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The Education Trap 

In California, many undocumented immigrants are offered cheap college tuition, only to find they can’t get jobs after they graduate.

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010
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Prerna Lal worked her way through CSU East Bay, vacuuming and cleaning toilets at office buildings 30 hours a week. Not your typical college gig, but the 25-year-old Fiji native can't legally hold a job in this country and needed one where people don't check papers too closely.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science, she dreamed of going on to law school, hoping to become an attorney and maybe someday a professor. But those jobs require a Social Security number, and no amount of studying could get her that.

So, like many graduates facing a bad job market, Lal decided to stall by going back to school. She blazed through a graduate degree in international relations at S.F. State University.

The plan was to buy time until her permanent-residency petition could be considered in another couple of years, allowing her to apply for a federal loan to help pay her law school tuition. Lal had come to the United States at age 14 with her father, who was enrolled at CSU and had a student visa. She never returned to Fiji; she stayed in the Bay Area — as an illegal immigrant.

Lal got some bad news shortly after graduating from S.F. State in 2007. She received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, informing her that because of a delay in processing applications, she had aged out of her current petition as a child of a permanent resident (her mother), and now fell into a less-prioritized category as the adult daughter of a permanent resident. She was pushed to the back of another potentially 10-year-long line. "It's bullcrap," she says.

Sick of waiting to become eligible for government loans, Lal applied for law school last year. She'd always dreamed of going to the top-tier program at the University of British Columbia, of which many family members are alumni. She was accepted, but last month the final insult dropped: The Canadian embassy rejected her student visa application. Since Lal was living illegally in the United States and no longer had ties to her home country, she was seen as a risk of overstaying a visa in Canada, too.

"I'm stateless, pretty much," Lal says. "I've been derailed over and over and over. I just got to pick myself up and move on again."

This fall, she'll be going to law school at George Washington University. She'll rack up even more time in the United States illegally. She'll get a degree she won't be able to use here, since illegal immigrants can't become members of the bar. Lal is set to wait at least another six years for her visa application to be processed. By then, she'll be 31. "You have to wait from 14 to 31 to get papers in this country — are you fucking kidding me?" she says.

Lal and other illegal immigrants with college educations still have reason for hope: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — the DREAM Act, for short. The pending bill would give a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and attend college or serve in the military. An estimated 36,000 high school graduates each year would qualify for help under the bill.

Lal has turned lobbying for the bill into her job, cofounding the DreamActivist.org national network, flying to Washington, D.C. to lobby congressional aides, blogging on Change.org about "8 Reasons to Pass the DREAM Act as a Standalone Immediately." Her peers have conducted hunger strikes and marched for the law, and President Barack Obama has touted it along with his calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Yet it appears there will be nothing immediate about this fight: Congress, in a midterm election year, has responded with crickets.


Jaime Torres walked into S.F. State's main bookstore on the first day of summer school and headed straight for the graph paper. He had already bought his genetics and cell biology textbooks on Amazon — $100 cheaper than the bookstore price, he calculated. The sandwich he had put in his North Face backpack that morning would save him $7 come lunchtime, and he saves rent money by living with his parents. When your dad works illegally as a waiter and you're an aspiring doctor, every dollar counts.

At the cashier's request, Torres flashed his student ID card, which bears a photo of the young man with a shock of spiky black hair and Mayan features that often get him mistaken for an Asian on campus. The card is his only identification, other than the Mexican ID and passport at home in his San Rafael apartment building, filled with Latino families for whom the manager sometimes doesn't bother to keep the hot water running. His passport says he's a native of Oxkutzcab, Yucatán. He can't pronounce the name of the town his teenage parents left behind almost 20 years ago, taking a bus across the border with their 1-year-old son. Soon, the young Torres was absorbing "one, two, three" from Sesame Street. Now he studies DNA.

Jaime Torres could be the DREAM Act's poster child, though that isn't his real name. It's hard to put your name on a cause when you're afraid of being deported. At San Rafael High School, he sat in honors and advanced placement classrooms, one of the few Latino faces among rows of whites and Asians. His classmates' parents were doctors and engineers. Torres thought becoming a doctor would deliver the luxuries that eluded his father working 14-hour days at a restaurant and his mother at a daycare.

Torres didn't dare tell his classmates what his parents did, or that he was illegal. Around Latino students, he hid his dreams, afraid of being called a sellout. In the end, he chose S.F. State for its affordable tuition, which he has covered with several private scholarships.

Torres is one of a growing army of students who are stuck after California lawmakers passed AB 540 in 2001. The bill allowed any student who had attended a California high school for three years and graduated to pay in-state tuition rates. With a yearly savings of roughly $5,000 for a full-time community college student to some $23,000 at UC Berkeley, college became feasible for an aspiring generation of illegal immigrants.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley

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