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Crosscurrents logo 2021

The path to college for undocumented students gets a little easier

As the summer comes to a close, young adults are saying goodbye to their hometowns, families, and friends as they move on to higher education. But for those who are undocumented, the path to college is much more complicated, a process that many take for granted.

In most parts of the country, students without legal status aren’t eligible for financial aid or scholarships. There is also a lack of guidance from parents, because most students are the first generation to attend an American university. Then there is the constant fear of being deported.

But in California, undocumented students have at least one law on their side: AB 540, a law passed in 2001 allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and making college an imminent reality for thousands.

Last week, President Obama’s new policy called “Deferred Action” paved the way for thousands of undocumented students to get temporary legal status and work permits. It was the most significant immigration relief policy in 25 years and is projected to benefit over one million young undocumented immigrants nationwide. These young people call themselves “Dreamers.” It is estimated that about 65,000 of them live in the Bay Area.

A tale of two Dreamers

At the Richmond Civic Center Plaza, roughly 300 Richmond High School students, along with their teachers, family, and friends, celebrated the class of 2012. As the ceremony erupts with the final cheers and horns, there’s a familiar feeling of accomplishment in the air. In the crowd, are two new graduates, whose feelings of happiness, mean much more than the earning of a high school diploma – it’s a dream that almost didn’t come true.

Jorge Hernandez and Juan Carlos Cano are both 18 years old. They are both undocumented, or AB 540, as they like to call it. There is no way to know for sure how many other graduating seniors at Richmond High are undocumented, but Hernandez and Cano know that they aren’t the only ones. They call themselves “Dreamers” because their future, at the start of the path to college was far more uncertain that it is for others today.

Jorge Hernandez moved to the United States with his family when he was 12 years old. They came by plane and overstayed their visas. He learned English within a year and quickly caught up to his age group in school, but life was difficult at home when Hernandez’ mother became disabled and his father was diagnosed with diabetes during his freshman year. Hernandez says he didn’t want to let these problems – or his legal status – faze him.

“They tell me regardless of my status I’m undocumented, AB 540, regardless of that I’m gonna make it and become who I really want to be,” exclaims Hernandez.

Then there is Juan Carlos Cano, who speaks about the reality of being an immigrant: “Living here in the United States is a really big thing ‘cause I wasn't really even supposed to be here. I was born in a different country. I was brought here without my consent.”

Cano also remembers coming to America around the age of three. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night and my mom telling me to get up and get ready. I woke up with adrenaline. It was just a shock and we got on this bus that was the beginning towards our journey to the U.S,” he recalls.

Cano’s feelings of coming here are somewhat dissonant. He appreciates his parents bringing him to the U.S., but the things he faced growing up in Richmond may have been more traumatizing than anyone expected.

“The poverty, the violence, the crime and everything – she wanted me to get away from that. But, arriving at Richmond, it was really about the same thing. We saw the poverty, we saw the crime around, and it's really affected me a lot,” Cano says.

It may be the reason why he became apathetic about school until after his freshman year. That was the time where he faced many life changes.

“My Freshman year I witnessed my best friend being shot because of a gang. He was mistaken for a different person, however, he got killed,” Cano recalls.

It was only after that incident that Juan transferred to Richmond High. Even more, in his junior year, Cano’s father returned to Mexico for the first time and wasn’t able to come back. All of a sudden Juan found himself living with his two older siblings and their families. He hasn’t seen his father since December of 2011 and still doesn’t know when he’ll see him again.

Fortunately, Cano talks to his dad on the phone often. “I really like to talk to him because, you know, he’s my father. He’s been there for me as well as my mom,” says Cano.

As a child, both parents encouraged Cano to continue in school so he could become the first college graduate in their family, even though he’d have to support himself through it all. Cano adds, “I work about 20 hours a week at a local Burger King. And I have to work because that’s how I sustain myself: transportation, clothing, food, and some of it goes to sending to my dad.”

Money is also a big concern for Jorge Hernandez. With both of his parents unable to work full-time, poverty was always on the horizon. He and his family had to make big changes to their living situation to make ends meet. Hernandez explains: “We've been living for like two years now, or one year, around that time, in a garage. It's a small room. My parents and my sisters, we all sleep together in a room.”

They’ve lived that way since Hernandez’ mom became disabled and lost her job. Hernandez and his family eventually found a new place, but it’s an example of the uncertainty that is part of daily life for undocumented students like Cano and Hernandez.

At Richmond High the administration struggles to address the needs of its undocumented population. Administrators simply don’t know who is legal or not.

“We don't collect social security numbers; we don't ask if you're documented or not documented. What we have is anecdotal from students and I would say the majority of kids are documented,” says Assistant Principal Jen Bender.

Gathering accurate data, according to Bender, is nearly impossible. Students and parents are not forthcoming with their legal status, and divulging social security numbers is not required for enrollment.

“We had a kid last year who earned a program to fly to the East Coast to go to school in one of the Ivy leagues for the summer, but because he was undocumented he had no government identifications and so he was not able to take that opportunity because he couldn't fly to the program,” explains Bender. “I mean, it's heartbreaking. These kids didn't choose when they were little to come here and the situation that they're in. And they're being held accountable to it.”

Bender says she thinks undocumented students often find it difficult to stay motivated in school. They are prone to drop out because diplomas don’t immediately translate into paid work. And even when they succeed in school, their legal status can often hold them back.

Cano and Hernandez decided to get involved in their community instead of letting their situations get them down. Hernandez became part of the Leadership team at the RHYS Center in Richmond, where he meets with other youth about issues in their community.  At school, he also takes on leadership positions in clubs like Richmond High’s debate club, also known as The Junior States of America, or JSA.

And Cano led a club that he founded himself: S.M.A.R.T., which stands for Students Moving and Rising Together. S.M.A.R.T. provides resources to undocumented students at Richmond High.

Cano decided to start the club after his first counseling appointment at school, when he first realized that he was considered undocumented. “And at that moment I didn’t even know I was an undocumented person until they told me of the challenges I was gonna have to go through,” Cano explains.

In that meeting, Cano learned that he would not be able to file a FAFSA for financial aid or be eligible for a Cal Grant.

Now, years later, there are more resources for undocumented students. AB 130, or The Californina Dream Act, provides the opportunity to apply for merit based scholarships and AB 540 allows them to pay in state tuition at California Universities. Nationally, President Obama granted temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents. These laws make the dream of college far more accessible for students like Cano and Hernandez.

“College is, it's kind of like my crutches, my crutches to continue,” says Hernandez. “Technically I’m disabled, not literally disabled, but I’m disabled in a way that I can't be part of society. So I’m sort of like isolated. But education is I guess a way of connecting myself not only to California and United States, but to the world because it takes you to a lot of places. It takes you anywhere you want to be.”

So in their senior year, they each sent out multiple college applications. Hernandez applied to about 15 different colleges and Cano applied to a total of 17.

By late April, their work finally paid off. They received their acceptance letters. They will both be attending U.C. Berkeley this fall.

It’s a reality neither Hernandez nor Cano saw coming three years agao, when they first started to think about their futures and didn’t speak openly about their status.

As Salutatorian, Hernandez was able to publicly reflect on the impact of his status in his life on graduation day. His speech reads: “My success took faith and determination. I didn't know I was gonna make it. I didn't know how. I didn't know who to talk to. I just knew I could do it.”

And for the first time, both Hernandez and Cano don’t have to worry about hiding the truth about who they are. Hernandez closes his speech with: “I will always say I am undocumented and unafraid.”