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Kids of Illegal Immigrants Live in Fear But Pursue American Dream


A teenage girl studying entrepreneurship at Washington State University would be on her way to realizing the American Dream, except she is not American.

Mercedes grew up poor in a small central Washington farm town, studied hard and despite having to work part-time, the Running Start student graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade-point average and an associate’s degree from Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.

Like other 18-year-olds starting college this fall, Mercedes is motivated by personal ambition. She wants to own a business so that she can provide jobs to other Latinos.

But because she was brought to the United States from Mexico by her parents when she was 2 and is here illegally, she has lived in fear since she was very young of being detected and deported to a native country she has never known.

“I always worried that immigration (officers) would come if I didn’t excel,” she said.

Last week, the U.S. Senate voted whether to end debate on a bill that would grant her and as many as 65,000 students a year like her, the U.S.-raised offspring of illegal immigrants, legal residency while she pursues her degree. Its bipartisan sponsors fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to bring the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act to a vote.

It is the DREAM Act to those supporters in Congress who say children should not be punished for the actions of their parents. It is the Bad Dream Act to opponents who say it rewards illegal behavior with amnesty.

Among the latter is William Gheen, president of North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee that claims to have played a critical role in persuading lawmakers to kill the measure this year.

“It is unfair to American students and unfair to American families,” Gheen said. “It would replace American students in limited college seats at taxpayer expense.”

Adding insult to injury, he said, “is that supporters are trying to use children and students as political pawns for a broader amnesty. Not everybody in America gets to go to college, and Americans have a generational tax-burden birthright to those seats.”

Locally, the Spokane County Republican Party tasked a working group to come up with an immigration reform proposal. The group recently presented its ideas including expansion of the agricultural visa program for farm workers to 5th District Rep. Cathy McMorris.

“We oppose any amnesty for people who have entered the country illegally,” said Gretchen McDevitt, a member of the working group. “If we granted amnesty to all of these people, it’s overwhelming to our country in terms of cost and how it would change our country.”

With the nation engaged in contentious debate over immigration, advocates of the DREAM act say it is unfair to keep these children in limbo while comprehensive reform is resolved.

“All they are guilty of is obeying their parents,” said Ricardo Sanchez, chairman of the board of directors of the Latino Educational Achievement Project, which is dedicated to improving the academic achievement of Latinos in Washington. “When we take the time to explain that to fair-minded people, most agree with us that of course we must allow them to get an education, if for no other reason than to repay the investment we have already made in them.”

Cristina Gaeta, who works for the U.S. Department of Education’s College Assistance Migrant Program at WSU, estimates there about 360,000 illegal high school graduates in the United States. It is unknown how many Washington high school students are here illegally because schools are not permitted to ask students about their residency status.

But over the past 20 years, non-Hispanic white student rolls have grown 8 percent while Latino rolls have grown 268 percent, Sanchez said.

“They have always been welcome in the fields,” Sanchez said. Now that they are graduating from high school, “what should we say to them, that’s all we have for them?'”

No public loans or scholarships

Besides granting conditional residency status to young persons who attend college or serve in the military, the DREAM Act would eliminate federal provisions that discourage states from offering illegal immigrants in-state tuition. Washington is one of 10 states that already do.

In 2003, then-Washington Gov. Gary Locke signed House Bill 1079 expanding the definition of a resident student to include any student who has the equivalent of a high school diploma from Washington; has attended at least three years of high school in the state; and is not a citizen of the United States but submits an affidavit to the institution stating an intent to file an application for permanent U.S. residency.

WSU had 36 such students file under the 1079 program this year, while EWU had 31 students.

The University of Idaho does not keep track of how many illegal immigrants it may have enrolled.

Though the Washington law makes college more affordable for “1079 students,” many obstacles remain in their way. They are ineligible for publicly funded loans or scholarships, internships or work study.

Mercedes and three other illegal immigrants who attend Eastern Washington University agreed to be interviewed for this report under the condition that their real names not be used. All four are the first in their families to attend college.

Mercedes: parents took second jobs

“My parents were so proud of me,” Mercedes said. “They didn’t care how much money it cost as long as I could be a role model for my two younger brothers and little sister.”

Both her father, who works at a full-time job on a Grant County orchard, and her mother, a seasonal orchard worker, took second jobs to send her to college. Her father also sold his pickup and property he owned in Mexico for her education.

Mercedes also worked two jobs, as a cherry checker at an orchard, and as a clerk in a Mexican grocery. She said her family has always paid taxes, has never been on welfare and has never received food stamps.

It was only after arriving at Washington State University that she learned she was eligible for private scholarships.

Ramón: We are bettering ourselves’

Ramón, a 19-year-old junior in sociology at EWU, would like to become a high school counselor so that he can help other Latino students achieve what he has.

The son of orchard workers, Ramón graduated from Zillah High school in 2005 with a 3.25 grade-point average. He had a perfect average at his school in Michoacan, Mexico, but had to work hard to overcome a language barrier when his parents brought him to the United States at age 14.

He also participated in cross country, track, drama and science club.

He was fortunate to have had a counselor and a teacher in high school who helped him obtain a scholarship from the Washington Apple Education Foundation, which is available from the tree fruit industry.

Last year Ramón received a full-ride from the College Success Foundation’s Leadership 1,000, which provides four-year college scholarships to 1,000 economically disadvantaged students. Passage of the DREAM Act would have allowed him to apply for the federally funded McNair Scholars Program, which helps underprivileged students go to graduate school.

He asks what opponents of the DREAM Act would do in his position.

“It’s not like we are getting a degree in crime, we are bettering ourselves,” Ramón said.

Carmen: without a country

Carmen, a 24-year-old EWU graduate student in social work, has no country to return to. She was born in Veracruz, Mexico, but only because her father landed there in the 1980s after fleeing civil war in his native El Salvador.

Her Salvadoran-born brother has obtained “temporary protected status” from the U.S. Department of Justice, but because she was not born in El Salvador, she is not eligible.

Her father, who is now a welder, brought her to Tacoma in 1997 to be reunited with family members. She graduated from Henry Foss High School in 2003 with a 3.4 GPA. With a College Success Foundation scholarship and a Washington State Achievers Scholarship through the Gates Foundation, she obtained her undergraduate degree in Spanish and social work at EWU in the spring.

Now Carmen has a graduate assistantship, which waives tuition, but she cannot receive a stipend because she has no Social Security number.

“My father is worried about me,” she said. “He was hoping for the DREAM Act.”

Patty: someone’s daughter’

Patty, 21, a junior in government at EWU, also was born in Michoacan. Her parents brought her and her four siblings to the United States when she was 7 years old. Her family lived in poverty in Mexico and her grandparents, who immigrated earlier, paid their way to Mattawa, Wash., where her father began picking asparagus.

Now her father is a full-time crew foreman and her mother works seasonally in the orchards.

When she started school, Patty said, other students had to translate for her, but she overcame that to graduate from Wahluke High School with a 3.4 GPA in 2005. She obtained a Paul Lauzier Scholarship, which is available to Grant County students. She also is working her way through school using a fake Social Security number.

“Being undocumented is one of the biggest problems in my life,” Patty said. “Now I don’t know where I will end up.”

She wants to go to Gonzaga Law School, so she can one day help other Latinos with immigration problems, but she worries because the law school will not permit first-year students to work. If she graduates, she will have to be a legal resident to take the Washington State Bar Exam.

“People should think about us as human beings and stop making us out as criminals,” Patty said. “I am someone’s daughter. We are brothers and sisters. We are like anyone else.”

Information from: The Spokesman-Review,

–Associated Press


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