Viewpoint: Why Higher Education Must Be Part of Immigration Reform

Only 10 percent of undocumented students who graduate high school go to college. This is an enormous waste of talent and opportunity

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Student Milca Calymayor (right) during a demonstration urging relief by governmental agencies for those in deportation proceedings on June 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Last week, President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators outlined a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Like the DREAM Act that has stalled for years in Congress, the proposal’s outline hints at an expedited pathway to citizenship for young people who came to the U.S. as children if they attend college or serve in the military. As the details are worked out in the coming weeks, it is critical that legislation include provisions that make it easier for undocumented high schoolers to go to college. Education is the gateway to the American Dream. But today our immigration laws make higher education — a virtual requirement for financial security — out of reach for more than one million undocumented students.

(MORE: Read this week’s TIME cover story, “Immigrant Son,” by Michael Grunwald)

Of the roughly 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from American high schools each year, only 5–10% will go to college, usually a community college, according to a 2009 report by The College Board. Many undocumented students don’t know if they’re allowed to apply for college (the law varies state by state), or are afraid that submitting applications will attract attention from the authorities. Those who do earn college acceptances are often forced to turn them down because they can’t afford it. Their immigration status bars them from taking advantage of in-state tuition and financial aid programs that are available to their peers.

Even students who beat the odds and graduate from college face yet another barrier: They can’t legally work in the U.S.and put their degrees to good use. “Children don’t make the decision to cross the border, but they pay for it their whole lives,” says Liz Coffin-Karlin, one of our 10,000 Teach for America members who work with students in low-income communities across the country.

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Take Ramiro, an undocumented student in North Texas who came to the U.S. from Mexico with his parents and two siblings when he was 5. His family lived in daily terror of being discovered – a very real fear after Ramiro came home when he was 12 to an empty house and discovered his father had been deported. Although he excelled in school, Ramiro wouldn’t even tell his closest friends that he was undocumented, and was ashamed to tell his teachers. As graduation approached, he felt increasingly isolated and depressed as friends discussed what schools they were going to and post-graduation plans.

“I was paralyzed,” he says, “I didn’t know what I was going to do and worse, who I could ask for help. I was my only resource.” He finally worked up the nerve to enroll in community college, but even that was an ordeal. In the registrar’s office, he didn’t know what information he could give without exposing himself. Ramiro started working to save up money for classes, and did so well he was promoted to supervisor. But when his employer tried verifying his information for the new role and discovered a discrepancy with his paperwork, he was fired on the spot. Unable to keep a job because of his status, Ramiro poured over scholarship applications to find one that could help him – only to discover nearly all scholarships are for citizens or permanent residents only. “I read through so many applications and would get so excited because I seemed to meet every criteria,” he says. “But then in the very last line there would be that disclaimer. I finally gave up on college because I felt there were no options.”

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Every time a child’s promise is cut short by their legal status, our country wastes precious resources and loses talent we need. Our laws guarantee all students the right to a K–12 education, regardless of their immigration status. Our teachers work tirelessly to give them the skills they need to make it to college. Why should we let an inconsistent system prevent them from fulfilling their potential and giving back to the country they call home?

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