Undocumented students get help to pay for college

By Author's name withheld*
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* We’re running this story anonymously to protect the identity of the writer, who is an undocumented immigrant.

Photo by Sarah Barnes, 14, New Village Charter HS

I’ve always worked hard in school because I want to go to college and be successful. But because I’m not a citizen, my hard work could be for nothing. My parents don’t have the money to pay for college and I can’t get federal financial aid because I don’t have a Social Security number. In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act, which will allow undocumented students like me to get financial help to attend public colleges in California. This made me feel hopeful for my future. However, the state Dream Act doesn’t provide a path to citizenship. Even if I graduate from college, would I have to work in a low-wage job? Will my status prevent me from obtaining my dream job as a journalist?

I think it’s really unfair that I can’t get the same opportunities as a citizen. I grew up here like any other student. Some people say that undocumented immigrants are criminals because they came here illegally. But I don’t consider myself a criminal because it wasn’t my choice to come here. My parents brought me here because they believed they could provide a better education and a better life for me and my sister. 

When I was 2 my parents left my older sister and me with my grandma and came to the United States. They were trying to give us a better life than what they had in Mexico. We were living in a small one-room house and my sister and I were sharing a bed with our parents. Their plan was to live in the United States for a few years and then return to Mexico once they made enough to buy a house in Mexico, pay for our education and open a business. But they stayed because they weren’t able to make enough money. We were brought to the United States right before I turned 3 and my sister was 5 because my mother missed us and she couldn’t bear being apart from us. Three years later my little sister was born here and a few years after that my brother was born.

Once I was here for a few years I forgot about Mexico and the United States became my home. I liked McDonalds for the toys in the Happy Meals. One of my favorite things to do was watch cartoons, like Ren & Stimpy, Looney Toons and Animaniacs. I didn’t know English but the TV shows were helping me learn it. 

When we were young my mother would tell us to do well in school so we wouldn’t end up like her and my father. I don’t think they understood that attending college was hard if you’re undocumented. They worked as street vendors. They’d wake up at 3 a.m. to prepare the champurrado, a drink like hot chocolate. They’d leave the house at 6 a.m., carrying the champurrado and heavy pots full of tamales. They’d get home at 10 a.m., rest and then prepare for the next day. They always seemed busy buying ingredients and making the tamales. But they still dedicated time to my sister and me. They’d wake us up and get us ready for school. My mom would take us to school with her cart full of tamales.

My mom pushed us to work hard

After I got home from school I would finish my homework and go outside to play with my friends. When my mother saw me playing she’d tell me to come inside and read a book or do extra math problems.She would tell us that nobody’s born smart and we need to study and that’s how you become successful. 

I wasn’t aware that I was illegal until fifth grade. We took a trip to Mexico because my aunt was getting married. Coming back, my younger sister got on the plane with our relatives who were born in the United States. My parents had to cross the border illegally and me and my older sister went through the car line with someone my parents knew. They told us it was because we didn’t have the same papers my sister had. We had to pretend we were sleeping. When the Border Patrol agents stopped us and looked inside the car, I felt my heart beating fast, hoping that they wouldn’t ask us questions. I knew that if we got caught we would be sent back to Mexico and we wouldn’t be with our parents. When we got away from San Diego I felt relieved. 

Even though that was a scary experience, I never thought that being undocumented would affect me. I just thought it meant that I couldn’t travel to other countries and go back to the United States. I didn’t understand that not having papers meant you aren’t a legal U.S. citizen. I always thought I was a citizen because I was living here.

I started realizing in middle school that being illegal meant you had to be careful or else you’ll get deported. The news would talk about ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids at workplaces and how the undocumented workers were deported back to their home countries. 

Also in middle school my mom started talking to us about college. She always said that she would be the happiest mother in the world if she could see her children at a university like UCLA or Harvard, which were the schools she’d heard about. I really wanted to go to college because I knew it was important. My mother would say to my older sister and me, “Hopefully Congress will pass the DREAM Act someday and you’ll be a citizen.” I didn’t understand what the DREAM Act was or that being a citizen helped you pay for college.


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How could my family afford college without financial aid?

When my sister started looking at colleges when I was in 10th grade, I’d overhear her and my parents arguing. They saw that Congress wasn’t going to pass the DREAM Act soon so they were trying to persuade her to go to Mexico for college since they didn’t have the money to pay for college in the United States. My parents said, “You won’t be able to get a loan from the government.” My sister argued that she’d be able to get private scholarships. I realized that she couldn’t get financial aid because she was illegal. It confused me since my parents had always told us to work hard and we’d be able to have a better life in the United States, but now they were telling my sister to go to Mexico to pursue a better life. 

