By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Flor, an ambitious student who once hoped to become an engineer, knows she needs to continue her education, and she has the grades to win acceptance at a college. When she was a high school junior, she began to make plans.
"I was looking at applications, and I saw that one little question: Are you a citizen? Do you have a Social Security number?" says Flor, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, who has lived in the United States illegally since she was 11 years old. "At first I was like, 'It's OK. I'll find a way to go to college.' It took me a year to realize there was no way, and I can't apply for financial aid or scholarships or anything."
The irony is that Flor--who asked that her real name not be published--will eventually become a citizen. Her father, an electrician, received his legal residency papers last year, opening the door for Flor, her sister, and younger brother to apply. Family attorneys estimate her papers may arrive in 12 years, when she is 31.
"I can't imagine myself not going to school. I will go, because that is what I want to do. It will take me years, but I will go," says Flor, who has scant memories of her life in Mexico. "The U.S. has been educating me in middle school and high school. How does the government expect me to contribute to this country without any higher education?"
At a time when educated workers are in demand and unemployment is at a historic low, an entire crop of potentially educated workers like Flor is being lost as overburdened federal agencies struggle to manage the flow of immigrants. Many young immigrants here illegally have no chance of ever receiving residency papers, and even those eligible for visas must wait for a period that can span their junior-high and high school years and beyond. The process is slowed not only by the crawling pace of federal agencies, but by families that are discouraged by the financial requirements and attorney fees required to become legal.
Many immigrant families can't afford university tuition without financial aid or scholarships, and tuition for non-resident and international students dwarfs the rates paid by Texas residents. Financial aid for international students is limited, and scholarships are nearly impossible to obtain. University employees say students who are caught lying about their immigration status are immediately expelled. The fear of deportation is constant.
Flor's dilemma is mainly bureaucratic. Knowing she was going to stay in the United States, she applied for residency as soon as her father received his residency papers late last year. Now she must wait.
During the interim Flor has kept busy. Unable to work and unable to go to school, and fearing deportation, she has volunteered at three different clinics for disabled children. The experience has changed her outlook. Instead of going into engineering, she now wants to teach disabled students.
Two years have gone by since her high school graduation, two years of watching high school students don their caps and gowns and move on while she waits in limbo.
"I get depressed, especially like in May, when I see all these students graduating and going to school," she says.
A case arising from a Texas lawsuit allowed Flor and others to gain access to an education in the United States--at least up to a point. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools must educate all children between ages 5 and 17 living in a school district, regardless of immigration status.
"By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation," Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in the majority opinion in Plyler vs. Doe.
What Justice Brennan feared has in part come true. Undocumented immigrant children now are free to earn high school diplomas, but have few options afterward. Unlike Texas public school districts, colleges and universities require proof of legal U.S. residency, as do most employers offering well-paying jobs.
"We're throwing away a lot of good talent," sums up Lynn Dehart, principal of North Dallas High School.
Arguably, these kids could surface from the U.S. underground, take their diplomas and return to live within the law in their homelands. But the reality for students such as Flor and countless others brought to the United States by their parents as children is that their native countries are foreign countries. Their dreams are not set in Central or South America. These young immigrants are American by every measure except the law.
"Research suggests that these people are going to stay in the U.S. They are already part of our society," says Macello Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project, which is researching school and family experiences of adolescent first-generation immigrants. "What does it say about our society that this many people are kept out of our institutional structures, like universities?"