Students Beyond Borders: The story of undocumented students at Georgetown

January 30, 2014

Christina Libre and Noah Buyon

Standing in her living room, Anna* (COL ‘15) absorbed every detail of her house, neighborhood, and family for, what she believed to be, the last time. While she was exhilarated at the prospects of attending Georgetown University, she realized that going to college across the country came with a trenchant insecurity of not knowing when she could see her mother, siblings, or friends again.  This feeling of insecurity is something that Anna had grown used to, being raised as an undocumented child in the United States.

“I told my mom, ‘nothing is going to knock me down. No bad grades, nothing like that,’ Anna said. “And she told me, ‘Go for your dreams.’”

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According to the College Board, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. This number has increased steadily since 1982, when the Supreme Court ruled that all children in the country, regardless of their legal status, have guaranteed access to a full K-12 public education.

Even though the Court did not grant any student the absolute right to attend college, about 7.5 percent of undocumented students that graduate from high school find a way to move on to institutions of higher learning, according to data from the Immigration Policy Center.

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Anna entered into the United States from Mexico as a toddler soon after her mother had divorced her biological father. 

“It was hard that we couldn’t go back to Mexico for funerals and things like that. My grandpa always cried, “You’re not going to see me pass away! I haven’t seen you guys in ten years or more.” No matter what though, my mom would always tell my sibling and me, “Keep going, I have faith in you, you’re going to do something big.”

“When I got to high school, I thought of going to college. I was hesitant because I thought I didn’t need to go and there wasn’t a school I saw that I thought would really open my mind. And then I went to a meeting where schools like Princeton, Harvard, and Georgetown were featured, and I was just amazed. I couldn’t let the opportunity go by.”

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Georgetown University is one of the growing numbers of private colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago, that accept undocumented students. On July 18, 2013, President John DeGioia, along with the presidents from 92 other Catholic universities, sent a letter supporting comprehensive immigration reform to Congress and reminding representatives that “no human being made in the image of God is illegal.”

As a need-blind institution, Georgetown’s admissions office does not become officially aware of the legal status of any student until an individual’s application moves forward to the financial aid office, according to Senior Associate Director of Admissions Jaime Briseño.

“The undocumented part may only come up because it’s mentioned in a counselor letter or in an alumni interview report if the students disclose their status, but they don’t always do that. It is possible that an undocumented student may be accepted unbeknownst to us, although we may have a pretty good guess about it,” Briseño said.

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Citlalli Alvarez (COL ’16) travelled into Texas from Nuevo Leon, Mexico when she was about four years old on a visitor’s visa that would eventually expire. 

“I knew from as early as I could understand the concept that I didn’t have a legal status. I remember I was in elementary school when my mom told me. … I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until people started getting driver’s licenses and started traveling that I realized that there were some things I couldn’t do.”

When time came to apply for college, she had heard that Georgetown could offer some financial aid for undocumented students. She was accepted and granted a place in the Community Scholars Program.

Throughout her time at Georgetown, she became president of Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, which advocates for immigration reform and providing rights to all people, regardless of their legal status. 

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In 18 states, public colleges and universities charge undocumented students in-state tuition rates, and a few states provide state-based aid. In most states, however, undocumented students are required to pay the out-of-state tuition, which is nearly one and a half times the cost of what a resident has to pay, according to Roberto Gonzales of the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. For this reason, many students look toward private and non-profit universities that can provide scholarships to students that cannot receive federal aid, take out any loans, or make enough income through work.

“Because a student who is a non-citizen cannot qualify for federal financial aid, work study, or any federally-subsidized loan, they receive funding from Georgetown,” Briseño said. He affirmed that the University does set aside a limited fund for international students, including those that are undocumented. He added that the University meets one hundred percent of demonstrated financial need for domestic students.

While undocumented students cannot fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, they can still complete the College Scholarship Service profile, which makes them eligible to receive other forms of private aid. Among the scholarships that are available to international students at Georgetown, including non-citizens, is the 1789 scholarship. “The scholarship goes to a subset of students receiving overall Georgetown scholarship. It’s intended to help chip away at the loans students would otherwise take out,” Melissa Foy (COL ’03), director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, wrote in an email to the Voice.

“[There are] students in our program (not necessarily receiving our scholarship) who are undocumented. … The preference has been for first-generation college-bound students who are blazing a trail for their families in higher education,” Foy wrote.

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Kimberly* (SFS’ 15), a Kenyan national, had moved to the United States from Germany when she was two years old. She did not discover that she was undocumented, however, until she started applying for college. Her parents had not told her that she was a non-citizen because they had hoped that they would have been able to change their status.

Despite the news, she still applied to college and was accepted to Georgetown.

She said, “I didn’t really realize what it’s like to be undocumented until I started applying. It means you’re really limited in your choices, you have to be careful about what you say, you move far away from your family and not know when you’d be able to see them again … when my parents dropped me off at school, I had to say bye indefinitely.”

Kimberly became the first undocumented student at Georgetown to study abroad.

