By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
No one is sure how many undocumented students are in Texas schools. No one is counting. From individual schools to the district to the Texas Education Agency, no one tallies the number of students who are undocumented. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the bulk--conservative estimates by students and experts sit at more than half--of the students attending English as a second language (ESL) classes in Dallas Independent School District are undocumented. At DISD, 33,335 students are currently enrolled in ESL classes.
Those inside the system know that many of them drop out, abandoning the free education guaranteed by the Supreme Court because it provides them little hope of advancement. Why bother getting educated when the lack of documentation means you can't go to college or get a job that rises above manual labor after you graduate?
"Most of the ESL students have dropped out and are working at restaurants, or in construction," Josue says. "I feel sorry because I know they could have done something else."
The brother and sister, graduates of Denton high schools, hope for better. Wendy has a dual interest in sign language and business management, while Josue has his sights on becoming an architect. The pair does not differ much from Flor, except their family emigrated from Guatemala, whose immigration applicants face a shorter backlog than Mexican applicants.
Their family left Guatemala City when the kids were preteens with no residency papers, English skills, or even conception of their adopted country. The first step was taking English classes, where they met scores of freshly emigrated undocumented students.
"I got frustrated a lot," Wendy says. "When we moved here we didn't know we were going to be permanent residents or that I'd graduate. For me, at the beginning, it was horrible."
Buoying their hopes was the fact that their father, a heavy-machinery technician, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993.
They knew it was only a matter of time before they were granted legal residency. Since their father had the drive and money to begin his children's process immediately, and the waiting period for Guatemalans is roughly five years less than for Mexicans, they received their papers in time for Josue's graduation. Wendy had to wait a year.
Those papers came this January. Even knowing they would one day be legal--while waiting two years for their application to be processed--the uphill struggle to learn English and adapt to the new surroundings took a toll on their morale.
"I remember in 12th grade people would ask me, 'What are you going to do after graduation?' I told them that I was thinking about university, but I didn't really know. It was embarrassing," Wendy says.
For their friends, many of whom had little hope of becoming legal residents, the decision to give up on education was easy and sometimes encouraged by their families, whose opinion of education can be low.
"Many parents say, 'If you don't want to go to school, just go get a job,'" Josue says. "You see that a lot. 'I didn't, so you don't have to either.'"
The children compare that attitude with their parents'. Their mother and father were determined that their children would stay in school, remain in the United States, and become legal residents.
"We knew we would get papers because our father kept telling us," Wendy says.
In many families where parents and siblings have different immigration statuses, the matter is not discussed because it's too complex and sensitive, Suarez-Orozco says.
"A lot of kids are kept in the dark. It's a family secret," Suarez-Orozco says. "For kids who are doing well, it comes as a tremendous shock, because today they can't go on without resident papers."
Teachers encourage ESL students to stay in school, regardless of whether they think the students are legal immigrants, but in the end the educators' hopes can be dashed as well.
"It's like helping them climb stairs and then pulling them away. It's like hanging them," says one Dallas schoolteacher who asked to remain anonymous.
A primary reason for the high numbers of undocumented immigrants in schools is the enormous backlog of immigrants trying to get their papers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Many students in high schools now will one day become legal residents because one or (less frequently) both parents have received their papers. But the long waits and the expense make the process prohibitive for many who could apply for visas for their children, even though the minor children of legal immigrants are given preference in obtaining visas. Legal residents are expected to leave family members behind while the slow process grinds on, and many choose to bring their families to the United States illegally instead.
"The longer the wait, the more it encourages illegal immigration," says Margaret Donnelly, a Dallas immigration attorney. "It's inhuman to keep these families apart, to expect them to wait four to six years for a lawful permanent residency."