Tina was 3 years old when her mother carried her across the Rio Grande into the United States. Plucked from her birthplace, the Mexican mining town of Zacatecas, she grew up in a Chicago suburb. She studied hard, earned high grades, and enrolled in a local community college – making her the first in her family to go to college.
Tina wasn't done. In May she graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb with a bachelor's degree in history and political science. She hopes to become a lawyer. "I've always wanted to help people out," she says.
But no amount of academic success has been able to remove the stain of her illegal entry to the US two decades ago. Now 24, she cannot escape the fear of being discovered, not just by immigration authorities, but by others, too. "Some people look on you as a criminal," she says. And without legal status many avenues remain closed to her – including the bar exam. Even some of her relatives warned her that she was setting her ambitions too high.
"They'd say, 'No, you can't because you don't have this, you don't have that,' " says Tina, who, like other undocumented students in this story, declined to give her real name for fear of deportation. "I'd say, 'You know what? I can.' "
Determination is not hard to find among the tens of thousands of undocumented students who either are attending or have graduated from American colleges and universities. Indeed, it may be a prerequisite to overcoming the enormous legal and financial difficulties they face. "It's astounding how many of them find ways to pursue their education," says Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
And yet even for those who defy the odds, graduation only presents new obstacles. It's then that hope and resolve run up hardest against the realities of life as an illegal immigrant, when college graduates find themselves blocked from virtually any occupation that demands proof of legal status.
"You can't really do much without documents in this country," says Pedro Ramirez, student body president at California State University, Fresno, and an undocumented immigrant – his parents also brought him to the US when he was 3. "You can't be all that you can be. Some students I know are very hardworking, can do great things. But they could go further."
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would help them. The DREAM Act would offer legal status and a path to citizenship to children and young adults who were brought to the US illegally and who attend college or serve in the military. The House passed its version of the DREAM Act Dec. 8, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he's determined to bring it to a vote in the Senate before the holiday recess.
According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, the bill would cover as many as 2 million children and young adults who are in school or have graduated. MPI estimates that 114,000 of these have already completed at least two years of college, while 66,000 hold a bachelor's degree or higher.
The bill would benefit students and graduates who have been in the country from a young age and have integrated considerably into American society, says Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at MPI. It would also offer an incentive to those still in elementary and high school to continue their education or join the military. At the same time, Ms. Batalova says, the bill imposes tough conditions. She estimates that fewer than half of those eligible would likely be able to take advantage of the opportunity.
"Going to college might be difficult from a financial point of view," she says. "And for many, the military route might not be an option."
The DREAM Act also has attracted powerful opposition. Although immigration reform enjoys support in the US – a Pew Hispanic Center survey last year found that 63 percent of Americans favored offering illegal residents a path to citizenship – many conservatives object to the DREAM Act as a step down a slippery slope toward amnesty for illegal immigrants. "Amnesty has never been a good way to solve the illegal immigration problem," says Jena McNeill of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Justin Pulliam, president of the Texas Aggie Conservatives, a student group at Texas A&M University, goes to school in the state with the second-highest number of illegal immigrants and some of the most liberal education policies. It allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state schools. Last month Mr. Pulliam persuaded a majority of his school's student Senate to vote against the policy, which is also part of the DREAM Act. He's sympathetic to the predicament of undocumented students, but he worries that the bill would only encourage people to break the law.
"It is sad, but at the end of the day, it's not the responsibility of American citizens to take care of anyone else from any other country," he says.
The problem of undocumented students affects a growing roster of states. Most illegal immigrants live in California, Arizona, Florida, Texas, or New York. But there are also significant numbers in Illinois, New Jersey, and a number of states that have only recently become destinations for illegal immigration, including Nevada, Oregon, Maryland, Georgia, and North Carolina.
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.
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."