Undocumented Students: A Teacher's Perspective

Hector* (some names have been changed, but the stories are true) came here from El Salvador when he was six years old. About his journey to the U.S., Hector said, "I kept my face down in the mud and endured the stings from trillions of flying and crawling insects. It took us less than five seconds to fill the car assigned to pick us up. My sister was crushed into a human ball and stuffed under the passenger seat of the tiny two-door vehicle." In the U.S., Hector worked extremely hard in school. He took five Advanced Placement classes and won many awards. He was accepted to several prestigious colleges but was unable to attend any of them because he is undocumented. Hector was disillusioned and saddened when we talked about his future. He told me, "On one particular day near the end of my senior year, I pulled down all of my awards from my bedroom walls and ripped up every acceptance letter I received." Hector says his graduation felt more like a funeral than a celebration. He said, "Even though some people refuse to see me as an American because I do not possess a specific piece of paper or a card, I am an American, and I am proud to be an American. No matter what the future holds for me in this country, it is most certainly better than in my native country."

Christian came to the U.S. from Colombia when he was only seven years old. His parents were destitute in Colombia; his mother tells him that the family would have surely starved if they did not come to the U.S. "It was a complete act of desperation," he told me. Christian's family felt that even being undocumented in the U.S. would have been better than trying to live in Colombia. Christian was forced to drop out his sophomore year of high school because he worked two jobs at two different restaurants in Boston in order to try to help his family. He sees his future as pointless. He knew a high school diploma would not make a difference, and he knew he wouldn't be able to go to college.

Tina came here from Brazil when she was six. She quickly made friends with a group of girls who also worked extremely hard, and together the five girls took honors classes and played on our school's soccer team. The girls did everything together and even went to the prom as each other's dates. Senior year, when Tina's friends began to be accepted into top-rated colleges with large scholarships, Tina realized she could do nothing after high school, and she felt hopeless. "Where will I go? What's going to happen to me?" she cried.

There are few topics more polarizing than that of undocumented immigrants. By definition, undocumented immigrants are those that came to the U.S. without proper documentation. During the 21 years that I have been teaching high school, the laws regarding undocumented immigrants have changed significantly. Since several of my students are undocumented, helping these students succeed is extremely important to me. As an educator with a teaching philosophy that is grounded in the belief that all students can achieve - and achieve at the highest level - I am faced with a great barrier when I find that, for some of my students, their education stops at the end of high school.

In the past, undocumented students who were about to graduate were left with no pathways - academic or otherwise - to continue to study or work in the U.S. after high school. They were stuck in a legal paradox: laws said they had a right to education in the primary and secondary grades but not to higher education. Undocumented students cannot obtain a driver's license, or join the military, and without a social security card, finding work is nearly impossible. Most of my undocumented students work in the food service industry as cooks and dishwashers, or they work for cleaning companies and landscaping businesses.

In Massachusetts, a 2012 policy change by Governor Deval Patrick allowed thousands of undocumented immigrants living in my state to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges. This policy change builds on President Obama's 2012 administration policy, which states that the government will not seek to deport most young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children. There are currently twenty states and university systems in which undocumented students can receive in-state tuition rates (although some have restrictions).

While some conservatives balked at this decision, the fact is that allowing undocumented students to attend state colleges at the in-state tuition rates could generate much needed revenue for these institutions. A Boston Globe article noted that a 2011 Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report estimated that permitting the approximately 910 undocumented students who graduate from Massachusetts high schools each year to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates could generate new revenues upwards of $7 million dollars (Boston Globe).

Receiving financial aid, however, presents a different issue. Many taxpayers pull back at subsidizing tuition for people they claim "broke the rules," arguing that that money should be spent on American students. Further, there is fear that states offering financial aid for undocumented students will become magnets for non-Americans.

The choices for undocumented students are very limited. The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act would allow undocumented students to take part in a six-year process that would lead to permanent legal status if they were brought to the U.S. when they were 15 years old or younger, if they have graduated from a U.S. high school, and if they have good moral character. For those concerned that this would open the floodgates for immigrants to begin streaming into the country, the Act also states that the students must have lived in the U.S. for at least five (5) years prior to the enactment of the bill. During the six-year process, students would be required to graduate from a community college, complete at least two years of a four-year degree program, or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. If students were able to complete these requirements in that six-year period, they would qualify for in-state tuition in all states. To me, the Dream Act seems like a wonderful solution to a difficult problem, but it has yet to pass.

The fact that I come in contact with undocumented students each day makes my position different than, say, the person applauding Donald Trump's recent ignorant and uninformed statements about undocumented immigrants. When I examine the issue of whether undocumented immigrants should have access to jobs and higher education, I try to think about what is best for society. The economic advantages of higher education for both workers and the economy are clear. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers without a high school diploma in 2014 earned an average of only $668 a week and had an unemployment rate of 6%. Contrast that with workers who had a bachelor's degree, who earned an average of $1,001 per week, and had an unemployment rate of 3.5% (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014). Studies of undocumented immigrants who have achieved legal status through the Immigration and Reform Contract Act (IRCA), which was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986, reveal that legal status brings economic, fiscal, and labor-market benefits to individual immigrants, their families, and to U.S. society in general. Five years after that Act passed, the U.S. Department of Labor found that the wages of those immigrants who received legal status under the IRCA had increased roughly 15% (Smith). If given a chance, students who are now undocumented would be able to improve their education, find better paying jobs, and pay more taxes.

It is unclear what will happen to the more than eleven million undocumented immigrants in this country, but one thing for certain is that it is foolish and impractical to think that they all should be deported. It is logistically and economically impossible, as the costs would be astronomical. There has to be a better solution.

My views on undocumented immigrants have certainly evolved since I now have names, faces, and personalities to go along with statistics. For many years, at the end of their senior year, I'd have ten to twenty students in my classroom who were depressed, demoralized, and sometimes even suicidal. They felt that their futures were cut off - despite the fact that they had done everything right by getting good grades and being active and involved school citizens. I believe a country's best resources are its human resources, and we need to tap into the power that these hardworking students can bring to our country when they are educated. We should not punish them for a decision that was made for them when they were children.

Works Cited
"Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 05 Aug. 2015.

Smith, S., Kramer, R.G. & Singer, A "Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act: Characteristics and Labor Market Behavior of the Legalized Population Five Years Following Legislation." Washington, D.C. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor, May 1996

"Students Push State to Extend Tuition Help to Undocumented Immigrants - The Boston Globe." BostonGlobe.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2015.

"Welcome to the DREAM Act Portal." Welcome to the DREAM Act Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2015.