“After I got in, it was individual initiative and student organizations that helped me most. Once I did reach out to the administration, it was helpful and responsive,” she said. 

*   *   *

High college tuition has been one of the key challenges that non-citizens face when pursuing higher education.

“Despite my status, I still applied to college, because I knew that it was possible to go. It was just a matter of choosing which schools were more likely, particularly when it came to money, to work out. That was one of the reasons why I chose Georgetown. I knew that as a private institution, it would be more likely to give me support,” Kimberly said.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memo signed by President Obama on June 15, 2012, called for undocumented youth who came into the United States as children and consistently pursued education or military service to be considered for a discretionary grant of relief from the Department of Homeland Security.

Although individuals with deferred action status can legally apply for employment authorization, undocumented students still can’t take part in work-study programs. DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid, federal health care, and other federal programs. For this reason, DACA often only serves as temporary relief for qualifying students.

“[DACA] wasn’t meant to be a permanent solution. Of course, it was a huge relief at the time. But then I realized that it brought up all these existential questions about my identity. In fact, it almost made knowing about my future a little more ambiguous. For instance, DACA is not a citizenship status or any legal residency—it’s really a work permit,” Alvarez said.

Opponents of providing aid to undocumented students argue that such a policy takes away benefits from students who are actually citizens, especially for states that have decided to grant state-based aid to all students, regardless of their immigration status.

Dr. Ana Maria Mayda, associate professor of economics at Georgetown, offers an economic explanation on how providing higher education for undocumented students may actually benefit, rather than take away from government social protection programs.

“If you allow undocumented immigrants to access higher education, you’re going to have an immigrant population that is more skilled,” Mayda said in an interview with the Voice. “In general, economists believe that having a skilled population of migrant workers is going to have a positive impact on innovation rates, other firms, and growth rates … and on the social welfare state, because a migrant is more likely to depend on the welfare state if they are less skilled and less rich.”

Other opponents to immigration reform argue that while an education for undocumented students is enriching, it does not necessarily ensure a job post-graduation. Scott Fleming (SFS ‘72), associate vice president of federal affairs, argues that this reality is a reason why Congress ought to move forward with the DREAM Act, which was spearheaded by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), an SFS and Law School graduate.

“Why would we want to educate these kids, young people, in the United States and at the end of that process, say, bye, go home? That, to me, is ludicrous,” said Fleming. The DREAM Act, presented in 2001 to Congress, would grant conditional permanent residency to undocumented youths who have lived in the United States for at least five years after arriving as a child, after graduating from high school.

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Gilda Gallardo (COL ’17) entered into the United States from Ayutla de Los Libres, Guerrero, Mexico through a coyote, which is an individual that specializes in human smuggling, that her parents had hired. She was dropped off in Santa Ana, California, where she would live most of her life. For years, she and her family would sleep in the closet of her uncle’s one-bedroom apartment.

“[From] an early age I already knew what to do if I was deported and found myself in Tijuana. My parents always made me carry gold jewelry, so that I could sell it if I needed to, use the money to find shelter and call someone if I needed to.”

It was by chance that Gallardo’s counselor at school handed her an application for Georgetown. Although she was given the application two days before the deadline, she was accepted early action. 

*   *   *

The Office of Federal Relations has worked with student groups like Hoyas for Immigrant Rights to promote immigration reform and access to higher education for undocumented students. Last year, they collaborated on airing a movie about “Dreamers,” those who would be eligible for a pathway to citizenship under the DREAM Act, on campus with funding from the office of the president.

In addition, the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access works with non-citizens, aiding them in their transition to the University. For example, the Community Scholars Program, a summer bridge program which brings incoming first year students to campus during the summer for five weeks to take classes, is one program where CMEA officials can meet students, including ones that are undocumented.

“It’s mainly through this specific program [that] I develop these close advising relationships with the students,” said Cinthya Salazar, director of the community scholars program.

Despite comparatively generous financial aid packages and programs like the CSP, concerns remain regarding institutional knowledge of how to work with undocumented students.

“I absolutely do think that we need to educate a lot of administrators on campus. CMEA had a professional development day, and I hosted a discussion on undocumented students. Maybe 25 people passed through my table, and many didn’t even know that we have undocumented students on campus. If you’re at the career center and you don’t know that, and a student comes in, how can you advise him?” Salazar said.

Salazar believes that greater dialogue could lead to more inclusivity. “I think when students don’t feel supported or included its when someone doesn’t know what it means to be undocumented. It’s 2014, and this is on the news at all times. I think everyone should know, and at least the University, a little bit about the struggles of how difficult it can be to navigate the system,” she said.

The students interviewed expressed hope that they could use their education to not only advocate for their parents if need be, but also fight for the right to universal education at institutions of higher learning for all youth.

“I would say that the [efforts at higher comprehensive reform] has a lot do with Jesuit values and the core of our beliefs. This has a lot to do with who we are as a university, so we should be able to ask for this. It’s plain and simple,” Alvarez said.

*Due to the threat to these students’ safety, names have been changed.

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