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Undocumented Arkansas students push for college access



Somewhere in the story of every undocumented student brought to this country as a child, there's a moment of horrible realization: the sudden, painful understanding of why the thought of being stopped by the police sends a shadow of fear skating across their parents' eyes. For most of those kids, that's followed quickly by the realization that they, too, are undocumented — that even though they feel American on the inside, the geography of their birth says otherwise.

It isn't that it's kept a secret from them. It's just that the complexities of adult life — Social Security numbers, immigration status, and the idea of invisible borders between countries — elude the young. Sooner or later, though, everyone has to grow up, and for many undocumented students, that means coming to grips with one of the cruelest quirks of immigration law: that even if you were brought to this country before you could decide whether to come or not, and grew up here, and excelled in school here, and speak English just as fluently or better than you speak Spanish, there is a point where the ladders that lead to better places stop for anyone not born on American soil.

One of those places is affordable access to higher education. Though the Supreme Court has ruled than every child in the U.S. should receive free public schooling regardless of their immigration status, many of the private scholarships and all the federal loans, grants and work-study programs that help millions of young Americans seek an education beyond a high school diploma aren't available for the undocumented students, no matter how good their grades. Even if undocumented students were able to pay out-of-pocket for their tuition — an idea that isn't feasible even for most born-and-raised Americans in an age of sky-high-and-rising education costs — the problem is compounded by the fact that in many states, including Arkansas, undocumented students must pay the out-of-state tuition rate, which can double the tuition at a public university in Arkansas.

These barriers play a big part of why a study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that only 61 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college, compared to 76 percent of legal permanent residents, and 71 percent of native-born citizens.

For this story, we talked to four young undocumented Arkansans, and asked them to share their stories via interviews, which we have condensed into narratives. All four have either applied for or received temporary legal residency through the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (see sidebar for more on DACA), but keep in mind that while DACA will keep them from being deported and allow them to legally work, it doesn't give them access to federal student aid and most private scholarships.

All the young people we talked to are hopeful for the eventual passage of the federal DREAM Act, or — better still — comprehensive immigration reform. But hearing these stories, one has to ask: Why are they being punished for something they had no say in?

Age: 20
Attending University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

My family came from Mexico when I was 6. My dad was already here in the United States. He would come and go every few months. My mom just decided to follow him here so the family would be together.

We lived in California for about a year. My uncle already lived here in Arkansas, so he came and talked to my dad and said: "You need to come to Arkansas. There's more work, and the cost of living is less than it is in California." My dad didn't think about it twice. We packed up and came to Waldron, and I started school in the third grade. I didn't know that much English. I could understand some of it, but I couldn't speak it. I got involved in some of the ESL classes and it wasn't until the summer before fifth grade that I actually started to speak it and really understand it.

I really love school. When we had vacations, I'd wish they'd hurry up and go faster. I always wanted the time away from school to be over, and I made good grades. In the 10th grade, all these colleges started sending me invitations to come tour their campus. My parents were really excited about it. I took tours with my friends, but then I talked to the counselor and she didn't really know how to help me. She said, "I don't even think you can go to college." I got really down my junior year and I thought about dropping out. There were a lot of my friends who dropped out. They were like: "I'd rather work than keep studying, because there's no point." But I didn't quit.

By the end of my senior year, everybody was talking about the DREAM Act, and my parents said: "You really need to work hard in your studies so that when the time comes, you can prove you are an asset to the community." I graduated with honors, and was salutatorian of my class.

I applied to all of the public universities in Arkansas. I got accepted to all of them, but I couldn't get scholarships. I came in one day and told my parents that I didn't think I'd be able to go. They said: "Just take as many classes as you want. We'll work." My Dad said: "If you have the brains, we'll get the money."

Education for my parents was the most important thing. They said that's what's going to distinguish you from everybody else. Since then, I've been going to school full time every semester. I'm majoring in pre-med biology, and I want to be a doctor someday. My parents work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They go in at 6 in the morning and come home at 7 at night. They have to drive an hour away. I have a younger sister who is 14, and I feel like it's taking them away from her. She doesn't really see my parents that much, because as soon as they get home, they eat and then go to sleep. They've paid $10,000 dollars each semester.

The beginning of my sophomore year, my mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer. That was a breaking point for me. I felt like I needed to work because she needed surgery to remove the cancer, and we didn't have the money for it. I just wanted to work so she could get better, but she wouldn't let me. Our community came together to raise most of the money she needed. She had the surgery in December. She was supposed to have bed rest for a month. She only stayed a week. She said: "I can't stay in bed. You need the money for school." She went back to work. My mom is my role model.

The DREAM Act is not only going to benefit me, it's going to benefit millions of students who have worked hard and who want to do something for themselves and their families, and who want to give back to the community they've grown up to love and make their home. I'm very hopeful something will change.

