When Andrea’s mom was apprehended by immigration agents in southern California, the family unraveled. Her older brother fell in with a bad crowd. Andrea's father pulled her out of middle school so she would take on household duties and care for her younger sister who, unlike Andrea, was born in the U.S. and is a citizen.
After every valley, a peak. Andrea’s father started a new relationship. Her brother began a dramatic turnaround, excelling in his studies. Andrea was allowed to enroll in high school. She dreamed of becoming a lawyer to protect people like her mother. But just as her future was coming into focus, things got muddier.
After dropping out for several years, she was held back a grade. Andrea was rudderless at school and unsupported at home. She didn’t have papers and pencils, sometimes she couldn’t do her homework. Normally sweet and courteous, she couldn’t process her mother’s deportation and her responsibilities at home and she began arguing with her teachers. She got a job, hoping to save for school supplies and college. Within months, she was fired because she didn’t have a social security number. She wanted to be a typical American kid, but she was just starting to understand that she wasn’t.
“It isn’t my fault that I am undocumented,” she said, acknowledging the difficulties ahead of her. High school is taking her longer than four years and, if all goes well, she will graduate by December. “Not everything is going to be easy. I do have plans: graduating high school, going to college, doing well and not losing hope, overall.”
Andrea is one of 2 million undocumented children under 18 years of age living in the United States. They are entitled to a public school education through high school under federal law. In the eyes of the educational system, these students are indistinguishable from their legal resident and citizen counterparts. Schools are not allowed to ask about citizenship status and all students plan their futures and study for them side by side.
But when the children near 16, the shelter of bureaucracy crumbles.
This is why Andrea’s seemingly simple plans are, in fact, difficult. No matter how talented an undocumented student, no matter how driven, the hurdles they need to overcome to get to college - and pay for it - are steep. Many come from low-income families and the financial support policy for these students is a mess because it varies from state to state. A few states offer in-state tuition, but most don’t. Some states bar undocumented students from applying to colleges outright. They can’t access federally funded financial aid, scholarships and work-study programs and most states do not offer them subsidized loans.
Keeping up with the changing regulatory landscape isn’t a task that every high school counselor is up to. In some cases, counselors are poorly trained or misinformed so students like Andrea find their situation even more precarious.
“For a vast majority of undocumented students, getting information from colleges or from schools is very difficult,” said Professor Fanny Lauby from William Patterson University who studied the issue. “Very often counselors give the wrong information.”
“I have plans, I have wishes, I have hopes and I trust in myself,” Andrea said. “I don’t think I have the right tools.”
Those tools include teachers and counselors sensitive to the struggles that these kids are conditioned to keep hidden. When her mother was deported, Andrea learned the hard way that you can’t open up to everyone.
“My legal status will always hold me back, no matter what,” she said.
To move herself forward, Andrea decided to get a job two years into high school. With her paychecks, she could buy school supplies and begin saving for college. She began working for a telemarketing firm. She was punctual, cheerful and worked long hours, even though she was unpaid for her two-week trial period. They offered her the job. All she needed was a social security number. Andrea didn’t have one.
A piece of federal legislation called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) makes it possible for undocumented residents who have lived here since 2007 and before they turned 16 to work and to get a driver’s license. Besides the time constraints, an applicant must have lived here continuously and be enrolled in high school or have graduated from it. Andrea qualifies, but since she was pulled from school for a few years, there is no documentation to prove that she remained in the U.S. then.
“My boss wanted to help me, but he said I would need my paperwork situated,” she said.
Lucero Barraza graduated from a Tucson high school and did get DACA benefits. Her high school diploma and community college coursework led her to get higher paying jobs than are available to her parents. Currently, she teaches English in a reservation in Arizona, her home state. She is nearly through with community college, where she is paying in-state tuition but cannot get loans or scholarships funded federally or through the state.
