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Having degree of anxiety

Undocumented graduates see a mixed future.

July 08, 2008|Gale Holland | Times Staff Writer
  • Beth Chavez addresses a group of UCLA students ? documented and undocumented. A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitled illegal immigrants to public education, but students? access to higher education has not been guaranteed.
Beth Chavez addresses a group of UCLA students ? documented and undocumented.… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

He took 15 AP classes in high school, and kicks himself for passing up two others. Now, he is graduating from UCLA, with a double major in English and Chicano Studies and a B-plus grade point average.

But for all his success, Miguel does not share the full-bodied exuberance of the graduating seniors who marched last month five abreast into Pauley Pavilion, belting out the '60s hit "Build Me Up, Buttercup." A native of Puebla, Mexico, he is an illegal immigrant.

Around the UCLA campus, ubiquitous kiosk signs encourage students to "Jump Into Great Jobs!" But for Miguel, any employment will be difficult. Like many undocumented students, he may elect to prolong his studies to stave off an uncertain future.

"When you're in school you have a place in society, you're a university student," Miguel, 23, said during an interview at a campus coffee spot on graduation day. "When you graduate, you're just an immigrant again."

Miguel and other students, who asked that their full names be withheld for fear that they or their families could face federal action, are caught between contradictory U.S. immigration policies.

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitled illegal immigrants to public education from kindergarten through high school; 50,000 to 70,000 graduate from U.S. high schools each year (California's share, by some estimates, is 40%), according to experts. But the students' access to higher education has not been guaranteed by the courts and Congress.

Over the last seven years, California and nine other states have encouraged undocumented college students to pursue higher education by offering many who graduated from California high schools in-state tuition. California public universities do not ask about legal status on applications. Some private universities, including Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara, have scholarships tailored for illegal immigrants. They are not entitled to most financial aid or loans at public colleges.

Their numbers at the university level remain low. The UC system had an estimated 271 to 433 undocumented students, out of total enrollment of 214,000, in 2006-2007, the latest figure available, a spokesman said.

But attending college, and even doing splendidly, does nothing to alter these students' illegal status. A proposed federal law called the Dream Act would have offered a pathway to citizenship for many college students and members of the military. But supporters last year were unable to secure enough votes to prevent a filibuster of the bill.

Opponents said the students are looting limited educational resources that should go to citizens and legal residents.

"To these students, I say I hope you return to your home country right away," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), "and I hope you repay what you have spent of other people's money. It's a horrible crime."

Students have come far

Advocates argue that it's inhumane and counterproductive to ostracize students who have come so far with so little.

"These students have been here since they were small children, and we've done everything to encourage them to stay in school and help them prepare for college," said UCLA Asst. Vice Provost Alfred Herrera of the Center for Community College Partnerships. "The sad reality is most of these students are the best and the brightest."

And if history is any guide, they aren't leaving. Some, instead, remain in school.

Living off academic stipends, scholarships and a steady diet of ramen, these students play out an endless "Groundhog Day" script of school applications, research projects and degrees.

"They mostly hang around colleges, assistantships, getting paid to do surveys. It's not employment, it's catch-as-catch can," said Michael Olivas, an expert on immigrants in higher education who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center.

"I think continuing your studies is the best option for us now," said Tam Tran, 24, who heads to Brown University this fall for a five-year doctoral program in American Civilizations.

Born in Germany to Vietnamese parents, Tran has a complex immigration history: a U.S. immigration board in 2001 found that her family faced political persecution in Vietnam for past anti-Communist activities, but ordered them deported to Germany.

Germany, however, would not take them. The nation only recognized as citizens children born on its soil to German parents.

She said she would have liked to stay at UCLA, maybe go to film school. But the public university can't give her aid, while both Brown and Yale universities offered generous packages.

Robert Lee, professor in the Department of American Civilization at Brown, said the university is not bothered that Tran might be unable to work in the U.S. in her academic field.

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