Luisa was 8 years old when she and her mom left their home in Peru, travelled to a remote site on the U.S.–Mexico border and made the “scary” crossing into America. They walked for four days through the desert, rejoined her father and started a new life in Chicago.
That was 13 years ago. Luisa grew up in the American heartland. Her strong grades at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park qualiﬁed her for an academic merit scholarship to Elmhurst College, where she is a 21-year-old senior, majoring in biology. Throughout her college career, she has faced daunting ﬁnancial hurdles that native-born students never encounter. As an undocumented immigrant, she can’t get a college loan and is ineligible for most federal ﬁnancial aid. Moreover, as she approaches graduation, Luisa knows that her degree will only take her so far. Her undocumented status will prevent her from accepting almost any job offer appropriate to her skills.
By getting as far as she has, Luisa (not her real name) is the exception. For most undocumented students in her situation, the barriers prove too high. Of the 65,000 undocumented high school students who graduate each year, “only a fraction” go on to college, according to a 2009 report issued by the College Board. Contradictions in U.S. policy, the report adds, “have created a vulnerable subset in our population—children who have been raised to dream, yet are cut off from the very mechanisms that allow them to achieve their dreams.”
In Illinois at least, the situation may be getting better. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed the Illinois DREAM Act, designed to ease the path to college for some undocumented students. (DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors). Elmhurst College and other colleges and universities around the state threw their support behind the legislation, which establishes a panel to raise private donations to fund scholarships for immigrant children (rather than rely on taxpayer dollars). The act also opens the state’s college savings plan to non-citizen savers for the ﬁrst time, and requires high school guidance counselors to be aware of college options for undocumented students. “We should be opening, not shutting, the doors of opportunity for young students regardless of how or why they are living in Illinois,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Senate President John Cullerton.
“My dad always says, ‘Your education is yours. No one can take it away from you,’” Luisa says. But even as she nears the academic achievement her family has sacriﬁced for her to attain, legal restrictions cloud her future. Despite her demonstrated academic ability and personal determination, she can’t go to medical school, where she would like to specialize in women’s health or pediatrics. Without a Social Security number, “I know I can’t even apply,” she says. “You need those nine digits.”
The only country they've ever known
“Dreamers” like Luisa were brought into this country as children, by parents who stayed without legal authority. Their parents, mostly from Latin America or Asia, often perform off-the-books chores in the informal economy, or work in industries where jobs are so unpleasant and difficult to ﬁll that employers don’t look too closely at work documents. Meanwhile, the immigrants’ children have grown up in conventional American fashion, speaking English, attending the required primary and secondary schools, playing baseball and soccer and performing in music and theater groups. Many have younger siblings who are U.S. citizens because they were born in this country. The assimilation of the immigrant children is so complete, in fact, that unless their parents tell them, many Dreamers are unaware that they’re in the country without permission. Many came here as infants; it’s the only country they’ve ever known.
But even though they had no say in their parents’ decision to cross the border, federal law says the Dreamers are subject to deportation. To many people, the situation seems not only unfair but also wasteful, since it deprives the nation of the contributions of so many promising young people, educated in American schools. “The students are being penalized for a decision their parents made,” says Storer H. Rowley, Elmhurst’s executive director of government and community relations, who spoke with several state legislators before the passage of the DREAM Act.
As Dreamers grow towards adulthood, the limits they face come into focus. At her high school, for example, Luisa took driver’s education with her friends; but without legal residency documents, she can’t get a driver’s license. Since she was 15, Luisa has helped pay her way through school, starting with a high-decibel gig at the local Chuck E. Cheese. But as she enters the adult world, better jobs, particularly those that require certiﬁcation—such as teaching, medicine or the law—are off limits.
High school also is the time when many ambitious Dreamers discover just how seriously the deck is stacked against them if they want to attend college. While they have the legal right to attend any college they want, that right isn’t worth much without access to funding, particularly since many Dreamers come from lower-income families.
Some private colleges, including Elmhurst, offer scholarships based strictly on merit and academic performance. But undocumented students aren’t eligible for the federal student-aid programs so crucial to helping students cover the cost of higher education. That rules out Pell Grants for low-income students and access to federally funded work-study programs. Mainstream lenders won’t make loans to undocumented students, either. So Luisa and her parents scrimped and borrowed from family and friends to pay the costs her scholarship doesn’t cover.
Americans in their hearts
Elmhurst receives ﬁve or six applications from undocumented students each year, says Dean of Admission Gary Rold. The College accepts many such students, and sometimes is able to offer them up to $20,000 a year in merit and other scholarships. Despite such aid, Rold says, most of these students still can’t afford to attend Elmhurst or any other college because they can’t access the additional funds they need.
A number of federal lawmakers—including the senior senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin—have sought for a decade to pass legislation designed to establish a path to citizenship for high-achieving Dreamers. The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would grant citizenship to persons brought into the United States as children if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military. Despite majority support, the federal proposal has been blocked repeatedly, most recently in December 2010. (It needs 60 votes in the Senate.) Opponents argue that passage would amount to a reward for behavior outside the law, and encourage more unauthorized immigration.
Backers of the federal DREAM Act aren’t giving up. Dreamers “are Americans in their hearts,” who have been locked in a “legal twilight zone through no fault of their own,” Senator Durbin said last summer when he opened hearings on a new version of the federal DREAM bill.
Only the federal government, of course, can grant citizenship rights and open the tap for federal student aid. A number of states recently have worked on less-sweeping measures. Illinois was the ﬁrst state to pass such a bill. Dean Rold calls the Illinois bill “a good ﬁrst step,” but says only federal legislation can provide a full remedy.
Elmhurst supported the bill in public statements and private discussions with state legislators, including Senate President Cullerton, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross (all of whom ultimately supported the bill). When President S. Alan Ray announced to faculty and students that he was joining the leaders of a number of Illinois colleges and universities in backing the proposal, he noted that Elmhurst “was founded by immigrants, to educate immigrants and their children.” Backing the Illinois bill, he said, reﬂects the school’s longstanding commitment to respect for human diversity, compassion and social justice.
The landmark Illinois law is “no panacea for the problems undocumented students face,” Rowley acknowledges. “But it offers Elmhurst a chance to help them on their journey.”