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Undocumented US Students Face Obstacles to Education - 2004-10-08


It's an increasingly urgent social problem in the United States: What to do with the thousands of illegal immigrants who have grown up in this country and graduated from American high schools, only to find that they can't go to college or forge a career for themselves, because of their immigration status. Many of these young adults came here as toddlers. Their parents were the ones who immigrated illegally, not them. Some state and federal lawmakers feel it isn't fair to penalize these children because of what their parents did. But efforts to extend residency to undocumented students are meeting resistance.

Hulda Mazariego graduated valedictorian from Wyandanch Memorial High School, in Long Island, New York, in June of 2003. Because she had the highest grade point average in her class, she was asked to deliver a speech. Ms. Mazariego still remembers how good she felt on that day. I was really happy, excited. I got my trophy. You know, my parents were there, my brothers were there. Everything was great," she says.

Everything was great until the ceremony was over and Hulda Mazareigo went home to face the reality that unlike her classmates, she would not be going to college. She'd been accepted at a school not too far away from her homeSt. John's College in Patchogue, New York. She'd even been offered a full scholarship to go there. But the scholarship was funded with federal money, and because of that, school officials needed Ms. Mazariego to provide them with proof of her legal residency, which she could not.

"My mother immigrated with all my siblings and me to this country in March, 1992, from Guatemala. I was seven years old. I remember when we were crossing the border? we came by foot, OK? My mom was carrying a four-month-old, and she was carrying him through the whole way. We were all little kids. We went through starvation, we crossed rivers. We even slept at a cemetery, thinking that it was an abandoned house. We slept there, the next morning, we wake up, and it's a cemetery, and everybody takes that as a joke," she says.

Hulda Mazariego is one of an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants who graduate from American high schools every year. They're allowed to attend public school, thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 1982. But they're ineligible for federally funded college scholarships, and they also can't apply for federal student loans. This means most of them can't afford to go to college.

David Sperling is an immigration attorney. He was hired by Hulda Mazariego several months ago to plead her case to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "They hit a wall. After graduating from high school, they cannot get a decent job, because they can't get a social security number. They can't get a work permit. Although they might be able to attend school, they wouldn't be eligible for any type of scholarship or grants, and of course they wouldn't be able to enter into any profession," he says.

That may be why Hispanics have the highest high school drop-out rate in the nationnearly 22 percent. In recent years, some states have made it easier for undocumented students to attend state-run universities. In places like Oklahoma, Texas, and California, for example, undocumented students are eligible for what's known as in-state tuition.

That's a discount offered to all legal residents of the state running the university. But even with that discount, many students can't afford to go to college without the help of a grant or loan. That's why some members of the U.S. Congress want to give green cards to students who've been living here for at least five years, but were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. It's a bill known as The Dream Act, and it's being opposed by a number of groups - among them, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Jack Martin, a spokesperson, says "it is, in effect, an amnesty provision, and anything of an amnesty-type nature encourages others to come illegally into the country. But we, in addition, have other concerns with regard to equity for American students and legal, permanent residents who may be competing for the same limited spaces in the university system."

Jack Martin says these students should either go back to the countries they came from, or else apply for a visa, the way any student who grew up in a foreign country would have to do. But Hulda Mazariego says going back to Guatemala was never an option for her. Her entire familyand everything she knows about lifeis here in the United States.

She says America has a vested interest in making sure people like her get a college education. "You know, these are little kids who don't know what their parents are doing. They're forced to come here because they have to follow their parents. And if they do come here, and they achieve what they can achieve just like any other American kid, then I think they should get the same rights as any other kid. There's no difference, except that, you know, they're not nationally from here. He might be the next lawyer of America, the next doctor, the next great person that would make a big difference, and they just don't even know it," she says.

Hulda Mazariego spent her first year out of high school baby-sitting and working off-the-books at a neighborhood deli. She and her attorney pushed to have the INS review her case though, and a few months ago, Hulda Mazariego was granted legal residency. She's now in her first year at St. John's College, where officials held onto her scholarship in the hopes that she'd one day be able to accept it. She's majoring in English and says she wants to become an immigration attorney.

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