The kids aren't all right

The Americanized culture of undocumented immigrants finds the doors to higher education closed

Natalie says she isn't giving up. She is looking for community colleges with affordable international tuition.

"I don't give up. I'll do anything to go to college," she says, a sigh betraying her bold words.


Flashing her class ring from Sunset High School, "Flor" is facing a wait of more than a decade to become a legal immigrant. Without a chance to get scholarships or financial aid, her college ambitions are stymied.
Peter Calvin
Flashing her class ring from Sunset High School, "Flor" is facing a wait of more than a decade to become a legal immigrant. Without a chance to get scholarships or financial aid, her college ambitions are stymied.
Ana Yañez Correa, chef of staff for state Rep. Domingo Garcia, helped draft a bill that would allow undocumented students to enter colleges and qualify for scholarships. She knows their dilemma firsthand, narrowly obtaining her own residency papers on the eve of her college application deadline.
Peter Calvin
Ana Yañez Correa, chef of staff for state Rep. Domingo Garcia, helped draft a bill that would allow undocumented students to enter colleges and qualify for scholarships. She knows their dilemma firsthand, narrowly obtaining her own residency papers on the eve of her college application deadline.

Ana Yañez Correa, 23, knows how it feels to be caught in immigration purgatory.

Yañez was born in Mexico and brought to the United States by her widowed mother. The family was seeking stability and a steady income, but her mother became ill, and Yañez went to work between the ages of 11 and 17 as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for several Dallas families.

"I didn't know about child labor laws," she says now, with a bright, wide smile. She maintains contact with the families and enjoys watching the progress of the children she cared for. "I love my kids," she says.

Yañez always knew education was her key to bettering her life. Unimpressed by public schools, she paid her own way through Holy Trinity and Bishop Lynch private schools. Attending a U.S. college was the ultimate goal, but her immigration status hung over her head.

"I used to have nightmares about being stopped, being picked up," she says. "Here I am, 16 and still with no papers. How in the world am I going to go to college...My college application was due, and I was still waiting for my residency card. I was sweating bullets."

She got lucky. Her mother married a U.S. citizen, opening up the opportunity for her to become a legal resident. If it hadn't been for that marriage, Yañez would have been stymied. Her paperwork came through just in time.

"What really helped me is timing," she says. "If I went through that process now, I would never have gone to college. I was so lucky the INS wasn't as over-flooded as it is now."

Yañez, still paying off her college loans, now works as chief of staff for state Rep. Domingo Garcia. Her experience gave her a unique passion and perspective in aiding Garcia to draft a bill that would allow children who graduate from Texas high schools to be able to attend public colleges without regard to their immigration status.

"If these kids have been going to public schools ever since they can remember...why should they be denied a university education?" she says.

These undocumented students would not have to pay out-of-state or international student tuition. The bill is still being drafted and has miles of bureaucracy to travel. The earliest group of graduates affected by the bill, if it becomes law, would be May 2001.

"I think it has a good chance of passing. It's not controversial," Garcia says. "Accepting reality today, there are a large number of students...who are barred from continuing their education."

Even if Garcia's law passed, the students would be here illegally, but with college degrees. The change would make it possible for this generation of immigrants to take better advantage of any new federal amnesties or to return to their native countries for meaningful work.

"We understand that they wouldn't be able to get a good job here--legally," Ana Yañez says. "We have to go from point to point. We can't solve everything at once."

The bill's chances--and the chance of a new national amnesty--may be bolstered by the need for workers, especially high-tech and higher-educated students. A new attitude toward immigration by business was born not from humanitarian concerns but because the economy depends on the influx of labor.

Economists and policymakers know that the market is screaming for educated and uneducated workers alike. Construction workers can make a large salary by Third World standards, and they can often live comfortably and still send money back to their native countries. But as the second generation of immigrants, fully acclimated to the U.S., looks to better their position, they are pushed away from education and toward low-skill labor.

"The kid isn't living up to his or her potential. In the short run that's not so bad, but in the medium and long term it makes a negative impact," says Jon Hockenyos, managing director at Texas Perspectives, an Austin economic analysis and public policy consulting firm. "If you have a formal high school education and you enter the labor force, you will be a positive impact on the state economy. At a time when we're crying for workers, especially educated workers, it would be worth taking a careful look at this."

This need for employees has prompted myriad interests on a national level to speak out in favor of changing immigration laws. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has backed an increase in some immigration. In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Dick Armey has repeatedly blocked attempts by other Republicans to impose immigration limits. Michigan Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration policy, has also supported increased legal immigration. Even labor unions, once die-hard opponents of open immigration, have changed their tune in an effort widely attributed to their desire to transform fresh immigrants into new members.

It has been an easy sell, even in Congress, to expand the H-1B visa program, which allows high-tech immigrants into the U.S. Industry and government officials estimate that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified American applicants.

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