants in several articles, including: "Should Illegal Immigrants Be Able to Get Driver's Licenses?" "Should Illegal Immigrants be Eligible for In-State Tuition," "Under One Roof: Legal and Illegal," "Who Gets to Be an American?" and "The Debate Over Immigration: 200 Years and Counting."
In Return to Sender, Julia Alvarez's 2010 Pura Belpre Author Award Book, Tyler's family is forced to hire Mexican migrant workers when Tyler's father is injured in a tractor accident. Although this book is written for younger readers (ages 10 and up), Tyler's friendship with Mari, one of the workers, captures the real life issues surrounding this current problem.
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Gonzalez, R. (2009, April). "Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented
Students." College Board Advocacy.
Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation (2010, May). Retrieved from http:www.masstaxpayer.org.
Smith, S., Kramer, R.G. & Singer, A (1996, May). "Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act:
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The DREAM Act Portal. Retrieved from http://dreamact.info.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008. Retrieved from www.bls.gov.