A guest editorial by Christina Gómez, Erica Meiners, and the 8 Project
José, a charismatic 18 year old, wrote his personal essay for his college application about crossing the border and avoiding la migra. His classmates, a wiry seventeen year old, Ana, made a YouTube video before the 2006 immigration marches that documents the violence she endured while crossing the border and Jorge, with a level gaze, calmly states that since he and his mother pay taxes, why shouldn’t he have equal access to higher education?
In a nation where the landscape of K-12 education is increasingly dominated by privatization, militarization and the proliferation of tightly competitive selective enrollment “boutique” schools, a vibrant open Chicago enrollment high school like Senn High School is almost a dying breed. José, Ana, and Jorge are a few of the approximately 42 out of the 210 graduates of the Senn class of 2008 that are undocumented. And this number, as Alicia states with her eyes set on a future as a nurse, does not include the ones that dropped out to work in 11th or 10th grade, convinced that a high school diploma offered no real routes to a future.
Despite skyrocketing tuition costs at “wealth hoarding” elite private (and public) colleges and universities, 2008 was a record setting year for college applications because of the demographic bulge (an increase in number of 18-year olds), the ease of on-line applications, and, in the face of an economic downturn, the awareness of the sheer necessity of college for future living-wage job opportunities. Yet, invisible in the mainstream media reports that celebrate “hard-working” high school students and their paths to elite post-secondary institutions are the estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school across the U.S. this June. Like José, Ana, Alicia, Jorge and the many other undocumented students we have talked too, they are all too aware of the pathways awaiting them in the U.S.A. – physically demanding low-wage work or acquisition (and deportation) by one of our nation’s well endowed public entities: the Orwellian-titled Department of Homeland Security.
Yet, with supportive teachers, counselors, families, and peers, they are resisting these state sanctioned deadening futures. They are working to become some of only 7,000 – 13,000 undocumented immigrants enrolled in colleges across the country. In Chicago, available research suggests that approximately 20,000 undocumented high school students live in our city, and approximately 6.1 percent of all undocumented students are enrolled in a post-secondary institution. Even if accepted at other public or private four-year institutions, most of those undocumented at Senn will attend the overflowing public community colleges in Chicago, because they are not eligible to receive any federal or state financial aid. Although Illinois (as well as nine other states including Texas, California, Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska) is a supportive state in terms of access to post-secondary education - undocumented students pay in-state tuition as long as they meet the required admission criteria by the institution of higher education they applied to as stated by Illinois House Bill 60. With the price-tag for 2007-2008 undergraduate in-state tuition at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) topping $15,036 for the 2007-2008 school year, many students, including those ineligible for most financial aid, simply cannot afford higher education.
The increasingly prohibitive fees for higher education, even when the consequences of under-education are much more costly, is just one of many public policies that disproportionately hurts communities of color and poor people। Immigration, and criminal justice policies, frequently senselessly punitive, do nothing to make our communities “safer” and bear no relationship to the daily lives of those most impacted। The undocumented students at Senn High School know this. José can’t get a driver’s license but the limitations of public transit in Chicago and the exigencies of his employment, make driving without a license a reality. (Currently only eight states allow undocumented immigrants to receive their drivers’ licenses or permits.) Ana can’t get legal employment, but needs to support her mother and siblings, therefore she works in a restaurant that doesn’t ask any questions. Jorge also works at a restaurant. Every weekday he arrives at work 4PM and leaves after midnight. Most youth that we talk to to, work on a fake social security number or under the table in dehumanizing and often dangerous contexts in jobs that sustain our cities and economy. No fancy non-profit internships or skill and network building “summer jobs” for these youth. A day without an undocumented Mexican youth in Chicago, to riff on the title of Sergio Arau’s 2004 mockumentary, would shut down many a restaurant.
With the looming presence of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids (like the April 24, 2007 raid in the predominantly Mexican Little Village neighborhood in Chicago), fear for oneself and for family, is a constant. Without legal routes to employment, their lives are, like increasing number of residents in the United States, criminalized. At over two million in prisons and jails and counting, the U.S. is the global savant on incarceration. The U.S. government currently has more than 300 publicly and privately run jails, “detention centers,” where the undocumented are held, some for years, until decisions are reached on deportation; about 30,000 people are awaiting trial or deportation. With the Sentencing Project estimates of approximately 5.3 million people disenfranchised in 2007 due to felony convictions, and the Pew Hispanic Center documenting upwards of 10 million undocumented adults, this expanding disenfranchisement of millions, signals the resurgence of Juan and Jim Crow.
As immigrants ourselves, we count ourselves honored to have the opportunity to work and learn alongside many of these students and their families. Their belief in higher education and tenacity is impressive and their contributions in classrooms, as in our communities, are invaluable. Without legislation like the DREAM ACT (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), a bill that would have granted legal status to these students, the future of many of our students and their families, looks bleak. We deeply question the de facto economic and racial draft implicit in the DREAM Act, and we challenge the narrowness of the population selected to “benefit” from a complicated potential access to legalization, because “hard work” or “innocence” should never be used to justify the allocation of rights. Yet, along with many across the nation, we mourned last October when the bill failed to pass in the Senate by a vote of 52 to 44. The dreams of many students were crushed across this country. In 2009, there will be approximately 2.9 million high school graduates, and more undocumented youth, seeking futures with their families and loved ones, in the U.S.A.
The silence of presidential candidates on meaningful and systemic immigration reform grows more deafening. We know our nation can do better. We must.