On a good day, 20-year-old Elvia Flores feels she’s making her family proud, studying in college to become a nurse while working nearly full-time to help pay her family’s bills.
But in darker moments, Flores wonders if all the work and sacrifice is worth it.
Flores is an undocumented immigrant. And despite the nation’s shortage of bilingual nurses, Flores will likely end up after graduation with little more than a low-paying restaurant job, because she lacks a Social Security number and a legal residency card.
Flores is one of about 65,000 undocumented students across the United States who graduate from high school each year, according to estimates by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit economic and social policy research organization.
For them, a high school or college diploma doesn’t guarantee a good job or more money. Because as children they were brought into the country illegally, they face a lifetime in the shadows.
And still Flores goes to school, hoping she can have a better life than her parents.
Like many others, Flores is hoping for passage of federal legislation that could help her achieve her goal. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minorities Act, known as the Dream Act, would give conditional U.S. residency to students who entered the country five years or more before the bill’s enactment and before they were 16 years old.
Residency would become permanent if, within six years of obtaining conditional residency, the immigrant either graduates from a two-year college, studies for two years toward a bachelor’s degree, serves in the U.S. armed forces for two years or performs 910 hours of volunteer community service.
Opponents of the measure say the bill would undermine immigration law; its supporters say it would benefit relatively few -- but worthy -- students.
Rallies in support of the Dream Act were held Saturday throughout the country.
On Sept. 13, college students accompanied by members of immigrant rights, civil rights, human rights, labor and religious organizations gathered at USC to begin a 12-day fast to draw attention to the bill.
And last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted to support the bill.
In Santa Ana, Flores said of the Dream Act, “It would change my whole life.”
Elvia Flores’ farming parents abandoned their small village in Mexico when they couldn’t afford the tools and field hands to harvest their corn. In 1989, with her mother leading the way, 7-year-old Elvia and three of her siblings ducked into a tunnel beneath the U.S. border, scurried across the desert and hitched a ride to Orange County, where they rejoined her father, who had entered illegally before them.
Flores was enrolled in school, learned English by fifth grade and never thought much about her immigration status until friends in 11th grade got jobs. She couldn’t, because she didn’t have a Social Security card. But because colleges don’t review citizenship status, Flores pursued higher education.
She graduated from high school and, in her second year of college, won a $1,000 scholarship from the college because of her above-average grades.
Flores’ counselor knew she wanted to become a nurse, but because she didn’t have a Social Security card, recommended instead that Flores pursue a Spanish language degree. Chasing a more career-oriented degree would be futile, the counselor hinted.
That made me feel very low,” said Flores. “I wondered was it worth it to keep going to school. What’s the point?”
Her uncertainties worsened during her first year in college when her father, a $7.50-an-hour factory worker who earned most of the family’s income, suffered a disabling stroke. The family bought food and medicine with a credit card, amassing $6,000 in debt.
To help the family, Flores bought a fake Social Security number and a bogus residency card and landed a job as a restaurant cashier.
“I feel guilty going to school,” said Flores, tears filling her eyes. “My family needs the money and I’m studying and I don’t even know if I will ever get a good job.”
The ‘Dream Act’
The Dream Act was introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in July 2001 with 45 cosponsors from both parties. After delays in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it has passed through the Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a full Senate vote.
Hatch aide Margarita Tapia said she expects Congress to pass the bill this year.
The Bush administration has not taken a stand on the act; Sen. John F. Kerry supports it. Congressional observers say the bill’s passage could send a symbolic message without upsetting opponents of illegal immigration because it affects relatively few people and has no major fiscal effect.
Helping undocumented students is not without precedent. California legislation in 2001 exempted them from paying out-of-state tuition if they had attended three years of high school in California, graduated from a California school and gained admission to a state university or community college.
Josh Bernstein, federal legislative director for the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy organization, said the Dream Act stalled in Congress because of doubts about immigrant rights in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but he believes it will ultimately be approved.
“A lot of immigration issues are contentious. This one has not been. I guess it’s because, how can you really be against these kids?” said Bernstein. The legislation “speaks to a value, that every individual should be treated on their own merits.... It corrects a flaw in immigration law, which is not to recognize the good works of these particular kids.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) disagrees: “This legislation would provide an additional incentive for illegal immigration. If we were to pass this, it would be a statement to the world that we have no intention of enforcing immigration laws.”
Adolfo Flores, Elvia’s father, hopes the act is passed so his children can achieve more than he has. He did not advance beyond sixth grade and never earned more than $8 an hour.
“I’ve suffered and worked so my children can get ahead,” said Adolfo Flores. “I don’t want them to be like me. I can’t even speak English. Why don’t people who make laws see that we are just trying to work and get ahead?”
Her Family’s Hope
Elvia Flores feels stressed. She hears her parents’ admonishment to “salir adelante” -- to get ahead.
She is the family’s hope and role model for five younger siblings, two of whom are undocumented immigrants. A younger sister graduated from high school in June and is attending a local college with hopes of becoming an architect.
Her father encourages Flores and her sister to continue their schooling -- even though he appreciates the money Flores earns to help pay family bills. When he taught Flores to drive so she could get to work and pick up her mother, both father and daughter were in tears. He feared she’d be caught driving without a license and be deported; she was scared of traffic.
It was a necessary risk, they decided, in order for Flores to earn a diploma. Flores’ two older siblings, also undocumented, dropped out of college. One got married. The other became a security guard.
“I tell my children to prepare themselves for battle,” said Adolfo Flores, wearing a straw hat that makes it seem he left Mexico only yesterday. “Not to fight but to prepare themselves for the challenges, to present themselves in this society, to speak for all of us, to get ahead and be more than I ever could.”
The encouragement doesn’t always sustain his daughter. One minute Elvia Flores is ebullient about helping others as a nurse. The next minute, she tearfully wonders whether the goal is attainable. Young adults in her neighborhood are similarly burdened.
Going to college is like saying a prayer, said Eric Leon, 22, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States at age 6 and works in restaurants. “Are you doing it for nothing or will you get a big reward?” he said of seeking higher education. “You want to give up but you want to make sure you did what you could.”
Flor Valente, 19, is so focused on her future that she holds a full-time job as a janitor -- from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. -- while attending school during the day. “I’ll feel guilty if I don’t at least try,” Valente said.
Such personal drive among undocumented high school students amazes Adriana Huezo, a higher education coordinator at Century High School in Santa Ana. She cautions students about what their future holds.
“For a good portion of our students, there is an immigration [status] issue. I tell them no one will stop you from going to college. But you may not be able to practice your chosen profession,” Huezo said. “It can be very discouraging. Some of them let go of their dreams because of it.”
A Typical Day
Because of her father’s illness and her family’s financial needs, Flores dropped three of her four classes in the spring, then enrolled in the college’s summer session to make them up. She is now enrolled in two classes.
Most days, Flores goes to school midmorning and stays until nearly 3 p.m., doing homework and reading in the library.
There is nowhere to study at home. Eight family members share six beds in a one-bedroom apartment.
Driving an 18-year-old family compact car without a driver’s license -- which she cannot obtain without a Social Security number -- Flores returns home from school for a snack, changes into her restaurant uniform and takes her mother to a sewing job and goes to her own job. Flores works until 11 p.m., picks up her mother, then returns home.
“One day, I have faith I will be one of those people in the cap and gown,” she said. “Other days, I wonder if there’s any point.”