People think we're all criminals coming to do bad in this country. That's not the case. I've had people ask me: "Why don't you just go back to your country?" I say: "What country? I was raised here." This is my country. This is my home. In school, I pledged allegiance to the American flag. I may not have been an American citizen, but in my heart I know I'm an American.

Age: 19
2012 graduate of Hall High, hoping to start college this summer

It was pretty difficult for me seeing all my friends going to college and not being able to go because of the expense. We came into this country from Mexico when I was in the third grade. We lived with fear on a daily basis. We didn't want to get stopped, because of course they're going to ask for a driver's license, and what are we going to say? We don't have one. They're going to start questioning you. It's difficult to live. It's like they say: We live in shadows. We have to hide who we are all the time.

I did all my elementary, middle school and high school here in Arkansas as an undocumented alien, and graduated from Hall High School last year. I worked all through high school, because I never thought I would graduate. I didn't see the point of it. My first two years of high school was mostly working. I missed a lot of school. But then, during my junior year, my mind changed a lot. We all grow up, and I realized that even if it wasn't time for me then, that didn't mean my time was never going to come. So I focused in school and dropped hours from my job. I started volunteering. I'm really happy with all I've done.

I always knew that my status here in the country was unlawful, but when you're a kid, it doesn't really affect you as much. You just leave it up to your parents. But when you get to the age of 14 or 15, and you want to start buying your own stuff, or you might want to get a job, or you see your friends at 16 getting their driver's licenses, and you realize it's something you can't have. It's really frustrating in your senior year to have the counselor calling all your friends, asking them which college they want to go to. And then you come in and they ask for your Social Security number, and they tell you they can't help you when you say you don't have one. You're like: What did I do to deserve this? I didn't do anything. I have studied as much as they have. I'm going to graduate the same way they did.

I have so many friends who not only thought about dropping out, they actually did. They didn't see a point in going to school. Now that we have Deferred Action, it was a big disappointment for them knowing that they didn't qualify for that anymore. Most of them went back to school, and if they were over 21, they had to go for their GED. It brought a lot of people back to get their education, and that's a good thing.

When the Deferred Action came, I applied for it, and luckily I got accepted this past December. It has helped me a lot to improve my life. Of course it helps to get a job and open doors for yourself, but it mentally and emotionally helps you as well, because you don't have to live in shadows anymore.

Right now, I'm really hoping that the bill giving us in-state tuition will pass. It's absolutely ridiculous for us to pay more money than other kids — kids who have taken the same classes in school, kids who maybe didn't even do as well in class as we did. It's really frustrating to have to pay for something that we didn't ask for, which was to come to this country. I'm hoping to start college in August, but my goals right now are to keep fighting for this campaign, and get the law passed here in Arkansas so we can have in-state tuition. I think this will help so many more students have the will to graduate from high school. That's why a lot of Latinos drop out. They think: What's the point of me graduating from high school if I'm never going to be able to have a good job or go to college? This will help. Kids who are about to graduate will be able to look toward the future and not just feel like they're stuck in a place where they can't move forward.

Age: 18
Attending the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

My dad was just doing what any human being would do when he came here from Mexico when he was 16: He came here to survive. Where he was living, there was extreme poverty, so he risked everything to come to the U.S. and work here so he could provide a better life for his brothers and sisters and his parents.

This was in the early 1980s, in the times when he could go back and forth. He met my mom, and when they had my older sister and me, it really didn't cross his mind to bring us to the United States. It's a very risky journey, but times were getting rougher in Mexico and everything was getting more expensive. They just couldn't do it anymore, so he decided to bring us here. I came when I was 5 years old.

In high school, I was really involved. I was president of some clubs and I was very active in my church in Waldron. I didn't really realize I was undocumented until I was in high school. I'm sure this happens to a lot of us. We don't think about it when we're in middle school or elementary school. In high school, things get serious. I remember the first time I tried to take the ACT when I was a sophomore, I was registering online and it asked for my Social Security number. I knew what a Social Security number was, and I was sure that I didn't have one. I knew that you had to be born here. I had to register for the test the old fashioned way, through the mail.

That's when I started looking into more of what being undocumented was really about. I knew my parents had always had the fear of getting stopped by the police because they didn't have driver's licenses, but that's when I realized it: My parents are undocumented, and I am undocumented.

Somehow, I always thought that because I knew English and I was a good student, nothing was going to harm me. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching my dreams. That belief, in my mind and heart, was kind of like my protection. I thought nothing could stop me. I love this country and I've done so many things. I feel American.

After that, I felt fear. I felt scared. I thought: I still have a good bit of high school left, and I hope something will be done for people like me, but my world just started crumbling. I knew the only way to succeed in this country was through education, and I went into a sort of depression. It just felt like there was no hope for me. There were several moments during my high school career that I wanted to give up, when I was seriously thinking about it. Not dropping out of high school, but seriously thinking about not going to college and just starting to work. I thought college would be out of my hands because my parents can't pay for it and I can't get loans.

