Larissa Martinez is preparing to move out of her family’s one-bedroom apartment in Texas to embark on a new journey as a college student.
Like many other American high school graduates, Martinez has already packed pillows, bedding sets, table lamps and other essential items — supplies she said had been bought over the past two years by her mother, who "worked day and night."
Martinez was the valedictorian of the 2016 graduating class at McKinney Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas. In her address to fellow graduates this month, she revealed a secret that she had kept throughout her school days.
“I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States,” Martinez said.
Her revelation sparked a national conversation about undocumented students, those who are living in the United States without official permission.
What about U.S. kids?
While some praised Martinez’s courage and hard work, others said undocumented young people like her are "cheating" American students out of places in colleges and universities.
“It kind of personalizes a whole phenomenon here," said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "Obviously these are good students, good people, but it doesn't mean they should be allowed to remain in the country. It doesn't mean they should be financed by the taxpayers.”
FAIR, a nonprofit organization, says its goals are to educate the public on immigration issues, present solutions and hold legislators accountable. It seeks to hold legal immigration to the U.S. to 300,000 people a year, less than one-third the present number, according to FAIR.
“When you start taking it down to the micro level of the individual valedictorian, then it becomes fair game: What about all the children of illegal aliens who are not valedictorians and may be in fact doing other things [like] committing crimes?” Mehlman asked.
“People would say, ‘That’s not fair. You shouldn't characterize all illegal immigrants based on the acts of a few.’ [But] I think the same is the case when you have exceptional students,” Mehlman said.
A 2016 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that undocumented immigrants pay well over $11 billion a year in state and local taxes.
Contributions range from almost $2.2 million in Montana, which has an estimated 4,000 undocumented residents, the ITEP report says, to more than $3.1 billion in California, home to more than 3 million immigrants who lack legal status.
“We pay our taxes. We are not stealing anyone’s money,” Martinez said.
The 18-year-old student moved to the United States in 2010 with her mother and sister from Mexico City to escape an alcoholic and abusive father. All three had valid tourist visas. They lived with relatives until finally able to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
At 16, Martinez told her mother, Deyanira Contreras, that she wanted to work to help with the bills. Contreras said it would be better if her daughter focused on her studies.
Which she did. Martinez enrolled in advanced classes, got top grades and began to dream of attending an Ivy League school.
She was first in her class every year through high school. When it was time to apply to college, Martinez's choices were Yale, Columbia and Princeton.
Yale offered her a full scholarship.
“We felt blessed,” she said. “This is an opportunity they don’t give to a lot of people. We were very much lucky.”
Not a factor
Yale, one of the most selective U.S. universities, does not consider immigration status when reviewing applications from would-be students. This year, there were nearly 29,000 applications for fewer than 2,000 places at the school — an acceptance rate of less than 7 percent.
The university's website says Yale seeks “those who would make the most of the extraordinary resources assembled here, those with a zest to stretch the limits of their talents, and those with an outstanding public motivation — in other words, applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.”
“Being undocumented obviously would not disqualify anyone,” Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told VOA. About one in every 10 current undergraduates is an international student — those who, in most cases, apply from abroad and travel to the U.S. from their home countries. But Conroy said Yale does not keep tabs on which of its students admitted from U.S. secondary schools might be undocumented immigrants.
Conroy told VOA that all Yale students, whether from the United States or another country, are equally eligible for financial assistance, which is based on need.
“The funding sources of financial aid for international and domestic students is the same," he said — a combination of gifts to the university, often from former graduates, and the school's general revenues.
About half the undergraduate students qualify for need-based aid, and the institution has no merit scholarships; all aid is based on students’ financial need.
“All students accepted to Yale may attend; no one has to turn down Yale because of concerns about paying for it,” Conroy added.
No admission prohibition
There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students attending U.S. high schools, and they are not eligible for federal financial aid for higher education. However, there is no federal law or state law that prohibits their admission to U.S. colleges.
According to the College Board, a nonprofit that helps students transition from high school to higher education, institutions' admissions policies can vary.
Martinez, the soon-to-be Yale student, says she felt that sharing her story could “at least” help some understand that people like her mother only want to give their children a better opportunity in life. Martinez has plans to enter the pre-med program and become a neurosurgeon.
“Everyone in this country [can do it] because I truly believe that together and supporting each other, we can make this country better,” she said.