Thursday, January 12, 2006

THE 'PAPER CEILING' -- UNDOCUMENTED YOUTHS FACE BARRIERS AT THE BRINK OF ADULTHOOD (First in a Series)

EDITOR'S NOTE: At an age when most teenagers are getting their driver's licenses, working their first jobs and applying to college, more and more young people are coming face to face with what it means to grow up without papers. Nick Guroff and Singeli Agnew are freelance writers studying journalism at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Their reporting is supported by a special James Irvine Foundation grant to develop reporting fellowships for U.C. students and the ethnic media. This is the first in a series of articles on growing up undocumented.

BY NICK GUROFF AND SINGELI AGNEW, PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES--Fermin was born at the height of El Salvador's civil war 17 years ago. When he was 11, his mother finally saved enough money to bring him to Los Angeles, where she had lived since he was 4 years old.

"She wanted me to have more educational opportunities," Fermin says. "It's the only way out of being low-income."

Fermin has taken advantage of those opportunities. He will graduate from high school this spring at the top of his class. After that, things get more complicated. Along with 65,000 other new graduates nationwide, Fermin will leave high school with a diploma, but without citizenship papers.

Many of the estimated 350,000 undocumented students in California schools came to the state as young children, by no choice of their own. Often they have no other home to return to. Federal legislation has been proposed that would help these youths attend college, and make the road to citizenship easier for some, but it has stalled in Congress, entangled within the larger debate over immigration reform.

So at an age when most teenagers are getting their driver's licenses, working their first jobs and applying to college, young people like Fermin are coming face to face -- often for the first time -- with what it means to grow up without papers.

For Fermin, it means taking four city buses each day to get to school and back -- as an undocumented immigrant, he can't get a driver's license. When Fermin entered the American public school system six years ago, he did not know a word of English. Today, he is preparing for the California Academic Decathlon. He hopes his team will do well -- but even if they do, he won't be joining them at the state competition in Sacramento. Fermin fears that if he travels without papers he could be detained or deported.

While the majority of undocumented students will give up on school, Fermin is determined to go to college. But his immigration status complicates that prospect.

All but nine states charge undocumented residents high out-of-state tuition rates to attend public universities. California doesn't, thanks to a new law waiving this requirement. But ambitious students like Fermin still face extra hurtles.

First, Fermin must come up with application fees as high as $250 per school. His family income is low enough to qualify him for a waiver, but his immigration status makes him ineligible. He's also ineligible for state or federal financial aid.

"Everyone tells them, 'Go to school, get good grades,'" says Jessica Quintana, director of Centro Community Hispanic Association in Long Beach. "Then the reality hits. It's so easy just to give up at that point."

Nearly half of foreign-born Latino students will drop out of high school, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Quintana said the reality for undocumented teenagers is that a high school diploma will do little to improve their earning power in any case. With or without a degree, they will be forced to look for jobs without a legal work permit. As a result, they can expect to earn less than half the income of the average American student.

Alvaro Huerta, education coordinator for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, says counselors often steer promising undocumented students away from four-year universities. Teachers, counselors or admissions officers may mistakenly believe that applying to college requires disclosing one's immigration status, which is not the case in California.

Jessica, 18, received a standing ovation at her high school graduation in honor of 13 years of perfect attendance. But the applause couldn't make up for the letter she'd received earlier that year from the design school she dreamed of attending. It told her not to bother applying unless she could produce proof of citizenship.

"I had everything -- the grades, the desire to learn," says Jessica, 18. "It put a stop to all my hope when I realized I was limited."

KJ

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