The kids aren't all right

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

Last month the Clinton administration endorsed a proposal to expand the existing immigrant amnesty, allowing anyone who immigrated illegally before 1986 to apply for legal residency. Under the 1986 amnesty, only those who arrived before 1972 can seek legal status. The move would give an estimated three million immigrants the chance to become legal.

For students like Flor caught in the immigration trap today, an expanded amnesty would not cover their dates of arrival. For them, the best hope is a new, much wider amnesty.

Opponents of these reforms point out that the 1980s amnesty was tied to a plan to remove the incentive for illegal immigration by cracking down on employers that hire undocumented workers--an effort that largely failed. The influx of illegal unskilled workers drove down wages of all unskilled workers, including legal immigrants. The failure of the government to live up to these enforcement promises has left a bitter taste in many immigration opponents' mouths--and an unwillingness to consider another amnesty at all, despite how badly the economy hungers for workers.

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.

"I have no sympathy for these people, even though it's not the fault of those kids," says Dave Gamble, co-founder of the Austin-based lobby group Texans for Immigration Reform. "Why aren't they in their own countries? If they're smart enough to become educated, they'd be an asset wherever they're at, and maybe where they come from wouldn't be a Third World country anymore."

Gamble feels the ease with which students illegally attend public schools has exacerbated the problem by increasing the expectations of immigrant families, drawing more from their countries of origin into the United States regardless of the law. The immigration cycle, he maintains, is a never-ending expansion of one worker to his or her entire immediate family and, ultimately, the extended family as well.

"Surely we can't assimilate those numbers," he says.

In fact, the INS is expecting another "bubble" of immigration when the 3.3 million immigrants naturalized through the 1986 amnesty petition for their siblings and married sons and daughters. Planning for this new wave will, of course, divert funds and attention from other adjudication.

"The INS has a reputation for being heartless and cold," says Schmidt. "But we're doing our best to minimize the negative impact on people's lives."

For students already living and assimilated in the United States, graduation means they must come to terms with a status they never had to directly face before. The larger societal and economic issues are abstract; what is real is that they are ready and able to chase down the American dream but are stopped by a bureaucracy they gave little attention.

Flor sees no way out of her immigration conundrum. She says returning to Mexico is not a viable option, although she has considered it many times.

"All my life is here. My friends are here, and my family is here. I know the streets here in Dallas. I know everything here. I don't know much of anything about Mexico," she says. "I love Mexico, but I grew up here."

Flor, with nothing else but time, has confidence that the laws will loosen and that another federal amnesty will be offered. She speaks about amnesty the same way others talk about a religious savior.

"It has to come. There are a lot of people like me, and a lot of families are suffering," Flor says. "It has to come."

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