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Despite Top Grades, Undocumented Students See College Dreams Deferred

It’s a bittersweet graduation for these West Side students whose citizenship status means they can’t apply for government aid.

Illustration: Erik N. Rodriguez

On a frigid day last December, 18-year-old Andrés was huddled in the locker room of North-Grand High School in West Humboldt Park after swim practice, gripping his best friend’s phone. The two had swapped shortly after seeing notifications that decision letters from their dream school, a four-year state university, had arrived—both were too nervous to look at their own results.

Andrés glimpsed at the screen—“You got in!” he yelled over.

“You too!” came the reply.

It should have been a moment of joy in the high school senior’s young life, but when he returned to his family’s two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from school and greeted his mother with his decision result, the two wept together—his mother out of joy, him because of a more complex mixture of emotion. “I remember being so happy, but at the same time heartbroken,” Andrés says.

Though the school, one of the top public universities in the country, had accepted Andrés, his immigration status meant he could not apply for financial aid from the government. Without that, he is unable to attend.

Today is the last day of high school for Andrés and his classmates. According to school officials, he joins a large number of non-citizen students who achieved outstanding grades in school but cannot attend their top college choice due to citizenship restrictions on government financial aid. If he had a Social Security number, his household annual income of $35,000 would have qualified him for help.

American college students are heavily dependent on financial aid: The U.S. Department of Education reports that 86 percent of incoming undergraduates in 2014 were awarded some form of aid, and 68 percent of all aid comes from federal funds, according to a CollegeBoard study. State funds also are an essential source for public university tuition, but in Illinois, undocumented students are ineligible.

Andrés’s mother brought him from a small village in central Mexico to the U.S. at four years old. Since then he has grown up in Chicago’s West Side, studying hard in school, sweating it out on the volleyball court and in the pool afterwards, all while saving up money from a lifeguarding job. He attained the highest ACT score of North-Grand’s senior class and his GPA is in the top five percent of his grade—all in an effort to get into the school of his dreams.

“I realize that I had achieved my goal,” he says. “I got accepted by my top school. But I wish I hadn’t. That way I could tell myself, ‘You wouldn’t have gotten in anyway.’”

 

At the end of April, North-Grand held its annual college decision ceremony, where students take the stage to announce their future schools. The auditorium pulsed with music as the senior class filed in that day, a spotlight gliding over the stage’s scarlet curtains and bouquets of silver balloons. As student after student posed in front of a projector screen that flashed college names, Andrés and many of his fellow undocumented students stayed seated.

Their school choices were held up by the complex tangle of financial issues that often plague undocumented students. Andrés’s own decision came hours after the ceremony, when he heard back from a private school in Chicago — and was told he didn’t receive the scholarship he needed to attend. That meant he would be at a community college this fall.

“It was just a wake up call,” Andrés says about that day. “I’m going to do my best wherever I go… We have to work so hard just to get everything that others are just handed.”

Other undocumented students at North-Grand felt a similar aversion during the ceremony. Though Isabel, who arrived from Mexico at age 9, and Camila, a Honduran-born immigrant who ranks third in their class, did walk on stage, neither is attending her top school. (All three agreed to be interviewed for this story on condition of having their names changed.)

Isabel has been on the honor roll since freshman year despite arriving in the U.S. without understanding English. She was accepted to her dream school, a private university in a suburb of Chicago—but she cannot go.

“[Community college is] the only option I have now,” she says. “It was hard. I saw everyone getting these amazing opportunities to go to a four-year school and I didn’t have that.”

On stage and off, undocumented students bore a heavy burden that day, despite hiding it in front of their classmates, says Jessica Vargas, a counselor at the school: “We know a little more about what’s behind the smile,” she says. “They’re happy to be on stage and declare. But we know that’s not necessarily set in stone yet.” Vargas estimates about 20 to 30 percent of the school’s graduating class this year is undocumented. Her colleague Arturo Fuentes, another North-Grand counselor, says that in his experience, the majority of these students are unable to enroll in their top-choice schools.

“To not even have access to those additional funds is a big barrier for our undocumented students,” says Janice Jackson, chief education officer of CPS.

