Undocumented students face uncertain futures

Shauna Perigo

“Ellen” lives a relatively normal life for a 17-year-old. She attends school during the day and spends her free time with family and friends.

However, Ellen, a junior who wished to remain anonymous, cannot drive a car. Ellen is an undocumented immigrant unable to obtain a driver’s license, afford college, or even get a job. Until Ellen becomes a legal resident or citizen, she doesn’t have many options for her future.

“Next year I’m going to be a senior and I have to start thinking about what I want to do, and how I’m going to do it, because not everything that I want is going to happen. Because I don’t have papers, I can’t get a license, which means I can’t get a job, which means I can’t pay for college,” Ellen said.

Currently in California, undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver’s licenses or apply for jobs. However, recent laws aim to change the status of undocumented immigrants in the state.

The Obama administration recently passed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act, granting two-year temporary residence to applicants who came to the country before the age of 16, have lived here at least five years, and meet a number of other conditions. As temporary residents, immigrants can obtain work visas and driver’s licenses.

In addition, Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law allowing all undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

The law, which will come into effect by Jan. 2015, has raised controversy because the new licenses will look visibly different from licenses of American citizens.

While DACA does provide legal residency to undocumented immigrants, the application process is not easy.

Neither Ellen nor “Steven,” an anonymous senior, currently have legal residency, and Ellen said that she does not plan on applying for DACA benefits at all for fear of deportation. In addition, the the license law has not yet come into effect, and Steven and Ellen cannot yet obtain licenses.

“People put all of their information into that paper, and if you do get it, you only get the papers for two years,” Ellen said. “After those two years there is nothing that says what they’re going to do to you. What about the rest of your education? That’s only half of your education…what do they expect us to do?”

Immigration by the numbers

Many undocumented immigrants fear that police will realize they are undocumented by looking at their license after they pull them over, according to Wilson.

“Here in Marin County, people are probably relatively safe,” Wilson said. “But, if you live in some counties in this state, particularly the southeastern part of the state, people probably do have something to be worried about. There have been terrible stories about how law enforcement has exceeded its authority and turned people over to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. But in Marin County we hope that’s not likely to happen.”

DACA does not offer immigrants a path to citizenship, according to Tom Wilson, the Executive Director of the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, an organization that works with low-income, Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“What DACA does is make people eligible for a work permit and a driver’s license,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t really change anything else for an undocumented student. It’s a good thing to have because it is a temporary permit of residence. It’s temporary, but the person is legally present in the U.S. under those circumstances.”

President Obama passed DACA in 2012 after Congress failed to approve the DREAM Act, which would have provided conditional permanent residency to immigrants of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States under the age of 16, and lived in the country for five years before the bill was passed. DACA only provides temporary residency to immigrants who meet the conditions taken from the DREAM Act.

Steven also currently lacks citizenship, a license, and a job, and said that he cannot afford college. DACA is one of multiple paths he is trying in order to gain citizenship or temporary residence, but he has not received DACA protection yet.

“My mom hasn’t really explained to me the process, but she recently got married to her husband and he’s Brazilian, too,” Steven said. “Neither of them are citizens but they’re going to try to apply [for citizenship] because they’re a family and they haven’t done anything wrong. I think they’re sending a letter to the government asking them for citizenship because they have kids.”

California has also passed its own version of the DREAM Act, offering scholarships and financial aid for state colleges to undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship who meet certain conditions, such as being brought into the country before the age of 16.

While Steven was not aware of the California DREAM Act benefits, he said they may be helpful once he is ready to apply for college.

“My plan was to go to COM [College of Marin] because we can’t afford college, but since I’m undocumented and I don’t know when my papers are going to come out or anything, I can’t do that,” Steven said. “I can’t get a job either. I can’t get a driver’s license. I can’t do a lot. So if it doesn’t come out, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

According to Ellen, the process of college admissions is disheartening for an undocumented immigrant.

“I don’t want to live with my parents for my whole life,” Ellen said. “It’s going to be hard for college though because there are some colleges that don’t accept students that don’t have papers. I was going to go to West Point, a military school, but I can’t go anymore because I’m not a citizen. So that kind of crushed my dreams. That was my dream school and everything. So not having documents affects you in every way possible.”

Both Steven and Ellen’s families are in the process of applying for citizenship, and Ellen and Steven said that the process of becoming a citizen is long, hard, and sometimes unsuccessful.

“Recently, since we started the process, school has been getting a little bit rocky for me,” Steven said. “My grades have been slipping since graduation’s coming and I can’t go to college and all that. It’s been affecting me more as the years went on.”

Ellen noted that the process was very stressful.

“We’re always waiting for letters or anything, and it took a long time for my aunt to fill out all the papers and make sure everything was right. We’re just scared that it isn’t going to work because we put all of our information into it,” Ellen said. “They could just come to our house and be like, ‘You sent us this, we have your information, we’re going to take you, you’re being deported.’”

Although Steven and Ellen both lack basic rights that many teenagers take for granted, they both said that living in America is better than the alternative. According to Ellen, her dad questioned her motives when she chose to stay in the country, but she was sure she had made the right choice.

“My dad was like, ‘Are you sure? You’re not going to be able to drive when you grow up, you’re not going to be able to do a lot of stuff because you’re not a citizen and you don’t have papers,” Ellen said. “I told him I want to go through that because I know that in the end it’s going to be worth it.”