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A Dream Deferred: Undocumented Students Struggle to go to College


Debbee was 14 when she made the journey from rural El Salvador, where she had grown up, to the capital city of the United States. She came to join her mother, who had left on the same journey five years earlier, leaving nine-year-old Debbee behind. She started attending Wilson in 2010. Because of her background and undocumented status, she never considered college, until former Bilingual Education teacher Mary Ball told her about Wilson’s Dream scholarship. Thanks to the scholarship, Debbee is working towards a degree from UDC, despite the many obstacles she has encountered in her quest for a college education. But other undocumented students are not as lucky.

“Sometimes undocumented students think they cannot pursue higher education at all because there is not financial aid,” said Bilingual Education teacher Mary Ann Zehr.

Without a valid social security number, students cannot file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), making them ineligible for federal grants. Private scholarships often list U.S. citizenship as an eligibility criterion. And many schools won’t give undocumented students money unless they apply as international students.

“We have a lot of very smart kids who are undocumented, and schools won’t give them money,” said College and Career Counselor Sandra Bean. “They become very disheartened.”

Bean said undocumented kids come to her every year, and she has to tell them that their options are limited to NOVA, Montgomery College, Prince George’s Community College, or UDC.

The DREAM Act is a piece of legislation introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in 2001. The Act would provide a pathway to legalization for undocumented youth who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years, demonstrate “good moral standing,” and pursue either higher education or military service.“The DREAM Act is something that’s really really important for everyone — not just for immigrant families — because if we want our future to get better, we need to make sure our young people have ways to get into college,” said Latin American Youth Center Coordinator Alexis Vigil.

The Act has failed to pass twice — once in 2007 and once in 2010.

Vigil said he is hopeful that the DREAM Act will eventually be enacted. “I’m hoping that with the elections coming up, hopefully we’ll get more progressive voices in these cabinets, so they can say, ‘Look, this is legislation that needs to pass,’” he said.

For Hispanic Heritage Month this year, LAYC partnered with Wilson’s New Heights program to organize events during October to raise awareness about the DREAM Act. Students put posters up on atrium pillars, and the LAYC dance team performed during lunch to attract attention to the cause.

After the DREAM Act failed to pass, President Barack Obama’s administration authored a memorandum in 2012 establishing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), protecting undocumented youth who are at least 15 years old, and who apply for DACA status, from being deported for two years. Applicants must submit documentation and pay a $465 application fee. “It was something, but it really wasn’t what people needed, because it’s not a pathway to legalization,” said Vigil.

Wilson established its own Dream scholarship three years ago, after former English teacher Joe Riener proposed using non-refunded AP exam fees to fund it. Wilson students have contributed enough money for the past two years to pay for one undocumented student per year to go to UDC for two semesters.

While the scholarship eases the financial burden on undocumented students, it does not fix all problems. The first Wilson Dream scholarship recipient was unsuccessful in college, and Zehr says she was not surprised. “It was hard to hit the ground running for someone who didn’t know much about college,” said Zehr. Undocumented students are often the first in their families to go to college, so tasks like registering for classes and buying books are difficult to navigate.

In addition, many are working to support themselves. Debbee works full-time at a Union Station restaurant.

The process of planning for college is also difficult. “Just where to go for help [is challenging],” said Vigil. “Every DCPS high school has a college and career center, and they’re really geared towards helping students who don’t have these kind of extraordinary problems.”

Debbee urges current Wilson students who are undocumented to seek out a mentor who can help them plan for the future. “It’s about having a connection with a person who can help you,” she said. “You never know how one person may change your life.”

Identifying students who are undocumented is a challenge. Because of the implications of the status, many are unwilling to reveal their status to faculty or staff. No staff members we talked to were able to estimate how many undocumented students there are at Wilson. Zehr says she never asks students if they are undocumented; she waits for them or their counselors to approach her and express interest in the scholarship.

Sometimes, even the kids themselves do not realize they are undocumented until they begin applying for college, when their parents reveal that they do not have a social security number. “That’s a big challenge,” said Vigil. “[They think] ‘I lived a certain way, I thought I was a part of this community, but on paper, I’m not.’

“It’s a really touchy subject. Some kids are really courageous…others just don’t want to come out, and some don’t even know,” he said. “I know they’re out there, and I know they’re part of our community.”

Editor’s Note:  Debbee’s last name is not being used to protect her identity.