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Undocumented in the Ivy League

Yale freshman Alejandro Sánchez was conditionally accepted into a prestigious summer program to study economics abroad. But unlike his friends, it isn’t guaranteed that he can ever come back.
yale graduation
Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen (flickr)

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For undocumented students in the U.S., a college degree requires more than academic excellence.
Alejandro, a DACA beneficiary, eyes an Ivy League diploma despite setbacks.

Sitting in one of New Haven’s trendy coffee shops, Yale freshman Alejandro Sánchez has exciting news. Along with some of his classmates, he was conditionally accepted into a prestigious summer program to study economics abroad. But unlike his friends, it isn’t guaranteed that he can ever come back.

Alejandro is an undocumented immigrant, one of an estimated 200,000 to 225,000 across U.S. college campuses. He is also so much more—a former valedictorian interested in economics and computer science, curious about startup culture, and impeccably well-mannered. But despite his talents, the accolades he’s earned and growing university support, he likens his journey to Yale to swimming upstream.

When Alejandro was four years old, his parents moved to the United States from Mexico, a country he barely remembers and hasn’t visited since. They came over legally on tourist visas, but when the time was up, his parents took a risk and decided to stay. Alejandro wasn’t privy to their decision, only finding out about his immigration status when he began thinking about getting a driver’s license.

“I’m Mexican,” Alejandro says, “But the United States is undisputedly my home.”


For now, Alejandro is protected by President Obama’s 2012 executive action, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA targets undocumented youth like Alejandro—those who have been in the country since 2007, arrived before the age of 16 and met a series of qualifications including earning a high school diploma or GED and not having a criminal record. The program granted them work visas and temporary deportation relief. As of December 2014, 702,000 young people had applied to the program, and of those, 87 percent were approved for renewable two-year permits.

These hundreds of thousands of young people can now work legally and focus on their studies instead of worrying about deportation. “Roughly 70 percent of DACA’s participants started their first job or got a new job, which not only helps them earn more money but also gain valuable experience,” explains Zenen Jaimes Peréz, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, who works on issues related to immigrants and higher education.

It also provides hope for Alejandro’s summer program. A special authorization known as the Advance Parole—a lesser-known part of DACA that enables travel outside the United States—may allow him to spend the summer studying abroad and return to the United States.

However, DACA is not a panacea. As an executive action, it could theoretically be rolled back as soon as a new administration enters office. It is due to this precarious nature that Alejandro requests his real name not be used, explaining that he would only be open to doing so if “DACA was guaranteed to be irrevocable.”

In February, a Texas federal judge revealed DACA’s vulnerability by blocking the implementation of Obama’s newest November 2014 executive actions. These actions were set to expand DACA eligibility while also offering protection from deportation to parents of U.S. born children and permanent residents through the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. But for now, the changes are still on hold.

Peréz suggests that presidential candidates are likely to target the 2014 executive actions. "It's hard to think that someone now integrated into the fabric of American society for years—in school, working, with a bank account, driver’s license, and health insurance—could now be removed."

Even if DACA stays intact, these youths are left in limbo without a path toward citizenship. The 2010 DREAM Act—legislation that failed in the Senate—would have provided that type of long-term legal solution. But without any recent movement on federal legislation, the situation for undocumented students continues to be piecemeal, varied and uncertain.

Alejandro has thrived at Yale, but his story is an exception. Across the United States, 25 to 30 percent of all youth (16 to 24 years old) enroll in college. For undocumented immigrants, it’s closer to 10 percent.

The myriad challenges, according to Alejandro, start in high school—when many undocumented students, seeing no way out of their limbo status, lose motivation. Others pick up jobs on the side to financially help their families, slowly drifting away from their classwork. Even for those who remain dedicated to their classes, studies show a lack of information regarding university options and an inability to obtain financial aid obstructs the path to higher education.

It was Alejandro’s parents’ insistence on a college education (despite neither making it beyond high school) that propelled him forward. They stressed the importance of studying hard, reminding Alejandro that while “people can take many things away from you, they can’t take away your education.” Eventually the prodding paid off, with Alejandro graduating at the top of his class.

Yet hurdles continue even for those undocumented students who make it to college. Some like Alejandro make it to elite schools, but this group is the minority. “Over half of undocumented students attend community colleges, mirroring American citizens,” says Peréz. However, regardless of where they go to school, many undocumented youths face the same struggles of being first-generation college graduates from under-served communities.  

“Coming from a public high school in a small town, the longest things I wrote before Yale were my college application essays,” said Alejandro, who laughs when talking about an eight-page paper due in a few days.

The financial component is also critically important, given that most undocumented students come from low-income families (reporting incomes of $30,000 or less). Regulations on tuition vary by state for public schools, with 19 U.S. states allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition and another nine actively restricting it. Some states—including Georgia, where Alejandro grew up—sometimes prevent undocumented students from enrolling at all.

For private schools, such as Yale, undocumented immigrants must register as international students. This can mean fewer scholarship options, as only a handful of private schools guarantee need-based financial aid for this group.

Caesar Storlazzi, University Director of Financial Aid, explained in an email that “Yale provides need-based aid to all undergraduates, regardless of immigration status." Storlazzi added, “I do not see this policy changing at all in the coming years.”

“It’s like getting the golden ticket,” Alejandro jokes when describing his full tuition package.

For those without such generous financial aid, loans might sound like the logical next step. But federal grants and loans—which often offer the best terms—are out of the question. In fact, less than 1 percent of 900 surveyed undocumented students reported taking out a loan.

Some colleges and universities are now changing their policies to welcome undocumented students. A few offer scholarships that are blind to immigration status or open to international students, while New York University started a program specifically targeting undocumented New Yorkers. Most recently, Tufts University stole the spotlight by promising to consider all accepted undocumented students for domestic, need-based financial aid. Other independent scholarship organizations have also popped up to try to fill the gaps.

Finally, while universities routinely provide support networks for international students navigating the U.S. employment system, there is little help for someone who is neither international nor an American citizen.

However, this hasn’t stopped undocumented students from achieving academic excellence. “I thought that by working hard and proving myself academically, I could become accepted as an American,” Alejandro says.

Statistics confirm this attitude, with a study by the University of California Los Angeles finding that undocumented immigrants reported higher GPAs than the national average. Further, over a quarter are studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, gaining the expertise that America’s workforce so desperately needs.

Despite the hurdles, Alejandro is surprisingly diplomatic when talking about Americans who would balk at his situation. “I’m pretty legally minded,” he says, grinning. “I probably would have come to America the legal way if it had been up to me—even if it took ten years.”

But after a quick pause, he adds, “But I’m glad my parents decided to stay in America. If not, then Yale would never have happened.”

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: DACA, Immigration, Latino College Enrollment

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