At 23, Mariana should be carefree. She is finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has been accepted to a master’s program at Harvard University’s education school.
But life is not so simple for Mariana, who insisted that only her first name be published because she is in the United States illegally and worries she could be deported to her home country of Guatemala.
“I’m even afraid of eating an apple in the library because I’m afraid of getting caught,” she says.
Mariana also worries about how she will pay her tuition and what kind of work she will get after she completes school. “What happens next? Without a work permit, how do you exercise your degree?” she asks.
Mariana is among an estimated 50,000 undocumented students in U.S. colleges today. These students would be among the people who would benefit from a part of an immigration bill that the U.S. Senate plans to resume work on this week.
Children born in the United States to undocumented parents are granted citizenship automatically. A section of the new legislation deals with illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. They would gain temporary legal status when they graduate from high school as long as they agree to enroll in college or enlist in the military.
Afterwards, they would be put on a three-year path toward getting permanent resident status and green cards. While waiting for that, the students would be eligible for federal student loans and could work legally, options not available to them now.
The overall bill would help approximately 12 million illegal immigrants. For most, it would take a minimum of eight years to get a green card, and most adult illeg
l immigrants would be forced to pay a fine.
In all, about 1 million people now in the country illegally could potentially benefit from the provision aimed at children. Those include students currently in elementary and secondary schools. Current law allows children in the U.S. illegally to get a free K-12 education. They can also go to most colleges if they can pay their way.
The immigrants who would benefit from the provision must have been age 15 or younger when they were brought to the United States, and they must have arrived before January of this year. People older than 30 when the law is enacted would not benefit.
While the bill is the subject of widespread debate, the provision addressing students is popular. Advocates say they will try to add it to other bills moving through Congress if the immigration legislation does not pass.
“I’m going to look for every chance I can find to make this the law,” says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a chief supporter of the plan.
“What we’re saying is these kids deserve a chance,” he says. “They didn’t decide to come to America. Their parents did.”
One of the most vocal student advocates is Marie Gonzalez, a 21-year-old junior at Westminster College in Missouri. She has made numerous trips to Washington to tell her story.
Her parents were deported to Costa Rica two years ago. Gonzalez, whose deportation was deferred, says she could be sent back next year.
She says saying goodbye to her parents was awful. “There’s no words to describe it. It’s been absolutely terrible. I’m an only child. They’re my best friends,” she says.
But Gonzalez says she cannot contemplate departing the United States for Costa Rica, a country she left when she was 5. “I’ve thought about visiting, but not going back to live there,” she says. “That would be like a crashing of my dreams.”
Student advocates say many of their peers drop out of high school because illegal immigrants typically only get jobs for low-skilled workers.
But the provision is motivating some students to stick with their studies, says Tam Tran, 24, who recently graduated from UCLA.
“The idea that it might pass someday, that they might be able to use their college degree to get a job, that drives people,” says Tran, who was born in Germany to Vietnamese refugees.
Neither Germany nor Vietnam recognizes her as a citizen, so she considers herself stateless in some ways and a typical American in others, she says.
Tran says she tries not to dwell on her status and that of many of her friends.
“It’s like a form of rejection,” she says. “We can’t fully participate in what we have worked hard to become a part of.”
— Associated Press
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