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Legal or not, these students deserve a chance

Those of us who work in higher education see firsthand the predicament of our undocumented students

August 19, 2011|By Elena T. Reigadas

It happened again this semester. A student came to my office and asked me to close the door. After going through this drill so many times before, I knew what would come next. In a process akin to "coming out of the closet," these students reveal to me their terrible secret: They are undocumented immigrants.

I am a community college professor. In addition to teaching, my role includes mentoring students, helping them achieve their academic and career goals, and identifying the brightest ones to become role models, tutors and peer mentors. More often than not, these students cannot attain such goals because of their immigration status.

Hearing the same heartbreaking stories from the best and brightest underscores for me the immense potential that is wasted by not providing them a path to legalization.

The majority of my undocumented students were brought to this country as young children. They played no part in their parents' decision to immigrate to the United States. They are what psychologist Celia Falicov calls "reluctant immigrants." Some were so young when they immigrated that they believed that they were born here. Many do not discover this hidden aspect of their identity until high school or later. Many don't speak their native languages; others are bilingual and speak flawless English.

Take the case of an honors student, one of the best I've ever had. Up to the moment when she came to my office and told me her secret, I thought of her as the ultimate all-American student activist: intelligent, hardworking, highly motivated, a sophisticated writer and speaker, with an incredible disposition to help others and a commitment to social justice. She hopes to pursue an advanced degree in psychology. I could not believe my ears when she "came out" to me in Spanish!

She had come to the U.S. from South America when she was 8 years old. Because of her academic performance she was recruited to attend UC Berkeley and UCLA. She declined these offers because of financial hardship, opting to attend a local community college instead. While studying there, she made every attempt to legalize her situation through her abuelita — her grandma — a U.S. citizen.

The family was very excited when they received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security granting the grandmother an interview that would begin the process toward the student's "legal residency." Or so they thought. Sadly, her grandmother died of cancer two weeks before the scheduled interview. After all the money paid to immigration services and lawyers, her case is now closed. The DHS would not consider the student's circumstances, and her "legalization" remains uncertain. She graduated this spring with a 4.0 grade-point average, making the dean's and president's lists. This is a small consolation for a student who could achieve any goal she chooses. But like her legalization, her future looks uncertain.

Or take the case of the first student to "come out" to me. He was a gifted student, born in a remote Asian nation, brought to the U.S. as a toddler and who had since forgotten his native language. We met when he took my general psychology class. I invited him to become the tutor for the class, and this brought him to my office, where he shared his secret with me. He had dreams of continuing his education in the field of economics but was pessimistic about his future, and I sensed helplessness in his words. I saw him regularly while he was my student and volunteered his time to help others, but I haven't seen him since. I often think of him and hope that he has found a pathway to citizenship and is on his way to becoming a great economist.

There are countless such students on college campuses across America, and they come from around the world. Why are so many of them overachievers? Maybe it's because talent knows no borders. Or perhaps it has to do with the immigrant ethic of hard work, family values, honor and respect that immigrant parents instill by example in their children. The irony lies in the fact that in using these values as the path to success, these undocumented immigrants become the very embodiment of the American dream. At the same time they are unable to become citizens and contribute fully to society. We are literally allowing the talent of our undocumented students to go to waste.

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