Undocumented, But Still Pursuing An Education

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As the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom argue back and forth about sanctuary policy, life for undocumented students goes on.

They pack their lunches, walk to school, wear letterman jackets, and wonder about their future. What they don’t consider is going home.

Andrea, a well-spoken 16-year-old living in San Francisco on an expired tourist visa, isn’t worried about immigration deporting her. “I’m not going to do something wrong against the country, I just want an education,” she said.

While the fractious immigration debate happens in one world, Andrea lives in another.

She’s one of an estimated 1.5 million undocumented youth living in the United States. A large portion of that number live in California, which at 2.7 million, has the largest population of undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

Nearly half of all undocumented households consist of couples with their children, of which an estimated 73 percent are U.S. citizens by birth. “It’s a growing trend,” said Jefferey Passel, observing that more and more undocumented immigrants are having children here, instead of returning home to start a family. The remaining 27 percent of the children in undocumented households arrived after birth, and remain undocumented.

Like other cities around the country, San Francisco school officials never inquire about a student’s legal status.

“We take in about 3,000 to 4,000 new students a year,” said Darlene Lim, Executive Director of Educational Placement for the district.

Of these students, “it’s impossible to say how many are undocumented, we just don’t track that,” said Lim.

Students and parents alike are thankful for this leeway, it’s one less thing to worry about. Rent checks often end up taking the priority as families try to make ends meet.

“It’s a struggle just to keep some of these kids in school,” said Derryln Tom, a chemistry teacher in her tenth year at Mission High School.

Her class, on the third floor of the 1920s building, boasts high ceilings and large windows. Beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks crowd her desk, and human rights posters commingle with the bright flags of her student’s homelands, including Mexico, China, and Palestine.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, students sat at desks facing Tom’s large free standing white board. The words, “Job Security, Healthcare,” and “Education,” stood out in bold green, red and blue dry erase ink.

“There is no difference between you and Ms. Tom,” she said, “we all deserve a good education.

After the students left she talked obstacles.

“Even if they get a good education, then what? They still can’t get good jobs,” she stressed.

While many of her students overstay their visas, some make the long dangerous trek over the border with the aid of coyotes and forged papers.

Jose Luis is 14 and hails from Mexico City. He’s been in San Francisco six months. Paul, from Guandong, China, has been at Mission High for one week. Like most undocumented youth they are reluctant to share their stories, cautioned by Tom not to disclose too much.

Others, like Carlos, have been in United States longer, and are working to gain legal status. “Like most kids, I overstayed my visa,” he said, explaining his move from Panama in 2007. “I had to leave because of my situation back home, my parents basically abandoned me, so I came to live with my sister.”

Life here became especially difficult when his relationship with his sister deteriorated, forcing him to look for another legal guardian—in his case a man he met through his wrestling team.

“The worst part has been finding a job,” he said. “Because I am undocumented I’ve had to do all the dirty jobs, and get paid under minimum wage.”

Without a social security number many of these students, some of whom send money home to support their families, have been unable to defend themselves at work. “I just had to do whatever they said,” continued Carlos, “it’s like they treat you like crap.”

Silvia, another student at Mission High, agrees.

After moving to the United States in 2006 she’s witnessed the dark underbelly of San Francisco. “When you have to work for cash, you have to take a job wherever you can get it.”

“I worked at this place called ‘Hot Tubs,’” she said, looking down at the table.

“You wouldn’t believe the things I saw.”

Hired as a room attendant and cashier, Silvia was berated by angry community members and degraded by customers, “I didn’t have a choice, I needed the job,” she said.

Silvia’s journey to the states was equally painful. She started by crossing El Salvador and Guatemala on bus. In Mexico, she boarded a fruit truck with more than 50 other immigrants to make the long trek to the Texan desert.

It cost her $5,000, a fee that would be waived for sex, for those who are willing. “If I was a different kind of girl, I might have,” she explained.