While DACA makes her more employable, it doesn't make paying for college easy. It takes her a year and a half to earn enough to cover a year’s worth of education. She hopes her state will allow undocumented students to get state scholarships or loans but she can’t wait for legislative aid. Barraza, who works with Scholarships A-Z, a resource that helps undocumented students find funding for school, continues to work and save.
“Sometimes I think, “what if I take one class a semester?’ but I’m scared to think of what to do after [community college].”
What would have helped a student like Barraza is a good college counselor who could lead her to private schools and private scholarships.
“When you told a counselor at my school that you were undocumented, they would say, ‘Oh have you thought about going back to Mexico’?” Barraza recalled. “I know my counselors had the right intentions but they didn’t know how to guide me. What do you say to student who wants to go to school but can’t afford it?”
Like Barraza, Andrea suffered from a lack of guidance. While she was thriving academically in her new school, neither her traditional high school nor her alternative one presented her with a counselor. No one explained to her what she would need to do to get to college, let alone what steps she has to take to get the state aid that California offers undocumented students.
Barraza’s experiences in Arizona are mirrored in a survey of 60 New York and New Jersey students. Professor Lauby from William Patterson University found that high school counselors don’t always provide accurate college information -- both in politically progressive areas and conservative ones. Undocumented students reported relying on other undocumented students, usually through online forums.
She recalled the case of a student from New York City -- with a robust and diverse undocumented population – who was told he couldn’t even apply for college, even though the state grants in-state tuition for undocumented students.
“This is a case where the state legislature adopts a law but doesn’t put in funding for training college advisors,” she said. “It is a possible lack of resources, but the results can be dramatic.”
Some areas like Phoenix, Arizona, and Chicago provide a good example of what can be done to assist undocumented students in their journey.
In a northwestern suburb of Chicago, Gabriela Medina sees about 250 kids a year. Her district has long-term outreach programs for Latinos that start in middle school and a robust staff of about seven to keep them going. Pulling from her own undocumented father’s experience and those of her students, she and her team created workshops about how to discuss the status issue at home, including how to pay for college and asking your parents if you have a social security number.
Illinois offers in-state tuition, but no state financial aid. Knowing this, Medina is eager to get her students on the right track early.
“There aren’t too many that said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to give up,’” she said of students who learn their status as they are applying to school. “Because of great support we have with community colleges and universities, there is a lot we can do with dual college credit,” which makes it possible for students to enroll in college courses for free and get credits which will save them money in the long run.
Things get more complicated in cities where the Latino community is relatively new, such as Durham, North Carolina, where Latinos began arriving after 2000. Durham is working to meet even basic needs such as hiring more staff that speaks Spanish, explained Matt Sears, a member of Durham Public School’s Board of Education. So counseling, while on the radar, may not be the district’s first priority right now.
But it is Laura Salazar’s.
Salazar, a senior from Durham, is the stereotypical DREAMer-- an undocumented and stellar student who took on leadership roles. As such, she captured the attention of middle school teachers and counselors who passed her name to a Questbridge, a nonprofit advocacy organization that helps high achieving, low-income students get to college.
Salazar and a number of other students got together with community group DurhamCAN to ask the district to hire more counselors - especially bilingual ones - that can also help undocumented students. Their request came as the district faces a $40 million shortfall which will prevent them from adding staff, but Sears said that the district is headed toward providing greater support for Latinos.
“Our teachers aren’t clear about what their responsibilities are for support,” Sears explained, adding that the district is helping staff navigate how to ask questions about immigration status.
Across the country, undocumented students like Salazar are pushing their districts to step it up. Until hers can, she started a club for Latinos to help them learn about financial opportunities and internships that can help undocumented students.
“How are those kids going to find out if school isn’t telling them what’s out there? Who’s going to help them?” she asked. “I think through [the club] teachers and counselors and other administrators are seeing that actually a lot of students are interested in succeeding and doing something more than work outside of high school.”
(This story was written in conjunction with a fellowship on Immigration and Education from the Institute for Justice and Journalism.)
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.