Undocumented students face challenges, fears

PENITAS, TEXAS -- On class days, Grecia's mother drives Aranet and Grecia 23 miles from their homes in Penitas to South Texas College in McAllen, dropping them off on her way to work in Hidalgo.

Grecia's mom is always mindful of the speed limit, knowing that a routine traffic stop could spell big trouble for the three of them. They are all undocumented immigrants.

"When you don't have papers, you live scared," Aranet told The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Brownsville diocese. "You worry that if the police stop you, they'll send you back. ... My greatest fear is that they will stop us on the way to or from school."

Aranet and Grecia, both 19, began attending South Texas College in August 2011, but the journey hasn't been without its setbacks. (The Valley Catholic omitted their last names for their safety.)

For undocumented students, going to college takes more than discipline and an impressive academic record. It requires money -- big money -- since undocumented students in most states pay out-of-state tuition rates, and without a Social Security number, there are few scholarship opportunities. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Going to college also carries a certain level of risk. As Aranet described it, simply driving to and from school -- versus staying close to home -- increases the risk of being questioned about one's immigration status.

"College is an option for very few undocumented students," said Sr. Carolyn Kosub of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Her religious community operates Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, a community center located in the neighborhood where Aranet and Grecia live. "Money is a problem and then there is the daily struggle of transportation. We are way out here in the 'colonia.' "

Private benefactors help Aranet and Grecia pay for school. The young women are blessed with family members willing to drive them to and from school, but they are at the mercy of family schedules. Most days, Aranet and Grecia are picked up about four hours after their last class and sometimes don't get home until after dark.

Sr. Pat McGraw at Proyecto Desarrollo Humano regularly tutors them. All the sisters at the center provide a large helping of moral support for the young women.

"We feel pressure from the sisters, but it's a good pressure," Grecia said. "Without them pushing us, we wouldn't be doing that well."

"We kind of feel as if the whole neighborhood is watching us," Aranet added. "We can't let them down."

The Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, estimates that 1.5 million undocumented students currently live in the United States. Roughly half of those students, approximately 765,000, arrived before their 16th birthday.

Only about 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates attend college, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Aranet, born in the state of Michoacán in Mexico, came to the U.S. at age 7. She earned good grades and graduated from a local high school in 2011 with the goal of going to college.

"I want to show my little brothers that if I can do it, they can do it," said Aranet, one of seven children and the only girl.

Grecia also was born in Mexico, in Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas. She was 7 when her parents split up. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. with her and her little brother to start a new life.

Like Aranet, she also earned good grades, graduated from high school and dreamed of college.

Before they could enroll in any postsecondary institution, the young women needed an acceptable form of identification, so they went to the Mexican Consulate to obtain ID cards.

"They study hard and want to get a degree, but the doors are closed to them," Kosub said. "They wonder what kind of job they can get without a Social Security number. Many wonder if they should even make the effort."

Aranet and Grecia said they planned to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a policy change announced by the Obama administration in June. It offers the chance for those who are under the age of 31 and came to the U.S. before the age of 16 to request the government use its prosecutorial discretion to defer deportation proceedings and give them work permits.

Other eligibility requirements include currently being in school or having earned a high school diploma and not being convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor. The first day to submit applications was Aug. 15. Application fees apply.

Aranet and Grecia said that although they are happy about the policy change, they pray a more permanent solution will be passed into law.

They dream of the day that they will have legal status in this country and have the freedom to work -- and travel.

"We are always saying, 'When we get papers, we are going to go here, when we get papers, we are going to go there,' " Grecia said.

[Rose Ybarra writes for The Valley Catholic.]

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