Behind Top Student's Heartbreak, Illegal Immigrants' Nightmare
The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Angela Perez looked up from her desk at International High School in Queens one morning last April to behold a most uncommon sight. Her best friend, Lydia, the one who shuffled into homeroom late every day, had scampered in ahead of the bell. "Guess what?" she called to Angela, and from her backpack she pulled a thick envelope. It held the letter admitting her to Tufts University.

How could Angela feel anything but joy? She and Lydia had been close since they entered International High in the fall of 2000 as immigrants new to America and English; together they grew to love reading and talking about the same books, like Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple." They whispered their aspirations to one another like prayers: Lydia hoped to become a physicist; Angela, a political journalist.

Still, Angela's vicarious celebration left a bitter aftertaste. The fourth-ranking student in a senior class of 150, the possessor of a 3.8 grade-point average, the girl voted "most intelligent" in the yearbook poll, she had not even applied to college. Unlike Lydia, her soul mate in so many other ways, Angela is an undocumented immigrant, and under federal law, state university systems have been financially pressured not to provide affordable resident tuition to such applicants. In addition, under separate federal rules, they cannot receive federal grants, loans or work-study jobs from any college, public or private. Nor, for that matter, can they legally work.

"It feels awful," Angela had written of the dilemma in an essay during her sophomore year. "I feel frustrated. I try hard until I accomplish something and I do not want all my accomplishments to be a waste of time. I want them to be valuable. I want to be able to pay my parents back after all their support and the difficulties they have lived in order to bring me here."

The legal ceiling holds down an estimated 65,000 high school graduates each year -- undocumented immigrants who have spent most of the educational lives in American schools and yet are effectively denied in-state tuition at their respective public colleges. A provision of the Illegal Immigration and Responsibility Act of 1996 required state universities that gave in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants to do the same for all comparable students from other states -- creating a punitive cost few of those institutions chose to bear.

Only eight states, New York among them, subsequently passed laws that attempted in various ways to preserve in-state tuition for most state residents, regardless of immigration status. And even in those states, immigrant students, educators and advocates often were ignorant of the loophole or assumed the federal law overrode it. Others feared exposing themselves or their families to deportation by admitting their illegal residence in the college-application process.

Now a bipartisan coalition of legislators has recognized that students like Angela are, in fact, among the most responsible of Americans, those who carry the burden of parents' sacrifices and who seize upon public education as their route to productive citizenship. In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, lawmakers have introduced bills to permit these immigrant students to regain resident status in their home states and, even more important, to earn citizenship in part by graduating from college, allowing them to enter the workforce legally.

Yet nearly a year after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill, by a 16-3 vote, and amid a Republican convention that intends to highlight President Bush's credentials as a "compassionate conservative," the measure, colloquially known as the "Dream Act," has yet to be brought to a floor vote by the majority party.

It has fallen victim to the Republicans' internal split on immigration, which pits cultural nativists against free-marketeers, as well as the overall shift in federal immigration policy toward border control and internal surveillance since Sept. 11 attacks. Trent Duffy, a deputy press secretary to the president, said yesterday that "certain parts" of the Dream Act deserve "serious consideration" as part of a "better, more humane, and open immigration system."

What unites the coalition supporting the Dream Act is a belief that American economic and intellectual might both suffer when the brainpower of immigrants is left untapped. Thus the legislation has brought together as sponsors three Democrats from states with large immigrant populations (Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Representatives Howard Berman and Lucille Roybal-Allard, both of California) and two Utah Republicans (Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Chris Cannon) whose globalism reflects the Mormon tradition of missionary work overseas.

"Immigration is one of the great sources of strength to our economy," said Mr. Cannon in a telephone interview. "You get people who come here with the right ambition, the right motivation, the desire to give their children education. If those children are locked out of the chance for higher education, that's destructive."

Angela Perez's family fled their native Colombia in early 1999 using tourist visas after several relatives had been murdered by left-wing guerillas. Her father, an industrial engineer, found work in New York in a factory making printing equipment, and so impressed his boss that the company petitioned the Immigration and Naturalization Service to have him classified as a legal resident. A few months later, Al Qaeda attacked, and the application remains in limbo.

TO Senator Durbin, such a situation points to the necessity of moving immigration policy beyond the border checks, detentions and deportations undertaken in the name of homeland security. "In the aftermath of 9/11, it is vitally important that we fix our immigration system, which is fundamentally broken," he wrote in an e-mail message. "It harms our national security and our economy and it treats hard-working immigrants, especially immigrant children, unfairly. We have to distinguish between those who would do us harm and those who came to our country to pursue the American dream and are contributing members of our society."

Meanwhile, as the college semester begins, Angela Perez watches her former classmates head off to campuses -- Lydia to Tufts, others to Columbia and New York University. In her family's apartment, in Queens, she keeps a loose-leaf binder filled with academic awards and a stack of framed certificates for scholarship and community service. And she has her high school yearbook, with an aphorism from Gandhi: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

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