The kids aren't all right
Without prompting, "Flor" will show anyone her last report card from Sunset High School. She is proud of it, and with good reason. She had a 96.79 during her last year of classes, boosting her final grade-point average to 87.89.
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The irony is that Flor--who asked that her real name not be published--will eventually become a citizen.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?"
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?
Wendy and Josue Marinoquin, 21 and 19, have watched their friends from ESL classes at Billy Ryan High School in Denton drop out and drift into low-paying jobs with no future.
"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.
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."
Federal ceilings on the number of immigrants who can legally immigrate slow the process. Congress decides how many immigrants can legally be admitted each year, and no one country can account for more than 7 percent of the total number. The State Department, not the INS, ensures these immigration limits are adhered to. For nations that have a high volume of immigrants, such as Mexico and India, the 7 percent ceiling leads to long waiting periods before the INS even looks at an application.
Think of it this way: If you were in line for ice cream rather than for residency papers, you would have to wait several years before the State Department let you into the store to order, and you'd have to wait another two and a half to get your sundae.
Calculating how long it may take to obtain visas from the State Department is complicated. Categories and subdivisions based on who is petitioning for your papers, your age, and your marital status are taken into account. The first separation is based on whether you are coming into the U.S. as an employee or a relative. In most cases, employers can bring in workers much faster than a father can bring in his child.
Most undocumented students waiting for visas applied through relatives who petitioned on their behalf. Petitioners in family cases can be any relatives who are citizens or have residency papers. The more distant the relative, the longer the State Department wait.
U.S. immigration policy operates on a first-come-first-served basis, separating prospective immigrants by native country. Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos have separate categories because they have the highest number of immigrant petitioners. All other nationalities are placed into an "other" category.
The most important date to an immigrant is called the priority date, or the day when a legal resident asks the U.S. government to issue papers for a family member. Petitioners must provide proof of the relationship between themselves and the immigrant. They also must show that they earn enough money--currently $13,825 a year--to guarantee that they can support their kin if necessary. Each additional person requires $3,525 in annual income.
Priority dates become waiting-line numbers. Visualize an enormous line of immigrants waiting their turn, cards in their hands marked with a date. The earlier your date, the farther up in line you are. Sometimes the line moves fast, sometimes it doesn't move at all, depending on how many visas are processed by the State Department. The longest lines belong to immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines.
You are not allowed into the country legally while you wait your turn in the State Department's line, where waits of more than four years are not uncommon. Once your number comes up, the State Department clears the visa request and passes it to the INS, where a new wait begins as the agency processes residency papers.
The current average time it takes for the INS to issue papers for a family member is two and a half years, according to INS spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt. When the INS finally begins processing your request, however, you can enter the U.S. on a temporary visa, and you are safe from deportation.
The INS has two top priorities: enforcement of immigration laws (administering the Border Patrol, monitoring factories for illegal workers), and adjudication (processing those seeking entry).
Schmidt says that the INS has its hands full processing the flood of naturalization applications, which have tripled in number in recent years, thanks largely to amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants in 1986. The INS also was hit with a new federal law that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for residency from U.S. soil. Between 1994 and 1998 immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine and apply for residency, removing the cost and hassle of traveling to your country of origin from the process. Since there was no risk in approaching an INS office as an illegal immigrant to apply for citizenship, the $1,000 fine served as an amnesty-for-one.
The change made it easier and cheaper for immigrants to apply and led to a boom in applicants. Schmidt says the INS witnessed an eightfold increase, from fiscal years 1994 to 1999, of the number of applicants for residency papers because of that law. The provision, part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, applies only to those illegal immigrants whose priority dates had come. The waiting period at the State Department level was the same, but immigrants who didn't want to pay for or risk a return to their native land were quicker to apply. The INS waiting period grew as the system bogged down.
The INS asked for more money and got some, but not nearly enough: It received a 50 percent increase in the adjudication budget. During the same time period they experienced a 200 percent increase in the total number of applications. There are currently 951,000 pending requests for cases like Flor's, up from 1994's figure of 121,000.
