Sara, a South-Central Los Angeles teenager who recently won acceptance to UC Berkeley, lives with her parents and four younger sisters in a one-bedroom apartment the size of some bathrooms.
Many evenings in the past several years, she has had to study through the cries of babies, her parents' arguments over money, and noise from police searching neighbors' homes for illegal drugs.
Through it all, she has maintained a 3.9 grade-point average at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. Hard work earned her acceptance to the flagship UC campus, but she cannot afford to go.
That's because Sara, 18, who has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years, is an illegal immigrant and would be charged annual out-of-state tuition and housing costs of about $27,000. That's more than her father makes a year working in a textile factory. And without legal papers, the government will not give her financial aid.
"It's completely unfair," said the student, who graduates today. "My teachers were always saying how America is the land of the free, the land of opportunity. It's really not."
"It's not like the government wouldn't benefit from my education, especially since I want to major in engineering," added Sara, whose parents asked that her real name not be used.
Reluctantly, Sara has decided to attend community college, and then consider transferring to Berkeley after a year and half.
By then, she prays, a bill recently introduced by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) will become law and allow undocumented students to apply for legal residency status. That would give them the right to pay in-state tuition and apply for financial aid.
Sara's plight is similar to that of undocumented students who have come to America with their parents and want to continue their education beyond high school.
Such youths are guaranteed the right to attend public school through the 12th grade thanks to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But by barring any financial aid or in-state tuition discounts, the door is effectively closed to many of the best colleges and universities. Usually students don't realize their situation until late into their high school careers or even after being awarded acceptance to colleges. Some break down or are suicidal, high school counselors say. Sara remains hopeful that things will eventually work out for her.
"I'm conscious that school is the only way out of this," she said as she surveyed the cramped bedroom of her parents' apartment.
Although opponents of illegal immigration say they feel sorry for students such as Sara, they argue that it would be unjust to grant financial aid to people in her situation.
Federal and state funds that go to illegal immigrants cannot go to American citizens or legal residents, said Roy Beck, executive director for NumbersUSA.com, a Virginia-based nonprofit immigration group. "There's just no fairness in that," he said.
"I think it's a rotten deal for this girl," Beck said. "She's a victim of her parents' decision and federal law enforcement who refuse to enforce the law."
Entered Country Through El Paso
When Sara was 6, her family left their hometown of Villa Hidalgo, Mexico, for a better life. They rode a bus and train for more than two days to Juarez, where they met two men who led them across the Rio Grande into El Paso. The men, who had been paid $200, bought tickets for the family's 16-hour train ride to Los Angeles, where they moved in with a relative.
Her parents went to work at a garment factory and eventually were able to afford their own small apartment. They no longer had to sleep on the floor.
A few years later, her mother quit to care for her younger sisters. Her father is now the sole breadwinner. Today, the family of seven still squeeze into a one-bedroom apartment. There is a tiny kitchen but no living room. Two bunk beds, a queen-size bed and couch are crammed into the bedroom. The family shares a bathroom with dozens of other neighbors.
Sara's father once requested amnesty for his illegal status but failed to get it.
Although her parents have not moved up financially, she has risen academically. Sara made the honor roll throughout elementary and middle schools. She will graduate from Roosevelt High School near the top of her class. Her resume lists a slew of awards and activities, including cross-country and track and field.
Sara developed good studying habits on her own. She said she can't remember a time when her parents, who didn't get past elementary school, reminded her to do her homework.
"The first word that comes to mind when I think of Sara is zealousness," said advanced placement physics teacher Jon Wehner, adding that she has stayed after school countless times with anxious questions. "She has an amazingly large appetite for learning."
Her life hasn't made it easy to excel in school. She had to skip more than 30 days during her senior year to take care of her diabetic mother. At that point, her educational predicament finally hit home.
"I felt like a magnet was pulling me down and all I wanted to do was sleep and sleep," she said.
Sara, who considers going to Burger King or McDonald's a treat, has always worried about money. Her father barely earns enough for food and rent. "My parents can't afford the paper and pens I use," she said.
During her junior year after a full load of classes, practicing for the Los Angeles Marathon and a deluge of homework, she would scrub toilets and showers at the apartment complex into the night for pocket money.
All of that paid off when she received Berkeley's acceptance letter.
Even without knowing if and how much money Berkeley could offer, she had mailed off her registration form to meet the May deadline. It had been her dream to go to Berkeley since the eighth grade.
Not Enough Scholarship Money
Sara sent out at least 30 letters requesting scholarship forms. Unfortunately, almost all required U.S. residency. She has won four scholarships totaling $8,000. However. that won't cover even one semester at Berkeley.
Plan B was to get married to a U.S. citizen. But such plans fell through.
Her last chance to attend Berkeley after high school had rested with the unlikely possibility that the university would find a way to grant her a scholarship. That hasn't happened. Federal law bans public colleges from giving any financial benefits to illegal immigrants, said Richard Black, financial aid director.
With her hopes crushed, she has spent nights crying softly in bed, said her 16-year-old sister. Still, she continues to take summer courses at a community college. If Berkeley doesn't pan out, she says quietly, then she will transfer to a private university like Caltech. In a stronger voice, she said it might be better for her.
Some private schools, including Caltech, could offer admitted students scholarships, grants, loans and part-time jobs to meet their financial need, said David Levy, Caltech financial aid director.
It will be this "determination of a bulldog, unyielding to any pressure" that will allow her to succeed, wrote high school history teacher Brian Gibbs.
The teenager's struggle for a better life won't end after college. She worries about how she will find a job as an illegal immigrant. That issue will be solved if Berman's bill is enacted. If not, she hopes the U.S. government will make an exception for her and grant her legal status.
As she sat on the soiled couch she often sleeps on, she closed her eyes, took a long, deep breath and said: "I want to be optimistic and I really am. There's no other way."