College-educated and illegal: Immigrants pin job hopes on DREAM Act
For most college educated illegal immigrants, landing a good job proves difficult. The DREAM Act would help some of them, but critics decry it as step toward a broad amnesty.
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All but two states, Alabama and South Carolina, allow illegal immigrants to attend state institutions. Ten, including Illinois, allow them to pay in-state tuition. But the odds against them are still steep. Most illegal immigrants are Hispanic, and Hispanic students have the highest high school dropout rate in the country. Of those who graduate, the Pew Hispanic Center says, only about half go to college, compared with 71 percent of the general population.Skip to next paragraph
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For many undocumented students, however, paying for college may be a bigger obstacle than getting in. Only two states – Texas and New Mexico – allow them to apply for financial aid. Most students, or their parents, pay their own way. And most attend community colleges, where tuition is much lower than at four-year institutions.
Tina is more fortunate than many: She won a private scholarship that helped pay for most of her tuition, although she had to charge the last two semesters to a credit card that she is still paying off. More typical is Maria Gonzales (not her real first name), who is 22 and lives in another Chicago suburb. Ms. Gonzales worked almost full time as a waitress to pay her expenses while attending a community college part time. She was able to get the job by using a false Social Security number she bought in 2006 for $150.
"There aren't a lot of scholarships," says Daysi Diaz Strong, a college counselor who is participating in a study of undocumented students. "That becomes an issue. Paying is a big deal. That, and being able to know who to trust or to talk to. They're always dealing with 'Who do I trust? Do I tell, or just make things up?' "
Like many immigrants, undocumented students believe that education is the surest way to a better life than their parents enjoyed. But Victor, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said his experience in the year since he graduated has shaken his confidence.
"It hit me hard," says Victor, who declined to give his last name. Friends found jobs, but he found only casual employment. He's worked in volunteer jobs and internships. "I always felt that things would work out, that something would happen, that my status would be adjusted," he says. "But year after year, every year passes on, and nothing happens."
Plenty of illegal immigrants work. Last year the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 7.8 million illegal immigrants are in the US workforce. But most of the undocumented work at low-paying jobs that require little education or skills: factory work, agriculture, construction, restaurants, landscaping. Mr. Hoyt says undocumented graduates cannot under current law qualify for many skilled occupations, such as teaching, law enforcement, and medicine. "Anything connected to the government or government contracting is impossible to get," he says.
Gonzales feels this difficulty keenly. She has long wanted to become a nurse. But at Elgin Community College, just outside Chicago, counselors steered her away from nursing, warning that an illegal immigrant could not possibly obtain the necessary certification. In the end she studied applied sciences, deferring but not abandoning her ambition. After finishing at Elgin this spring she plans to go on to study biology at a four-year school – if she can figure out how to pay for it. She still hopes someday to be able to work in health care, although she admits her resolve is wearing thin.
"I feel like I should be somewhere after all this work I've put in," she says. "But I'm not."