My sister wanted to be an environmental scientist, which is why she chose Northland College, a small private school in Wisconsin that focuses on environmental science. They offered her $14,000 in scholarships to help her pay the tuition and housing costs, which were about $32,000 a year. They also offered her a job to work at the college but she didn’t get it. My parents assumed it was because she lacked a Social Security number. It seemed unfair because the school had offered her the job and she was relying on it to help her pay for college. It meant my parents had to pay more but they didn’t have that kind of money. 

My parents had to pay $1,000 every month but it was difficult and they had to borrow money from friends and my uncle. At the end of my sister’s first year of school, they owed $7,000 but they didn’t know where to get the money. My sister had to return home without getting her report card since my parents didn’t pay the bill. 

My parents gave her a decision to make—to pay for her college herself or go to Mexico. She knew that she couldn’t come up with the money because without a Social Security number, she couldn’t  get a job. So she went to Mexico to live with our relatives and study there. 

I was sad that my sister had left but I wasn’t worrying about what I would do about college because it still seemed far away. 

But in 11th grade, people started talking about their dream colleges. I felt it was unfair that I wouldn’t be able to go to college here. My parents pay taxes when they buy food and clothes. I’ve been here my whole life, so why can’t I continue my education in this country? If I go to Mexico I’d feel sad not being close to my family. 

When the DREAM Act was introduced in Congress again my mom talked to me about it. She’d watch the news and saw that there was no support for it in Congress. She’d say, “You see what’s happening? This is why you should go to Mexico.” I wanted to stay in the U.S. but I wouldn’t say anything because she seemed right.

I wanted to find out more about the DREAM Act so I Googled it. I learned that it’s a proposed bill in Congress that would allow undocumented students who have been in the United States for at least five years, who graduated from high school or got a GED (the high school equivelancy exam) and don’t have a criminal record, to become legal U.S. residents. They could apply for federal financial aid and work legally. After completing two years of college or military service they could apply for citizenship. 

We won’t be a burden if we’re given a chance to succeed

Even though I knew that most of the people in Congress didn’t support the DREAM Act, it was still disappointing that it didn’t get passed. I don’t think that it will cost the country money. It’ll be a boost to our economy because undocumented students will be able to work. They’ll be able to pay taxes and will not be a burden on the government because they can provide for themselves. I understand the people who say that the DREAM Act is helping someone who has broken the law but I don’t agree because I didn’t have a choice to come here. 

I felt like my only option was to go to college in Mexico, until this summer when I attended a science research program at USC. A speaker from a low-income family said he got a full ride from Harvard. I thought that only the government gave you money for college. I realized I could receive private aid from a college and not depend on the government. Later, one of my mentors said I could go to a community college, which wouldn’t cost as much, while I waited for the DREAM Act to pass. I decided I would stay in the United States.

But when I told my mother, she brought up the same arguments as always. She said I won’t be able to get a job when I graduate. She told me she’d be heartbroken if she saw me working illegally like my dad. I felt discouraged and scared that I wouldn’t have any other options than to go to Mexico. 

When senior year began, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to stay here but I felt that going to college in the United States was out of reach. How would I pay for college? What would I do after college? But if I go to Mexico, when will I see my family again? Will I be able to return to the United States and work here? In Mexico I hear it’s really dangerous to be a journalist. 

Then one Sunday in October I read that Gov. Brown signed the California Dream Act (which is different from the federal DREAM Act). The state Dream Act allows undocumented students to get financial aid from California public colleges. The news was exciting. I felt like the struggles of undocumented students were finally being heard. 

Now that the California Dream Act has passed, I’ve decided I’m going to stay here. I told my parents and they told me about a scholarship they had heard about. I felt like they were supporting my decision to stay in the United States for college. I’ve been researching schools to see which ones offer journalism. And I’m hoping that Congress will pass the federal DREAM Act while I’m in college. If they do, undocumented students won’t have to worry as much about how to pay for college and what they’re going to do once they graduate. They’ll be much more motivated to go to college, knowing that the American dream exists for them. 

If you liked this story, check out:

My American dream. As an undocumented immigrant, I thought college was out of reach—but I found a way. (November – December 2009)