 

Chicago shelters one of the most populous undocumented communities in the nation, numbering 183,000, according to a 2014 study by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. CPS does not collect data on citizenship status, but Hispanics make up almost half of this year’s enrollment. On February 16’s “A Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide student and worker boycott against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, Hispanic student attendance dropped to 76 percent from the previous day’s 94 percent, according to the district.

Chicago has long been a sanctuary city, and CPS issued the first directive from a major school district to not comply with federal immigration agents this February.

“Dreamers are a critical part of our CPS and school community,” Jackson says. “Many are college-bound and it is our responsibility to make sure they don’t see any barriers to college just like any other students. It’s a place where I’m proud of the culture.”

There is some additional assistance for Illinois’s undocumented students: those who  attended an Illinois high school for at least three years while living with a parent or guardian and have a parent who immigrated to the U.S. can receive in-state public tuition, provided they sign an affidavit promising to seek legal citizenship as soon as possible. As of 2012, they can also apply for the privately financed Illinois Dream Fund Scholarship. The fund initially planned for $6,000 scholarships, but has reportedly been cash-strapped in the past, given its inability for public dollars.

Finally, the mayor’s office and the City Colleges of Chicago network offer a STAR scholarship, which Andrés and Isabel both earned and will utilize after meeting the minimum 3.0 GPA and ACT score of 17 or higher requirement. The award, established in 2014, covers full tuition and textbook costs at any city college regardless of citizenship status.

Some, like Camila, who received nearly a full scholarship to attend a private university near Chicago, can manage without government aid, but many cannot clear such a high bar. The native Honduran says her dream is to become a high school math teacher: “That was my language, you know?” she says. “I didn’t come here speaking English, so my way to express myself was through math. Because it’s something I’m good at.”

And yet Camila knows her work is not finished. She currently works up to 25 hours a week at a grocery store on top of taking an Advanced Placement class and two “dual credit” classes (which allow her to get college credit for the classes she takes now). Second semester junior year, she worked almost full-time.

She says her friends often ask her, “How do you do it?” But Camila persevered, knowing she could not squander a chance to attend college.

“I chose to start my job junior year because I started thinking about today,” she says. “Knowing that I’ve made it this far—that’s something to be proud of.”

 

Vargas says one trait is shared among all her Dreamers: resilience.

“To be that age and to have all that against you and still face every day is hard work,” Vargas says. “They’re fighters.”

It’s been especially tough for this class of seniors, who nursed their college dreams in the shadow of Trump’s anti-immigrant presidential campaign. Fuentes remembers students from the previous year were more fiery and open to exposing their non-citizenship status, embodying a “hope that all was possible,” he says.

This year, it’s different. President Trump has called for more aggressive immigration enforcement, and people previously protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (sometimes known as Dreamers) have reportedly been detained. (Just last week, Trump walked back his campaign promise to “immediately terminate” DACA.) Students have been more secretive about their immigration status, Vargas says, perhaps because they realize silence could mean protection not only for them but also for their parents, who have no equivalent of DACA and could be deported any time.

The day after the election, North-Grand’s Dreamer’s Club held an emergency meeting after school, in which undocumented students gathered in a classroom to process their newfound fears.

Vargas says among the anxieties expressed, students asked, “What’s going to happen now? Should I be scared? Are my parents going to be sent away?”

For now, North-Grand’s undocumented students believe they can still make it in the U.S.

“Trump’s election day, it really hurt me—feeling like I could [be sent] away,” Andrés says. “Now I want to do something just to prove them wrong. … You want to say that Mexico is sending its bad people? Look at me.”

Andrés and Isabel have accepted they will not walk the same path as other seniors with the same bonafides. The two of them are both lifeguarding at their schools on the weekends, saving up money to transfer from the city college system to their dream schools in two years.

A couple of weeks before the college decision ceremony, Andrés’s friend told him he had officially committed to the dream school that had accepted the both of them: “I’m going to go to [the university] for the both of us,” he said. “Because I know how much you wanted to go.”

So Andrés made a promise. He said he would spend the next two years taking general education courses and accruing savings from his job—until he had enough money to attend without government aid.

“I’m not going to think about what could have been,” he says. “I’m going to focus on what’s going to happen and I’ll take it from there.”

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