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Undocumented students protest status

When Christian '11 fell sick as a child, he almost never went to the doctor. When his classmates got their pictures taken for their driver's license, he sat on a bench and watched. When guidance counselors began discussing colleges, he feared he wouldn't even be able to apply and envisioned his job at McDonald's becoming a full-time one.

Christian is one of thousands of college students without documents that allow them to be in the United States legally. Though they can receive diplomas, most lack Social Security numbers, health care and many professional possibilities.

"Coming to Brown was going from being someone who has no rights to someone who has everything," said Christian, who asked that his full name not be revealed because of his immigration status. "But now I feel stuck. I won't be able to change my family's socioeconomic status even though I went to an Ivy League school."

Last week, the Senate blocked debate about a bill that included an amendment known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. Passage of the DREAM Act would grant Christian and other undocumented students a path to citizenship. He watched on live television as the measure fell short by four votes.

Undocumented students currently enrolled in college therefore remain in limbo — at Brown as well.

The University admits undocumented applicants, whom they categorize as international students, according to Dean of Admission Jim Miller '73. "And if we admit them, we agree to fund them," Miller said. "It's hard to tell how many there are on campus. I don't have a figure."

Three agreed to share their stories with The Herald.


‘Running on hope'

When Christian was seven, his family took a plane from Mexico to the United States. He landed in Chicago, which marked the first time he saw snow, and entered the country with a tourist visa. He has since overstayed that visa — by 16 years.

Throughout high school, Christian kept his status a secret. "If someone doesn't like you, they can just call the immigration office," he said. "I'm always terrified of cops. If I ever get stopped, I think, oh my God, they're going to send me 2,000 miles south to Mexico."

In addition to avoiding the police, Christian learned to stay away from medical problems, since he didn't have health insurance. "But I broke my arm once," he said. "It cost us a fourth of my mom's wages. She had to take a second job."

Both because of financial hurdles and his undocumented status, Christian initially deemed college unfeasible. But he was recruited by Brown's cross country team.

Members of the team personally delivered a letter Christian wrote to President Ruth Simmons, explaining his legal situation. "I wrote that I should have a chance because all the other schools I applied to refused me because I didn't have a social security number," he said.

Throughout his time at college, he has become increasingly open about being undocumented, he added. Last spring, during a documentary screening organized by Brown Immigrants' Rights Coalition, he chose to announce his status for the first time.

"I just straight up said, ‘Hello, my name is Christian, and I'm an undocumented student at Brown.' It felt strangely good, but it was scary," he said.

Christian has since told his story at high schools across Rhode Island. He said he recognizes many of his former beliefs in the students — the idea that both jobs and education are out of reach for undocumented students no matter how hard they work.

Though he says his time at Brown has been a haven, his impending graduation is reviving the likelihood of his returning to Chicago and working at a fast-food restaurant under a fake Social Security number once more.

"I have hope, but I've been running on hope for a while now," Christian said. "I grew up like an American, and kids who grow up American want more."


Mounting activism

High school friends of Steve '12 probably thought his parents were extremely strict.

They wouldn't let Steve get his driver's license — because they didn't want to buy him a car. They forbade Steve from going on a school-sponsored trip to France — because they didn't think he needed to leave the country.

"It had become second nature for me not to tell anyone what the real issue was," said Steve, who also asked that his full name not be revealed because of his immigration status. His family used a tourist visa to leave its native Hong Kong when he was one year old, and he hasn't left the United States since.

He was one of few undocumented students in his Vermont high school, and felt isolated from the issue until recently. Steve, who transferred to Brown this semester, had been selected to be a residential advisor his sophomore year at Vanderbilt University. But when he was unable to produce adequate documents, he was told he could not take up the position — a rejection that marks one of the sharpest reminders of his precarious situation.

"I had always been able to ignore my status in some way or another," Steve said. "I'm slowly getting to terms with it, but I'm still not going to go around parading my status. Brown is the first time I've actually joined the immigrant rights group."

But Steve said he still avoids thinking about his predicament. Otherwise, he added, resentment toward his parents for bringing him to the United States spills over, and worries about his future submerge him.

"I firmly believe the DREAM Act will pass eventually," he said. After a pause, Steve added: "I can go to grad school if legislation doesn't pass, just to buy time. But other than that, what can I really do other than go back and work in my parents' restaurant?"

Inspired to transfer

When Alejo Stark '12 was a child, he dreamed of becoming a professional pilot.

"But obviously I hit this issue where I had to be a citizen and I wasn't even a resident," he said. "Once I began realizing all the roadblocks, I realized I had to do something. I went from being very afraid to being very active."

In 2000, Stark left his native Argentina under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows certain foreign nationals to travel to the United States for a maximum of 90 days. The five members of his family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Miami. His father worked as a busboy, among other jobs, while his mother cleaned houses.

Stark said he initially lived in a constant state of fear — once, when he was peeking out from behind his blinds, he mistook a van delivering gas to neighbors for a police car. Detention and deportation occurred often in his community — even to the priest of his family's church. "My legs literally shook every time I passed a state trooper," he said.

But as the challenges grew to include the possibility that he wouldn't be able to attend college, so did Stark's determination to strive for change. His college counselor, unsure how to handle his situation, advised him to go to community college.

During his two years at Miami Dade College, he grew much more vocal about his status and became an active member of the group Students Working for Equal Rights. Last spring, he decided to transfer and began calling universities to ask if they accepted undocumented students.

Stark cited Tam Ngoc Tran, who was killed in a car crash last spring, as a model who influenced his college search. Tran was of Vietnamese origin, born in Germany and raised in the United States — but lacked citizenship of any of these countries. While a graduate student at Brown, she advocated for immigrant rights.

"She was one of the reasons I applied to Brown," Stark said. "She's kind of an icon."

He transferred to Brown this semester — which marks the first time he has health coverage. "I can run down the stairs now," Stark said. "I have peace o
f mind."

But he has also intensified his efforts to diffuse certain misconceptions about undocumented students — for example, that they're eligible for federal aid.

"There is a huge escalation in frustration that is a product of feeling really disappointed by the political system," Stark said. "But it's a really hard position to be in — how do you get political capital if you don't have a vote?"


An uncertain path

The three undocumented students said anti-immigrant rhetoric is swelling as the national debate grows increasingly polarized. But they also added that these divisions are spurring more activism on the part of undocumented students.

"In the past five years, the way undocumented students speak about their status has changed dramatically," said Associate Professor of American Civilization Matthew Garcia, who said that this new wave of activism disrupts conceptions of immigrants as criminals. "The image is never of these undocumented immigrants who are the best and the brightest."

Despite the surge in activism, few options are available to undocumented students after they graduate from university.

"It's either grad school or getting married or going to McDonald's," said Alexandra Filindra, postdoctoral research associate in public policy and a member of the immigrants' rights coalition. "Someone with a Brown degree mowing lawns or cleaning houses? It's such a waste of an incredible investment."

The economic downturn has eclipsed immigration reform from the political agenda, she added. But ultimately, the urgency of the issue will propel legislation forward.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, a number that makes ignoring the problem difficult, according to Filindra.

"They're basically doomed to a life in the shadows," she added. "But these are the people who can be leaders."



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