She doesn’t remember much about the journey. “I was passed out most of the time, we barely had water and no food.”

When they reached the desert, the group split up to make the journey over the border by foot. “It was January, so it was freezing, and raining the whole time.” Two days of walking landed her on a shuttle to San Francisco, where her mother and siblings met her with open arms.

Soon after her arrival, Silvia started at Mission High as a senior, but discovered she would have to stay a total of three years at Mission to be eligible, under the state law known as AB 540 and signed into law in October 2001, for in-state tuition.

Now 20, Silvia is finishing her senior year and will graduate in the fall. “What isn’t fair is even if I get into a good school, I can’t go visit,” she said, “what if they ask for my papers at the airport? It’s not worth the risk.”

Silvia’s little sister has had similar issues, and after graduating from Mission High last year, is attending San Francisco State. “Davis was my first choice, but I can’t afford it,” she said.

Juan, an outspoken 20 year-old with gelled hair and a striped collared shirt, also attends State and blames his father for his mother’s decision to leave Peru. Still, he finds the opportunities here much greater.

“The difference with Peru and here is there, if you grow up poor you stay poor, here it doesn’t have to be that way.”

He keeps a fake social security card in case he needs it.

“Who doesn’t?” he laughed.

4 Comments

  1. icarus12

    And so it goes on. Citizen tax payers everywhere pay for the free public education of children of illegal immigrants. That’s about $8,000 a year for each student and more for college subsidies at UC and other schools like SFState. I am not saying “send them home”. But we have to overhaul the immigration system nationwide and stop dumping the costs of immigration onto states and cities that play host to those immigrants. Illegal immigrants’children have legal access to public education, but the fact is their parents aren’t paying into the system fully. They can’t unless they are paying all taxes. Most illegal immigrants don’t pay all those taxes, because many of them work off the books.

  2. Aprill

    As the teacher, Ms. Tom, put it, “Even if they get a good education, then what? They still can’t get good jobs.” So to icarus12, I would say we shouldn’t be penalizing the immigrants as they are here based on the forced circumstances the American government and corporations put them in with trade agreements like NAFTA which completely deteriorated their domestic markets. Everyone talks about the “immigration problem” but no one talks about why it “became” a problem in the first place. Not to mention the fact that we have more than enough money to put back into our own domestic needs, but that money goes to funding military occupations and corporate bailouts. So while Juan the 20 year old believes that in America if you are born poor you don’t have to stay poor is a slight delusion as there are many obstacles put in poor people’s way from moving up unlike the upper classes (such as access to good schooling or jobs as this article points out). It is the same on the individual level as it is for countries who are entering the international market. You need money to start off with in order to accumulate more. It’s how the system was set up and how it continues to run. We shouldn’t be looking at immigrants as the problem, but rather the those who created the situation in the first place, the government/multi-national corporations who allow it to happen, and in fact need it to happen as they have created themselves a new cheap domestic labor force as we have also seen from the high school immigrants from this article. It’s not the immigrants taking “our” jobs or spending “our” money. Merry Christmas.

  3. Thank you all for your comments. If you’d like to read a little more check out Roger Lowenstein’s “The Immigration Equation,” and, tell me what you think.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/09/magazine/09IMM.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

  4. @Lily – Thank you for the wonderful story

    I find this recent backlash on immigrants – legal and otherwise – strangely ironic and completely baseless.

    If you look back for the last nearly 400 years of American history, you will see that throughout that period, immigrants have arrived and thrived here by both ‘legal’ as well as ‘illegal’ means.

    Over time, this movement – of people from different countries and cultures coming here by whatever means they can and then working as hard as they can – is what has made America this great mosaic of various cultures, people, hope and collective national success.

    If the American government had enforced a strict legal immigration policy right from the beginning for the last nearly 400 years, then we certainly would not be where we are today – the Greatest and the most Powerful nation in the world !

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