Illegal Immigrant Graduates Blocked from College Move

Illegal immigrants are graduating from high schools across the U.S. But even highly qualified students find it difficult to move on to college because of their immigration status.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some high schoolers are descending upon Congress today to talk about a touchy subject: the estimated 65,000 students who are in this country illegally and are about to graduate.

Those students face an uncertain future, because their illegal status puts up huge obstacles toward a college education.

NPR's Nova Safo has more.

NOVA SAFO reporting:

Mario(ph) is an undocumented high school student in Los Angeles. He's a great student, with nine advanced placement classes. And he's already been accepted to a couple of universities. But he has no access to financial aid, and there are very few scholarships that don't require a Social Security number.

With a family income of $16,000 a year, a college education seems out of reach.

MARIO: Now, I'm starting to feel worried. Before, when it wasn't so close, I felt really confident, and like on my own planet or something, that something good was going to happen.

SAFO: A lot of kids say that. They said that if I'm smart enough, if I work hard enough...

MARIO: Yeah, but, there's a lot of barriers.

SAFO: Mario is among the lucky ones, because he may be able to afford community college. California is among ten states where undocumented students can pay in-state tuition rates for public universities. In the rest of the country, undocumented students have to pay much higher out-of-state, or even foreign student rates.

And that's left Laura Castro(ph), who lives in Virginia, with few options.

Ms. LAURA CASTRO: I mean all my friends and my teachers, they always ask me, Laura, what, where are you going? And I tell them, I'm not really sure yet. It looks like I'm going to end up going to, you know, community college or maybe not; and - or just take a class.

SAFO: Laura says she's chosen to use her full name for interviews because she wants her story told.

She has a grade point average of 4.1, and she's been accepted by several private universities. But the cheapest one would cost her $20,000 a year, and she can't afford the out-of-state rates at public universities.

Ms. CASTRO: So it's been a very difficult time, because I - sometimes I just feel there are people that have not worked as hard and have, like, you know, real low GPAs and they're going to a better place than I will be going.

SAFO: Josh Bernstein has talked to many students like Laura Castro. He's the Director of Federal Policy at the National Immigration Law Center.

Mr. JOSH BERNSTEIN (Director of Federal Policy, National Immigration Law Center): We have so many valedictorians, honor students, prize winners - really the top achievers - and it doesn't make any sense for us to not allow them to contribute fully, because we're the ones that will lose.

SAFO: Bernstein is advocating for the Dream Act, legislation that has stalled in Congress for years, but is now tacked onto the current version of the Senate immigration overhaul bill.

The Dream Act would allow undocumented students to eventually gain legal status. It would also make it easier for more states to offer undocumented students in-state tuition.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: If you go to high schools all around the country and you talk to undocumented immigrant kids, they may not know about any other piece of legislation, but somehow the fact that this Dream Act is pending and that that is their hope - it has trickled down to them.

SAFO: But Bernstein says the current spotlight on illegal immigration hasn't helped the Dream Act win more advocates in Congress. In fact, opponents to the legislation say, if passed, it would only make matters worse.

Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, Federation for American Immigration Reform): That is a tremendous inducement for people to come and break the law.

SAFO: Ira Mehlman is with the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He says undocumented high school graduates should apply and pay as foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities.

Mr. MEHLMAN: In any other situation in which parents violate the law and their children suffer as a result, we hold the parents responsible, not society. Logically, we know that if we admit that illegal immigrant student, somewhere in that state there's another kid who isn't going to get in.

SAFO: Because of the obstacles to higher education, Josh Bernstein says, currently, only about ten to 15 percent of undocumented students who graduate high school each year actually make it to college.

Nova Safo, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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