“Is there anything you can do so that my life does not come to a stop when I graduate from Seattle University in two years?”
The sophomore who asked me that question had just been elected a student body officer at SU, where I’m the president. I told him then that I would do everything I possibly could to help him and his undocumented college classmates. The best way to do that is to tell his story, which is also the story of so many others. “Hernando” is a pseudonym. He told me I could use his real name, but I’m not willing to do that.
Hernando is among the 65,000 undocumented students across the country who graduate each year from U.S. schools, where they have a right to K-12 education. Many colleges accept them, as we are allowed by law to do, and provide them institutional financial aid. In California this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrants can be eligible for in-state tuition, but across the nation these students are barred from federal aid, and in most states, barred from state aid as well. Without Social Security numbers, they can’t get a job to help pay for college. Yet they are among our hardest-working, most accomplished students and our most popular leaders. They could be deported at any time. When they graduate, they are unable to put their degrees to work.
These students are setting their hopes on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which has been reintroduced in the lame-duck session of Congress by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). It applies to undocumented students who meet its residency and age requirements and who have good moral character. Once they have completed at least two years in college or in the military, the act provides two things: protection from deportation and a pathway to permanent legal residency after a conditional period during which they can work.
Though we cannot as a country yet get our arms around comprehensive immigration reform, we should be able to agree on the DREAM Act as a place to start. Hernando’s story shows why.
Together with his family, Hernando arrived in the U.S. at the age of 11. He learned English, got his feet on the ground in middle school and began high school without saying a word in class the whole first year. But Hernando soon began to shine, taking advanced placement courses and graduating with a 3.45 grade-point average.
Hernando did something more than graduate. He lived out Seattle University’s Jesuit Catholic values of leadership and social justice. In his high school, where 76% of Latino students dropped out or got pregnant or joined gangs, he pioneered a program to help his classmates get into college. Hernando met weekly with all 32 of his Latino classmates, showed them what courses they had to take to graduate, how further absences would derail them, what state competency exams they had to pass and how to apply to college. He stayed up until 3 a.m. many nights, typing individualized letters in Spanish to parents to show the progress or problems of their children and to win their crucial involvement. Today, 27 of those 32 Latino classmates are in universities or community or technical colleges.
Hernando is more than making it in college himself. With financial aid from our university and room and board covered by his service as a resident assistant, he manages to stay in college with $11,000 a year from his dad, who is a cook, and his mom, who makes 180 tamales a day and sells them door to door. He regularly talks to high school students who, like him, see the door barred to their dreams of careers and citizenship. He tells them to “keep hoping something will happen.” He tells them to believe that “education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you.”
Hernando embodies the American dream. The DREAM Act would give him a pathway to pursue public service, which is his goal: to become a school board member, mayor or — my particular hope for him — a superintendent of public schools. Might it be that Hernando could show us how to reform public education? I am for giving him the chance.
Father Stephen V. Sundborg is in his 14th year as president of Seattle University, one of 28 Jesuit universities in the United States.