The INS had to prioritize. They chose to first clean their plate of citizenship applications, instituting a plan with an attendant budget increase to bring the time it took to become a citizen down to six months. The 33-month backlog residency-paper applicants were facing would stay that way.
"We decided to focus on naturalization. Naturally, the adjudication of the other [residency] cases was slipping," Schmidt says. "We knew that would happen. Once we get the citizenship wait to six months, we'll focus on getting the 33-month wait down."
For students graduating from high school without residency papers in hand, these massive delays can have disastrous effects. A petitioner can die, throwing the process in doubt. Immigrants are always at risk of deportation. It is also common for an immigrant to turn 21 while waiting for paperwork to be processed. When immigrants turn 21 they are immediately transferred to another State Department category and moved into a slower-moving line. This is called "aging out."
According to the June statistics from the State Department, a prospective immigrant who ages out would overnight face nearly three years' additional delay.
"An attorney once told me he did not get into immigration law because legal immigration was almost impossible," Donnelly says with a harsh laugh, before taking out the latest statistics from the Texas State Bar. Of more than 8,000 lawyers in Dallas, only 11 specialize in immigration law. "It is like walking on a minefield," she says.
Last Saturday, "Natalie" graduated from Rowlett High School. The 18-year-old has a high B average and dreams of law school, and her family is so proud that they paid for her grandfather to come from Guadalajara to attend the ceremony. She's the first in the family to receive a high school diploma from a U.S. school or any other.
Despite the ceremony and her strong GPA, her graduation was a joyless one. Natalie, who like Flor asked to remain anonymous, is an undocumented immigrant, and with no pending paperwork she sees little hope of continuing her education.
"I feel frustrated. I feel sad. You know when you're like inside a room and can't get out, and you want to open a door or window just to breathe? That's what I feel like," she says, in near perfect, crisply enunciated English. "It's not fair. We go through a lot, work hard, and try not to get into trouble. We go to school every day, then we get out and what? Go home and sit around?"
Natalie's father has a long history of working illegally in the United States, making continual trips across the border to work construction, wiring buildings for electricity. Tired of the separations, Natalie's mother and children relocated. Natalie was 7 years old when they moved.
"It was something heavy, something I never thought about," says Natalie's mother. "I never thought I'd move here. I was sad to leave my family in Mexico, but I was happy to have my husband, daughter, and son together as a family."
Natalie's mother encouraged her children to stay in school. The staff, supplies, and environment in U.S. schools were superior. She knew opportunities for bilingual employees were growing and envisioned a future in which her children would achieve economic independence.
The vision was so clear and bright that she missed the storm clouds. Natalie's mother says she gave no thought of how her daughter's immigration status might hamper her otherwise bright future until late in her daughter's sophomore year, when it came up during a conversation with friends that Natalie needed a Social Security number to apply to colleges and compete for scholarships.
"I never thought about it then, but I realize it now," the mother says ruefully. "I never thought they'd close the doors on students and stop them from getting an education."
Natalie's mother says she is both sad and angered by the rules. She sees bitter irony in those American students who drop out, throwing away the opportunity denied to her daughter. She also ponders some perceived mixed messages coming from the authorities.
"Here, if my child doesn't go to school, they send a letter and tell you to see a judge. Then they finish high school, and they shut the door," she says. "All of a sudden they stop caring?"
Two years of searching for a way around Natalie's immigration dilemma has yielded no answers. With no relatives here legally to petition for her, immigration attorneys have no good news to offer. "You talk to them, and they tell you, 'No,'" Natalie says.
Now, after three years of English classes and readjustment to the United States, she is mulling a return to Mexico to pursue a college degree. The family's tight economics make leaving a difficult choice.
"If I went back to Mexico, it would make things worse. My mother would have to send me money. She'd be paying for my school, and even more money for my personal things," Natalie says. "Since I haven't lived there for over 10 years, I just wouldn't be comfortable."
Natalie's younger brother and sister are enrolled in DISD, headed for the same dilemma confronting her. The family is facing the impending struggle with the same blind hope that brought them to U.S. soil and got Natalie through high school.
"I just tell them to keep going, keep going and don't give up," their mother says. "Something will happen, and you will get your papers. You will go to college."
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.
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.
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.
"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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.