Undocumented students have a degree of anxiety

Beth Chavez addresses a group of UCLA students — documented and undocumented. A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitled illegal immigrants to public education, but students’ access to higher education has not been guaranteed.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He took 15 AP classes in high school, and kicks himself for passing up two others. Now, he is graduating from UCLA, with a double major in English and Chicano Studies and a B-plus grade point average.

But for all his success, Miguel does not share the full-bodied exuberance of the graduating seniors who marched last month five abreast into Pauley Pavilion, belting out the ‘60s hit “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” A native of Puebla, Mexico, he is an illegal immigrant.

Around the UCLA campus, ubiquitous kiosk signs encourage students to “Jump Into Great Jobs!” But for Miguel, any employment will be difficult. Like many undocumented students, he may elect to prolong his studies to stave off an uncertain future.


“When you’re in school you have a place in society, you’re a university student,” Miguel, 23, said during an interview at a campus coffee spot on graduation day. “When you graduate, you’re just an immigrant again.”

Miguel and other students, who asked that their full names be withheld for fear that they or their families could face federal action, are caught between contradictory U.S. immigration policies.

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitled illegal immigrants to public education from kindergarten through high school; 50,000 to 70,000 graduate from U.S. high schools each year (California’s share, by some estimates, is 40%), according to experts. But the students’ access to higher education has not been guaranteed by the courts and Congress.

Over the last seven years, California and nine other states have encouraged undocumented college students to pursue higher education by offering many who graduated from California high schools in-state tuition. California public universities do not ask about legal status on applications. Some private universities, including Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara, have scholarships tailored for illegal immigrants. They are not entitled to most financial aid or loans at public colleges.

Their numbers at the university level remain low. The UC system had an estimated 271 to 433 undocumented students, out of total enrollment of 214,000, in 2006-2007, the latest figure available, a spokesman said.

But attending college, and even doing splendidly, does nothing to alter these students’ illegal status. A proposed federal law called the Dream Act would have offered a pathway to citizenship for many college students and members of the military. But supporters last year were unable to secure enough votes to prevent a filibuster of the bill.


Opponents said the students are looting limited educational resources that should go to citizens and legal residents.

“To these students, I say I hope you return to your home country right away,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), “and I hope you repay what you have spent of other people’s money. It’s a horrible crime.”

Students have come far

Advocates argue that it’s inhumane and counterproductive to ostracize students who have come so far with so little.

“These students have been here since they were small children, and we’ve done everything to encourage them to stay in school and help them prepare for college,” said UCLA Asst. Vice Provost Alfred Herrera of the Center for Community College Partnerships. “The sad reality is most of these students are the best and the brightest.”

And if history is any guide, they aren’t leaving. Some, instead, remain in school.

Living off academic stipends, scholarships and a steady diet of ramen, these students play out an endless “Groundhog Day” script of school applications, research projects and degrees.

They mostly hang around colleges, assistantships, getting paid to do surveys. It’s not employment, it’s catch-as-catch can,” said Michael Olivas, an expert on immigrants in higher education who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center.


“I think continuing your studies is the best option for us now,” said Tam Tran, 24, who heads to Brown University this fall for a five-year doctoral program in American Civilizations.

Born in Germany to Vietnamese parents, Tran has a complex immigration history: a U.S. immigration board in 2001 found that her family faced political persecution in Vietnam for past anti-Communist activities, but ordered them deported to Germany.

Germany, however, would not take them. The nation only recognized as citizens children born on its soil to German parents.

She said she would have liked to stay at UCLA, maybe go to film school. But the public university can’t give her aid, while both Brown and Yale universities offered generous packages.

Robert Lee, professor in the Department of American Civilization at Brown, said the university is not bothered that Tran might be unable to work in the U.S. in her academic field. “Even as students, they’re producing important academic product,” Lee said. “We don’t train all students to become university professors; they might end up working for an NGO [non-governmental organization], or a film producer . . . or in government service, maybe not in the U.S.”

‘Miley Cyrus Americans’


Stephanie, 22, drops out roughly every other quarter towork at low-paying jobs like making cardboard boxes.

“The reason I don’t feel bad about it taking me so long to get through is that as long as I’m a UCLA student, I can say, ‘We’re on our way, we’re up-and-comers,” said Stephanie, over dinner recently at a Japanese restaurant.

Stephanie’s parents brought her here at age 4, after the disco craze dissolved in the Philippines, leaving her father, a lighting installer, without a job, she said. Her parents only told her she was undocumented when she tried to transfer to UCLA, she added.

“What people don’t get is we’re Miley Cyrus Americans,” said Stephanie, an aspiring writer and copy editor. “English is the only language I speak.”

A story about Stephanie in the Daily Bruin newspaper earlier this year drew scant sympathy. Stephanie “has a choice to make: become a legal resident or continue to live a life of deferring the task her parents should have taken care of years before,” a letter to the editor said.

Stephanie and Miguel said they would risk deportation if they sought legal status.

Even the most prestigious academic posting has not shielded students from immigration authorities. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a classics scholar, Princeton salutatorian and illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was able to pursue a masters at Oxford University without facing possible exclusion upon his return only through an intense legal and publicity campaign, his lawyer, Stephen Yale-Loehr said. Yale-Loehr is an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School.


As it is, Padilla was able to obtain only a temporary waiver and visa so he could travel to the U.S. during summer and vacations to work on a research project for Princeton.

“Naturally the uncertainty over my status has been a source of anxiety,” Padilla said in an e-mail from Oxford. “But I’ve tried to keep that anxiety quite separate from my academic and extracurricular pursuits. I feel enormously privileged to have studied first at Princeton and now at Oxford.”

This same optimism pervaded speeches at a small graduation ceremony arranged by the UCLA chapter of IDEAS, a campus support organization for students, documented and undocumented, who receive the in-state tuition exemption.

About 10 students talked about life as an “Underground Undergrad” (the title of a book undocumented UCLA students released this spring): the two- to three-hour commutes, crashing on couches, eating only if somebody could sneak them into the dining hall. Several said they were hopeful the Dream Act will be reintroduced soon, and this time pass, opening the door to legalization.

But mainly, they expressed gratitude for their education.

“I choose not to place the burden [of my situation] on everyone,” said Matias Ramos, another graduating senior, whose grandmother flew in from Argentina for the event. “I have had the blessing of encountering a lot of people who’ve helped me.”

“A lot of stereotypes that linger on, we break all of them,” said Miguel. “All of us are very assimilated and we’re very proud of it. . . . We’re driven by huge optimism.”


But as she cleared cut fruit from the refreshment table, Tran grew wistful.

“We’re always in a position where we’re oppressed and privileged at the same time,” she said. “I wonder if getting a PhD in American studies is going to prove I’m an American?”