Monday, June 14, 2004 | News-Illegal Alien "I'll guess I'll try to get a job doing whatever I can," | News

Published: Jun 14, 2004
Immigration laws dim college hopes
Education elusive dream for some

Sara is one of about 1,450 undocumented students graduating in the state this year. A proposed law would allow her to become a legal resident eligible for in-state tuition.
Staff Photo by Scott Lewis


Sara conquered limited English and homesickness for her native Mexico to become an outstanding student at her Raleigh high school. A quiet 17-year-old with jet-black hair, she graduated in May with solid grades and dreams of attending UNC-Chapel Hill.
Yet while many of her classmates can hardly wait to start college, Sara thinks of her future with dread. As an illegal immigrant, she fears she's more likely to find herself stuck behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant than studying at a university.

"I've worked hard to get good grades, and I haven't been lazy," said Sara, who like other students interviewed for this article didn't want her full name used for fear of deportation. "To see that because of some papers my education is going to come to an end, it makes me sad. I'm a person who likes to learn."

As many as 1,450 students who are undocumented (a term describing those residing in the country illegally) are graduating from North Carolina high schools this spring, according to an estimate from El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Hispanic advocacy group. The Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, puts the nationwide number at 65,000.

State public universities don't accept applications from such students, said Bobby Kanoy, UNC-CH associate vice president for academic and student affairs.

They don't qualify for government grants and loans or many scholarships, either. Since most come from poor families, that means private universities are out of reach.

Federal lawmakers have proposed a bill known as the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students to become legal residents and qualify for in-state tuition at public universities.

Groups opposed to large-scale immigration say the bill would reward illegal behavior; others believe it would benefit the students and the country.

"These students are our future teachers, our future leaders," said Melissa Lazarin, an education policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. "Helping them will help us."

Sara grew up in Monterrey, in northern Mexico, where she attended a private school. Her father moved to Raleigh in 1995 in search of work. Sara, her younger sister and her mother followed three years later on tourist visas that later expired.

"It was difficult because I couldn't understand English," recalled Sara, who enrolled as a seventh-grader after arriving. Despite the language barrier, she finished middle school on schedule. She excelled in high school, earning praise from instructors.

"She's every teacher's dream," said Leigh Ann Frazier, who taught two of Sara's senior year classes. "She could compete in any top-notch school."

Sara says she scored 1100 on the SAT and applied to NCSU, UNC-CH and Peace College.

Neither of the two public universities approved her application. That's in keeping with a federal guideline that prevents admissions officers from processing applications from undocumented students, Kanoy said.

Peace College, which is private, sent her an acceptance letter. But the college's $17,000-a-year tuition is too much for Sara's family. Her mom isn't employed. Her dad earns about $23,000 a year from his jobs as a construction worker and as a mechanic.

Introduced by senators from both parties, the Dream Act would help undocumented students by making them eligible for legal residency after graduating from high school. That would allow them to apply to public universities.

The proposal, which cleared a Senate committee, would also allow states to offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

Edwards a sponsor

One of the bill's 47 sponsors is Democratic Sen. John Edwards. Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole has not signed on because of concerns about the bill, her communications director, Brian Nick, wrote via e-mail.

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, thinks the bill would promote more illegal immigration. The Washington-based group supports strict curbs on immigration.

"There are millions of people who wait their turn to come to America legally," Camarota said. "If you now give legal status to their kids, you've told all those people who waited their turn that they're saps and suckers."

A similar bill is being considered by the House.

In February, El Pueblo Director Andrea Bazán-Manson took eight undocumented students from North Carolina to Washington to encourage lawmakers to pass the legislation. Bazán says she has received hundreds of phone calls and letters from undocumented students and their parents asking for help getting into colleges.

One of the students who joined her on the trip is Antonio, a rising 12th-grader who is a member of the ROTC at his high school in Western North Carolina and wants to become an Air Force pilot.

Antonio, 17, came to North Carolina from Mexico City with his parents when he was 7. If he can't study at a U.S. university, he might have to return to Mexico for college.

"He doesn't want to go," said his father, Antonio Sr. "He feels like a citizen of this country."

Dropout rate high

Experts say the difficulties undocumented students confront getting into U.S. universities may be dampening their drive to finish high school.

According to the Department of Education, 10.6 percent of Hispanic high school students dropped out in the 2000-01 school year, the latest year for which statistics were available. That's compared with 7.6 percent of black students, 5.4 percent of white students and 4.6 percent of Asian students.

Nayely, a high school student in Raleigh, said she knows at least 10 Hispanic students who have dropped out in the past two years. The 17-year-old wants to be an interior designer but views her career prospects with diminishing hopes because of her illegal status.

A week after graduating, Sara returned to her high school for a ceremony honoring her and seven other scholarship winners. Sara received $250 for college tuition.

Asked what her plans were now, Sara said she would fill out an application later in the week to attend Wake Technical Community College.

The community college accepts undocumented students for some classes, but not college-credit courses. Sara prefers not to dwell on what she'll do if her application is denied.

"I'll guess I'll try to get a job doing whatever I can," she said.

****Join the millions of Americans displaced by your brethren, Sara. All we want is a job, but there are none available, all having been taken by more than 12 million illegal aliens.****


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