Being Here, but Not Here: The Story of How Immigration Policy Affected One Girl's Potential and Decisions Calls for More Action

By Sherman, Ross; Ibarra, Hugo | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Being Here, but Not Here: The Story of How Immigration Policy Affected One Girl's Potential and Decisions Calls for More Action


Sherman, Ross, Ibarra, Hugo, Phi Delta Kappan


It would be difficult for a person not to like Jacqueline. Her lively personality, openness, and intelligence contrast with a simple yet thoughtful demeanor. Her modest background growing up in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant from Mexico does not interfere with her ideas about family, culture, education, and the difficulties of life.

Jacqueline arrived in the U.S. when she was 21/2 years old with her parents and her older brother. They came from Arroyo Grande, a small city in the Mexican state of Guerrero, and crossed the border illegally in pursuit of a better life and employment opportunities. For Jacqueline, all of her memories belong to her life in the United States where she grew up. She does not remember anything about her life in Mexico. Since arriving in the U.S., she has not visited Mexico and considers the United States her only home. As a child, Jacqueline spoke exclusively Spanish with her family, but now speaks fluent English with a Spanish accent.

Although Jacqueline's parents did not attend high school, she was determined to graduate just like her older brother did a couple of years before her. She managed to pass all her courses and state assessments in middle school and high school. From the time she was in middle school, she had college on her mind. Early in life, she decided that she wanted to better herself and that education would improve her quality of life.

Jacqueline thought that college would enable her to overcome her dire circumstances. After all, during her first three years of high school, she was engaged in college-related activities through her AVID class, a course and program that targets low-income students and prepares them for college. She even visited different campuses and learned about opportunities offered at local institutions.

Nonetheless, during her last year of high school, Jacqueline began to realize that attending college would not solve all her problems. Attending college was a possibility, she said, but at the time she was not considering what would happen once she completed her degree. She began questioning if it was worth her time, effort, and money.

Jacqueline had a different and interesting perspective about college. She knew that undocumented students could attend college and that she would have to apply before she could be admitted. But she also knew that immigration laws would keep her from working once she finished her degree, regardless of any other variables. Since she had entered the country illegally as a toddler, she had no claim to legal residency nor an opportunity for lawful employment. Despite her young age and intellectual abilities, she knew the odds were against her.

The 'lost generation'

Jacqueline is by no means unique. An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the United States every year (Passel, 2003). Out of this population, only 5% to 10% continue their education in a higher education institution.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not exclude undocumented children from a tuition-free elementary and secondary education. As a result, almost all undocumented children attend elementary and secondary school in the United States. The ruling, however, did not specifically address public education after high school, creating uncertainty for undocumented students who wanted to attend an institution of higher education.

Although federal laws don't explicitly prohibit the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges and universities, financial barriers related to in-state tuition policies affect undocumented immigrants. These policies have been influenced by federal legislation that limits undocumented students' eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

Currently, 13 states have passed in-state tuition initiatives for undocumented students--California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island. …

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