Despite New Rule, Undocumented Students Face Uncertain Future

Oct 4, 2012

The "deferred action" plan enacted in June by the Obama administration offers certain undocumented young people two years of legal status to study or work.  Undocumented students in New Mexico already have access to college. But many face difficult choices once they leave school.

It’s 8:30 a.m. and high school students are gathering at the entrance to South Valley Academy charter school in Albuquerque.  

Students crossing campus switch between Spanish and English and a group of boys plays soccer on the basketball court.

Like many Albuquerque schools, South Valley Academy is a diverse mix, including undocumented students.  Many came to the US as children, and they receive the same education as every other student from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Once they graduate from high school, things get more complicated.  Melissa is a senior at South Valley Academy.  

My ninth grade year I started feeling the difference because that’s when I started getting taught more about scholarships, and that’s when I, looking at the applications I knew that I needed this thing called social security number, and I didn’t have.”

Melissa immigrated to New Mexico from Mexico when she was six.  She says school was hard at first since she didn’t speak English, but by fourth grade, she could work on her own.  Now she’s active in student groups on campus and tutors her classmates. 

Melissa has light brown hair and freckles, and says her classmates are often surprised to discover she’s undocumented.

They’re like, really? But you look white, and you’re just so, I don’t know, you speak English so well, and that’s when I’m like, well, it’s not the looks that matter…. “

After participating in a program with UNM Hospital, Melissa is thinking of a career in medicine.

“They talked to us about many different fields having to do with medicine and that’s when I got interested in anesthesiology.  This last summer, I entered another summer program with them, having to do with nursing, and I also did an EMT program with them.  And right now I’m just amazed at all the different fields that there is, so I’m not really sure what I want to go into.”

Yet Melissa’s options for college are not as numerous as her interests.  If she stays in New Mexico, she can attend any public university or community college and pay in-state tuition.  New Mexico is one of just 12 states that provide this access to undocumented students.  As a high-achieving high school senior, Melissa’s also eligible for the New Mexico lottery scholarship. 

But if she wants to study out-of-state, she can’t apply for federal financial aid.  And she can’t legally work.  In college, many undocumented students find their time and opportunities running out.

Hector is studying nuclear engineering at UNM.  He has large black ear studs and close-cropped hair and rides his skateboard across campus.  Without a permit to work, he says he lives in uncertainty about his future. 

“Most of all it’s scary, cause you put in so much effort, you grew up in this country, it pretty much became your country, as well.  Um, being that you know nothing about Mexico, you don’t even know their national anthem or anything like that, you know more of the American culture than you do the Mexican culture.”

Hector says it’s a hardship not to be able to help pay his way while in school.

Leslie Alvarado agrees.  She’s 21, and her mother is the sole support for her and her two siblings.  Leslie says she stopped her studies at UNM because her family can’t afford the tuition.

But the federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has given Leslie new hope.

“See, you could graduate, you could go to college, you could get a job, don’t give up.“

The plan offers two years of legal status to enroll in college, serve in the military, or work for young people who qualify.  It’s related to the DREAM act, a national bill to provide a path to permanent residency for young people.  The DREAM act was first proposed with bipartisan support in Congress in 2001, but a version failed earlier this year. 

Critics of the DREAM act argue that it unfairly offers a type of amnesty to people who broke the law by entering the US illegally.  Republicans have criticized deferred action as an attempt by the Obama administration to garner Hispanic votes for the upcoming election.    

Since June, young people in New Mexico have been weighing this new option.  Jaen Ugalde is a UNM student who immigrated to the US when he was five.  Though he can’t work, Jaen has turned to activism on behalf of other undocumented youth. 

“Because many of us as students, and as community members and residents of New Mexico, consider ourselves undocumented Americans.”  

Jaen’s organization New Mexico Dreamers in Action travels to high schools to educate students about their options.  He says it was young people who campaigned for access to higher education in New Mexico.

Students who were tired of not being able to go to school because they were too scared of being stopped by the police and being detained and imprisoned. “

Jaen’s family moved to Albuquerque from California in part because at the time New Mexico offered better opportunities for him to attend college.   

Rachel LaZar is the executive director of el Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrants’ rights organization.  She says most undocumented immigrants live in mixed-status families. 

We’re talking about families that are comprised of citizens, legal permanent residents, undocumented folks, and people with different status.”

Some students worry that by revealing their own status, they’re putting family members at risk for deportation.  Since only people under the age of 31 can apply, their parents don’t have the same opportunities.

Many students also wonder what’ll happen after the presidential elections.

Yet both Democrats and Republicans have been criticized for failing to address immigration reform.  Meanwhile, here in New Mexico undocumented students continue to study and plan for an uncertain future.