PHOENIX – Angelica Hernandez excelled in high school and did just as well in college, graduating earlier this month as the distinguished graduating senior in mechanical engineering at Arizona State University.
But Hernandez won’t have much of a chance to excel as an engineer, despite a recovery in the jobs market for the sought-after professionals.
That’s because Hernandez is an undocumented immigrant and can’t legally work. The 21-year-old Mexican native crossed the Arizona desert with her mother and sister when she was just 9. Her father was already in Phoenix, and her mother wanted her girls to be with him.
Hernandez started school here as a fourth-grader at Mitchell Elementary School in Phoenix, and by the time she transferred to Pueblo Del Sol Middle School as a sixth-grader she no longer needed to take English as a Second Language courses. Then at Carl Hayden High School, she became fully immersed as an American, participating in cross country, track and soccer, serving as the National Honors Society president and joining the junior ROTC and the robotics team.
All the while she knew her immigration status was an issue. Named 2007 Outstanding Young Woman of the Year for District 7 in Phoenix, she attended a luncheon at which Mayor Phil Gordon presided.
“It was kind of ironic in a sense,” Hernandez said. “Because, you know, I was up there with the mayor and other students from other high schools and I was undocumented, but I was still up there with everyone else.”
The robotics team focused her on engineering, and, with a presidential scholarship to ASU, she prepared to start college.
Then Arizona’s push to crack down on illegal immigrants hit her hard. Proposition 300, approved by 71 percent of the state’s voters in November 2006, barred undocumented students from receiving any state financial aid and forced them to pay out-of-state tuition rates that were triple in-state rates. And she lost her scholarship. Federal aid already was barred to illegal immigrants.
“So that scholarship got taken away and that’s when everything started falling apart in a sense, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to pay for everything,” Hernandez said. “I was counting on that scholarship.”
She managed to get private funding for her tuition.
“So I was able to finish my first year, and every year after that it was kind of uncertain as far as money but I was able to get private funding in order to pay,” she said.
Immigrants like Hernandez who were brought here as children have virtually no chance of earning legal status under current federal immigration laws. Because she’s been here for more than a year, a 1996 immigration law requires her to return to Mexico for a decade before she would be eligible for a visa, and even then there is no assurance she would be awarded one.
“So we’re kind of just stuck here, in limbo, not being able to work, not being able to apply for anything, because there’s currently no way for us to become legalized,” she said.
There are tens of thousands of high school and college students who fall into the same category every year, said Adey Fisseha, a policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for the rights of immigrants. “I think at a time when we’re really looking forward and trying to think about investments in education and in our future workforce, this is certainly a population of homegrown talent that we’re kind of throwing by the wayside.”
The only hope for young immigrants like Hernandez who were brought here as children is the so-called DREAM Act, which would give a path to legal status for law-abiding young people who either attend college or join the military. As a degree-holder, Hernandez would immediately meet the qualifications.
Considered a scaled-down effort because comprehensive immigrant reform is widely considered politically impossible, the law was introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month. Similar legislation has failed in Congress several times before, most recently in December.
The plight of immigrants like Hernandez has strong support among Democrats and even from some tough-on-illegal immigration Republican Arizona lawmakers.
“If you’re talking about people brought here as children by their parents who don’t have serious criminal records, I don’t have a problem because I think it would be cruel to eject them from the country to a ‘homeland’ that they know little of and might not even speak the language,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who has pushed for tough state laws targeting illegal immigrants. “But, I would never let their parents stay, because those are the people who created the problem in the first place.”
Kavanagh is concerned that the proposed law could end up much broader than originally advertised, though, and he said securing the border must happen first.
For Hernandez, who has now moved back in with her mother, there’s little hope of a quick change. Her older sister is in the same position, graduating from ASU this spring with a degree in sociology and psychology.
“The only choice right would be to go on to grad school,” she said. “For us ‘Dreamers,’ that’s how we like to call each other, we know that the only solution that we have it to continue our education.”