April 27, 2007

Solutions are in Undocumented Graduates, say workers and lawmakers

SB 160 returned to the senate education committee this week

By Raymond R. Beltran

Like most Americans, Manuel Dominguez’s parents worked hard and encouraged him to get educated. He carried on his shoulders the weight of setting an example for his younger siblings too.

He took advantage of the American experience and graduated from San Diego High School in 1993 with a 4.12 grade point average, was granted state funding for college, won a MacDonald’s HACER (Hispanic American Commitment to Education Resources) Scholarship and was accepted to San Diego State University, pursuing a degree in Spanish with a teaching credential.

His three younger siblings followed suit and were accepted to universities like Cal State Riverside and Santa Cruz, pursuing teaching careers like their older brother.

But political walls came crumbling down at the end of their tunnel, blocking the light that would have been a better life, for them and a staggering profession.

Remnants of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 cut state funding for undocumented students in the mid 90s and forced Manuel, who’s parents migrated illegally when he was fifteen, to pay an out-of-state tuition that he couldn’t possibly afford on his own.

The ‘magic number,’ what some undocumented students are calling social security IDs, was missing in the household and the four siblings, who also graduated with exceptional GPA’s, have since found it easier to work as clandestine cooks, janitors and car wash attendants.

“What can I do? I stopped going to college,” says Manuel, who earned his associate’s and was two years from his bachelor’s when his tuition went from $1,200 to $7,000. “My cousin was here legally and he got me a job washing cars, and it was good for me because I started at seven dollars an hour, plus tips.”

It’s been years since he and his three siblings have considered a secondary education. They’ve managed to acquire borrowed social security numbers, and names, from family friends to find work. They’ve married and all but the youngest, Eddie, have their own children now.

Eddie now answers to the nickname ‘Tony’ while cleaning a lobby at a ritzy downtown San Diego hotel and pays the actual ‘Antonio’ his year end tax refunds in exchange for the borrowed identity.

The sum of their scenario is nothing other than wasted talent, for them, and possibly a shot in the foot for an aging nation if lawmakers don’t find a way to utilize young, but undocumented, talent.

“According to projections based on the U.S. Census, an average of 4.6 adults will turn 65 each minute in 2007,” reads a January 2007 report called Age and the Labor Force by Boston College’s Center on Aging and Work. In 2025, it will be eight adults.

With Latinos being the largest minority population, supposedly skimming fifty percent of the population by mid-century, some lawmakers find the answer to a qualified labor shortage in financially supporting students like the Dominguez’s.

Currently, undocumented students can pay in-state tuition under Assembly Bill 540 if a student has three years of high school attendance in California, a diploma and makes a commitment to pursue legal citizenship, but even so, families like the Dominguez’s still can’t afford $3,122 in-state tuition for one semester, not including books.

“The baby boomers are aging out and we need to fill those (jobs),” says Eric Guerra, a legal aid to Senator Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who’s reintroducing Senate Bill 160, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, this year.

SB 160 would allow undocumented students, who meet AB 540 requirements, to be eligible for state aid, something that the governor’s office vetoed when it landed on his desk last year. This Thursday, April 26, it was up for its first reading by the California Senate Education Committee.

“What I’d like to see happen is have that bill passed,” said committee chair, Senator Jack Scott (D-Pasadena), who supported the bill last year. “They’re residents of the state … I consider them my constituents.”

A 2006 letter from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoing the bill states that “this bill would penalize students here legally by reducing the financial aid they rely on to allow them to go to college and pursue their dreams.”

Although, Senator Scott says that the bill is not punishing anyone, just opening the pool of qualified candidates pursuing an education.

“We’re talking about qualified students that are, more than likely, not going to return to their native country,” he says.

This month the San Francisco Chronicle reported that in coming decades, according to the statistics from Boston College, professional employers will be tasked with replacing a historical number of educated veteran employees. This void would provide a logical opportunity to educate the untapped 50,000 to 65,000 undocumented high school graduates who’ve, for years, familiarized themselves with the U.S. culture.

Some high school graduates, like 21 year old Christina Espinosa, have gone on to pursue an education at a university with scholarships from foundations like San Diego State University’s Talent Search Program.

Though she works the same type of jobs as the Dominguez’s do, she’s still young and has some minor financial backing that they didn’t.

“Do you think we’ll all be able to pay that?” she asks. “The bill would be a good start for equality and it would be great for the economy.”

Christina migrated with her family in her early high school years and has since been accepted to Cal State Long Beach and San Diego State University. She is pursuing a degree in Chicano Studies and says she lives a student life mixed with some paranoia that is rarely seen in the average student who has the luxury to mix studies with leisure.

Without a social security number, she says her post grad options will be limited, and at the very least, there is the option of returning to Mexico with an education that might lead to a work visa to re-enter the U.S. later. Though that idea, Espinosa says, is but a mere possibility.

Eric Guerra from Senator Cedillo’s office refers to statistics from the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying that “for every student that gets a college degree, four dollars will be returned to the economy for every one dollar spent on a student’s education.” He adds that, this time around, SB 160 received new support from that group, as well as the Post Secondary Education Committee and the California Student Aid Commission that distributes the popular Cal Grants.

He expects the bill to slide through the education committee reading this week, with growing bi-partisan support from both houses just like last year. It’s the governor that they’ll have to convince, a speed bump that Senator Jack Scott finds ironic in that Schwarzenegger himself is an immigrant.

Eddie Dominguez, who arrived with his family when he was seven years old and graduated with over a 4.0 grade point average, says they’re waiting on a guest worker program that would allow him to stay, but with a letter to immigration officials explaining his family’s financial dependency on him.

He’d still be interested in attending college, he says, but his future plans, right now, are on hiatus.

His wife, Maggie, says that legalization is possible for all four siblings of the Dominguez family since they’re all married to U.S. citizens, but that lawyers urge them to wait for a comprehensive immigration solution to rise out of congress, which is dedicating two weeks of May to discuss reform.

With current laws, the family’s path to legalization would entail a nine month trip to Juarez, Mexico for an intense interview process that could possibly bar them from entering the U.S. for ten years, a punishment for entering the country illegally.

“As hard as it is for me to say this,” says Maggie, who’s an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration, “the president’s guest worker program would be beneficial to us.”

For the Dominguez’s, life is moving forward by any means. College was a great dream at one time, and Manuel, who says he doesn’t blame himself wholly for his stone-walled education track, says he admires students like Christina who’ve found the means to continue, yet, still have to pay the bills that average citizens do.

“If I had to help her without knowing her, I would do it,” he says. “People should really respect the effort these students put into it ... Sometimes you have to take a chance and help the people, so later, they will help you.”

(Editor’s Note: This story went to print while the education committee was reading SB 160. Whether or not it passed was unknown.)

Raymond R. Beltran was awarded a fellowship with New America Media this year on reporting about education issues.

Return to the Frontpage