'We ARE Americans' Profiles Undocumented Students

The millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. include young people who are studying hard and achieving academic success — only to find the doors of opportunity closed to them when they reach college. Education professor William Perez records their plight in a series of portraits in his new book, We ARE Americans. Guy Raz interviews Perez and one of the book's success stories, Nora Preciado.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Wal-Mart's decision to launch Mas Club is all about the bottom line, given this country's growing Latino population. A new book argues that helping undocumented immigrants attend college also makes economic sense.

In the book "We ARE Americans," Professor William Perez tells the stories of 20 young people, all of them children of illegal immigrants, and all of them striving to go to college. They are just a handful of the 65,000 kids who graduate from American high schools each year, kids who remain undocumented.

After graduation, they hit a wall. Their status means they can't get jobs legally or financial aid for college. We'll hear from William Perez in a moment, but first, to one of the young people he profiled, Nora Preciado, known in the book as Jessica.

Preciado and her parents crossed the border from Mexico when she was just 13 years old. She's now 32, an American citizen, and an immigration lawyer. But throughout her school years, Preciado says she felt like she lived in the shadows of America.

Ms. NORA PRECIADO (Immigration Lawyer): I think my experience is typical of a lot of undocumented students, especially as a teenager. I can only describe it as feeling invisible in this country when I was growing up.

RAZ: You didn't speak English when you arrived?

Ms. PRECIADO: No, I did not. We came undocumented with little else than the clothes on our backs from Mexico City, your typical economic refugee story.

RAZ: As you grew up, and as you went to high school, did you increasingly see yourself as an American rather than a Mexican?

Ms. PRECIADO: Yeah. I think that there's always the wanting to belong and wanting to be part of, you know, the group that everyone else is a part of. But there were always reminders that I was not necessarily an American. And it became really apparent late in high school when people are trying to decide what the next step is going to be in their education career.

And for me, the realization that I couldn't attend a university was a real shock.

RAZ: What were the reminders? You say there were reminders of - that you were not an American.

Ms. PRECIADO: Not having an official government I.D., not being able to travel. You know, in high school, all my classmates were taking trips every summer and I could not. Just things that people take for granted as teenagers. You know, having a job, your first job. That was something that wasn't for me because of my immigration status.

RAZ: In the profile of you in the book, it describes how when you arrived to the U.S., and even throughout most of your time in high school, you were placed in remedial courses. But in Mexico, you were an honor student, you were a top student. Can you describe how that process sort of played out?

Ms. PRECIADO: Yeah. It was very frustrating. I was very advanced academically when I was in Mexico City. And so, when I came here, I was placed in very low level courses. And it was very frustrating because it all turned on the fact that I couldn't speak the language and therefore it was assumed that I wasn't capable of excelling academically.

RAZ: And you were, I suppose, lucky in a sense, because you had a guidance counselor in high school that you talk about, who sort of looked after you.

Ms. PRECIADO: Yes. She was great. She was very supportive. It was the first person outside of my family that encouraged me to continue my education. I didn't really want to tell her at the beginning that I wanted to be a lawyer because I thought she would laugh.

And so, when she found out that that's what I wanted to do, she found a way for me to go to a community college. She found a scholarship for me. And that's kind of what started me on the right path to finding my way to law school eventually.

RAZ: Why did you decide to go into immigration law?

Ms. PRECIADO: I mean, I think it's pretty obvious that this is a personal endeavor. I thought that one of the best ways for me to give back to society in general but also my community was to use a powerful took like the law to effect some changes and to make sure that those folks that came after me have the same opportunities that I was given because that's all they want, a chance to achieve the American dream, and once they're given that chance, they're going to blossom into the cultural, economic and political leaders of this country, not just now but in the future.

RAZ: Nora Preciado is a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center and one of the young people profiled in the new book, "We Are Americans."

For that book, the author, William Perez, surveyed about 180 undocumented students, many of them with stories like Nora's.

Professor WILLIAM PEREZ (Author, "We ARE Americans"): They are going through the educational system, graduating, looking for the next level of opportunity through higher education. But they meet that roadblock and then they also begin to realize all the limitations that they face because of their illegal status.

And, you know, this is primarily the reason why I decided to carry out this work, to find out what exactly is that experience like and how can we shape education and immigration policy to address this, you know, growing concern.

RAZ: Now, there are real world consequences to not having legal status. I mean, they can go through the school systems, but in many cases, once these kids graduate from high school, they often find themselves in a position where they can't progress.

Prof. PEREZ: Absolutely. And many of them end up working in the informal economy, whether it's, you know, cash-based economy, you know, sort of low-wage jobs...

RAZ: Because they're essentially illegal immigrants.

Prof. PEREZ: Exactly. They don't really have a lot of options. I mean, the students that I profiled in the book are students that have decided to pursue that goal despite the challenges that they face. And so, you know, they work multiple jobs in addition to maintaining high grades in their classes, and also responsibilities that they have at home, a lot of them are still helping their parents.

But one of the most surprising findings was the high levels of community service that these students were involved in. Ninety percent of the students that I surveyed had participated in some form of volunteer work. Everything from food drives to voter registration, which I found, you know, particularly interesting, because even though they themselves can't vote, they wanted to make sure that other people didn't take for granted that privilege that they didn't have.

RAZ: William Perez, what is the incentive, though, for the federal government to offer permanent legal status or residency to these kids? I mean, the argument is that it would reward illegal immigration.

Prof. PEREZ: Mm-hmm. It's a very complicated question. But I think the issue of undocumented immigrants is part of a larger issue of the desperate need for immigration reform. Everyone can agree, regardless of where they may be on the political spectrum, that the immigration system is broken.

So this is a result of these poor policies, the inability of the federal government to properly regulate immigration. We bear some responsibility in the students being in this situation. And so, certainly, that's one incentive. Another incentive is being able to get a return on that investment. And yet another one is, you know, the fact that over 90 percent of these students have been involved in community service, decades of research show that it is from this population of young adults that the future leaders come from.

You know, people who are in elected office today were folks that had been involved physically when they were young adults. But without legalization, you know, they can't fulfill those roles.

RAZ: William Perez is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the book "We ARE Americans."

Professor Perez, thank you so much for being with us.

Prof. PEREZ: Thank you.

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