It was very frustrating not knowing what to do or where to go to. I knew people who just gave up, because it was too hard. But something inside me told me: You can't give up. Not now. There might be something in the future for you.

I was friends with Lidia Mondragon in school, and she was really my inspiration to keep going. I knew she was determined to go to college, and I saw her as a role model. I could be doing the same thing. When I was a junior in high school, she was already in college. That's when I first realized: You can do this. This is possible. This isn't something that only happens in California or Texas. I learned about scholarships that didn't require a Social Security number and I applied like crazy.

When I heard about Deferred Action, I just couldn't believe it. My parents called me. They were so excited. It's that glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. I immediately got to filling out the documentation. I applied in October, and finally got my work permit and everything else in December. It was like a breath of relief holding that card that gave me some kind of status here in the United States so I could work. Even the right to work makes all the difference in the world. To be holding that card and knowing that I could go to any employer and not have fear, it was a great feeling. But at the same time, I knew that my parents couldn't file for Deferred Action. It was another one of those bittersweet moments: So, I'm good, but what about my parents — the ones who have sacrificed everything to bring me here? It gives me the motivation to keep fighting. I'm not afraid anymore.

Age: 17
Senior at Central High School, and hopes to start college next fall

I get really nervous when I tell my story.

When I was younger, I didn't know I was undocumented. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know I couldn't travel. I didn't know I couldn't vote. I'd love to vote someday. I didn't know I wouldn't be able to go back to my country and see my family again — my grandma. I came here without a choice. I didn't think about it, but a few years ago, it was like it hit me: This is real. It was difficult for me to think about it.

My dad came here from Argentina in 2000 to work, then me and my mom and my sister followed in 2004 when I was 9 years old. My uncle was living in Arkansas and that's why we came here to live. I remember starting school. When I got here, I couldn't speak English at all. I only knew how to say "Hi," and "OK." There were two Hispanic kids in my class, and they always made fun of me. I was like: If you're Hispanic, you should help me. My teacher would just give me the work and say: "Don't even do it if you don't know what you're doing." I cried every morning before school and every afternoon after I got home, because I didn't want to go. I thought: What is the point of me going to school?

That summer, I learned English by myself. I was like: I have to learn English to help my mom out, and help my sisters. I'm the only one in the house to translate for my parents. They need me. I'm the only one who can help my sisters with their homework, because my mom doesn't understand. I have to do this by myself. I learned English, and in the fifth grade, I finally started learning. There were people there that actually helped me.

My parents have always worried about being undocumented. I remember one day, someone called my mom and told her that Immigration officers were on University Avenue, and my mom had to go that way because it was the day she did the grocery shopping. My mom was so afraid. It was scary. I had to imagine my mom being deported back, and I couldn't live without my parents. I need them here. I'm only 17, and I want them to be here to see all the great things I'm going to do. It was terrifying.

In my ninth grade year, I was like: Why should I care about high school? I'm just going to graduate and not even go to college. I can't even work when I get out of college. It's a waste of time and money, and I'm going to get nothing back. I just wanted to go to high school and get it over with. I didn't care.

My mom knew I didn't want to go to college, but she was like: "You have to go. I'll work three jobs, four jobs. I'll work my butt off for you to go to college. I don't want you to go to work cleaning bathrooms for other people."

That's when everything came together in my head. I realized that I should have done better in high school, and I started trying my hardest. I realized that I'm actually here for a reason, and that I can actually do something.

I know people from other schools who are undocumented, and some of them just dropped out. They were like: I don't even care if I graduate. Now I feel like a lot of them regret it. Some of my friends are out there working, and some of them say: I should have made a better choice and stayed in high school.

Now that we've got Deferred Action, it's better for us. We can make something. There's something happening. Everything is coming together. There are people out there trying to help us. There are people out there who care about us. That's what made me excited. I was like: I'm going to do better in school, and I'm going to fight for what I want.

In college, I want to try different things. I've thought about being a lawyer, because I want to help Hispanics. I want to actually go out there and say: I'm here for you. I want to help you. You're not alone. There are other people in the state and in the country who care about you, who want to help you. I want to give Hispanic people a voice and actually try to talk to them and let them know there's somebody out there and that it's OK to come out of the shadows.

What I want people to know is that I haven't broken a law. I was brought here before I could decide, but my parents came here because they wanted something better for us. They say don't judge a book by its cover, and the people who say kick us all out are judging the book by a cover. They don't know us. Come and meet us. Actually come and talk to us. Try to experience what we go through. Picture your life without your parents, or your family. Picture your family being separated. Imagine not being able to see your children anymore, or your family being in a different country. Imagine how you'd feel in that moment.

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