GOSHEN — As a child growing up, Ana — though not fully aware what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant — had strict orders from her parents not to discuss the matter.
“Shhh, we don’t talk about that in public,” her parents would admonish.
Not until high school, when friends started getting driver’s licenses — something off-limits to her — did the implications of being undocumented in the United States sink in. She decided she needed to be more proactive and formed a group to lobby for passage of the DREAM Act, the federal proposal that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrant students.
Now a college student, she took another step Friday, speaking out at a conference at Goshen College called to address the barriers and issues that keeping Latinos, legal or otherwise, from college. Three other Elkhart-area college students also spoke out — asking that their full names not be used due to concern about anti-illegal immigrant backlash — offering insight into the frustration and obstacles undocumented immigrants face as they vie for higher education.
“Anything that would make me a top student, I would reach for it,” said Maria, describing her academic prowess as a high school student here in Elkhart County. Now, though, unable to afford a full slate of college classes due to higher tuition rates undocumented immigrants face brought on by a state law approved last year, her schedule is kept to a minimum, better to save costs.
“I felt helpless,” she said. All that effort in high school, only to have the door slammed on her in college, at least partially. “I felt I couldn’t do so much about it.”
One of the things keeping them going is hope that the DREAM Act will one day pass. It was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 but has been turned back every time it’s come up for formal consideration.
“It’s really hard for these students, so the DREAM Act is this really, really bright light we are hoping for,” said Ana. Ana was brought to the United States from Mexico by parents looking for a better future, and now attends college in the Elkhart County area.
It’s already bad enough for Latino students in the U.S., regardless of their migratory status.
A smaller percentage of Latinos earn high school degrees or finish college compared to their Anglo counterparts, according to Henry Fernandez. He’s an honorary board member of Excelencia in Education, a national nonprofit group that promotes education among Latinos, and was the keynote speaker at Friday’s conference, organized by the Indiana Latino Higher Education Council.
The lower education levels lead to fewer Latinos owning their businesses or homes and, in turn, mean Latinos are set up to make much less money, Fernandez said. It doesn’t help that school officials frequently zero in on Latinos as challenges to be addressed or overcome.
“They’re seen as problems or deficiencies,” Fernandez said. “They’re not seen as assets, and we need to address that.”
Similarly, Claudia Suarez, a recruiter at Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette and one of the workshop speakers, noted that the median age of Latinos in Indiana is 14 while the number of Hispanics in the United States overall is growing. That means there’s going to be a surge in the number of Latinos reaching high school age, underscoring the need to focus on the group lest Indiana and the nation end up with an “uneducated society” in the Hispanic population.
Eduardo, another of the undocumented immigrant college students who spoke out Friday, said concern about deportation isn’t necessarily the primary factor in his unwillingness to go public about his migratory status. “It’s the fear that you’ll be looked at differently, that you’ll be an outcast, per se, from your other peers,” he said.
At the same time, he emphasized that while it’s normal for undocumented immigrant students to feel scared, they should also realize there are options, however limited, if they want to attend college.
Jose, another of the student speakers, was able to secure enough aid enabling him to attend college. He came to the United States from Honduras when he was 3, his family lured by the promise of a better future.
Still, a recurring theme was that high school counselors need to be aware that there are undocumented students in their midst and be mindful of their wariness about stepping forward for assistance. There are 65,000 undocumented immigrant high school graduates per year, said Ana, and 1.2 million undocumented immigrant children nationwide.
“If you’re a high school counselor (and) if you’re not sure you have undocumented students — you do. There’s no question you do,” said Jose.
Ana said there’s only so much she can do as an undocumented immigrant. She certainly can’t vote.
“I can advocate,” she said, addressing a group consisting largely of educators and recruiters from Indiana colleges and universities. “But it’s people like you who can make a difference.”
Truth reporter Marlys Weaver-Stoesz contributed to this story.