At just 15 years old, Raul’s world seemed on the verge of collapse. His older brother had died of a brain tumor. His friends were getting caught up in trouble. He knew he would too.

To survive, he decided to leave that all behind, and the teenager traveled, alone, from Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, to a place where he could start his future from scratch: the Mission District.

It may be an unlikely destination for a teenager seeking tranquility and direction, but in the past two years, living with an aunt and two cousins and attending John O’Connell High School in the Mission District, that’s exactly what Raul has found. Now, as a senior applying for colleges, he is once again preparing for a decisive leap into the future.

But like the estimated 65,000 graduating high school students in this country illegally, Raul faces a route to college as daunting and uncertain as the 1,100-mile trek he took to get here. As teens seek las oportunidades in El Norte, a host of roadblocks—from evolving legislation to unavailable financial aid—form an obstacle course to college.

“It’s almost like special needs, asking college counselors to deal with the needs of undocumented students,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, the after-school coordinator at O’Connell.

Many counselors don’t even bother and instead leave students to sink or swim in the murky process of filling out forms for colleges, finding private scholarships and doing it all without a social security number.

So on a recent Monday, Rodriguez led a group of Raul and about two dozen other undocumented students to the campus of San Francisco State University, where lawyers and youth organizers tried to unsnarl the legal and bureaucratic quagmire.

“Know your rights,” read one of six hand-written posters taped to a wall. “You are not required to show state-issued ID or a social security card to apply to a public college.”

“People may tell you otherwise,” warned Laura Melgarejo, a youth leader from the Mission-based organization PODER who led the workshop, “but it’s lies.”

With such language, the process of applying for college sounded like a political act, one that must be fought for and defended.

Indeed, for immigrant high school students, it has become nothing less.

Last month a California appellate court ruled that a 2001 law, called AB 540, allowing eligible undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition for state and community colleges conflicts with federal law. It may be years now before the courts resolve its constitutionality, but in the meantime, undocumented students can pay in-state tuition.

So studious teens like Raul persist. His dream is to be an architect like his brother, whose death set off Raul’s trip north. He wants to attend a U.S. college, where a degree can open doors worldwide. He takes advanced placement courses, and has begun applying for schools like Cal Poly, UCLA, and Pomona.

The workshop taught him that he has the right to attend those schools, and that he can even apply online. But one issue still concerns him: “I have no money.” Even tuition at a community college can be daunting for an undocumented student who is also prohibited from working. And his inability to apply for loans is unlikely to change.

In late September, citing the state’s financial woes, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed for the third time the California Dream Act, which would have allowed undocumented students to apply for college-administered financial aid. A federal Dream Act that would create a pathway for youth to attain legal residency failed congressional passage last fall.

Helen, another O’Connell senior at the workshop, estimates that a large fraction of her classmates are illegal immigrants, each one’s journey shaping their plans for their future.

Hers began in El Salvador. “My mom came in 1998, and sent money to my father to send my older brother,” she explained, dropping words in slow, deliberate, near perfect English phrases. “In 2002 she sent for my father. Then in 2004, she came for the rest of us.”

Knowing the sacrifices and risks her mother made for her and her siblings, Helen strives to take full advantage of life in the United States, college education included.

“I want to tell my mom that all the trouble she took to bring us here was worth it,” she said, as tears began to cloud her eyes.

Helen’s goals include not only a career as a pediatric nurse, but volunteer service in her spare time. “I want to help students in high school understand AB 540 so they can get into universities,” she said. Prior to the field trip, she had never heard of the law, which requires additional paperwork for her college applications.

“Sometimes I’m scared because I don’t know if I’m gonna get accepted,” she said of the application process. “If they reject me,” she continued, prepared for that possibility, “well, I’m gonna try again.”

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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