One summer day in 1993, when child psychology and Chicano studies junior Abraham Castro was 7 years old, he found himself standing alone outside a Southern California restaurant.
The people his family had paid to drive him across the Mexican border dropped him off there and told him his mother would come for him soon.
“I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know where I was, I was scared out of my mind,” Castro said.
When immigrants cross the border illegally, that’s the kind of uncertainty they live with, even long after they’ve settled in the United States, he said.
And for Castro, like many students who arrived in this country illegally, one of the most glaring uncertainties of life in the United States is his future after high school.
“People wonder why Latinos have low graduation rates,” he said. “But when I found out I might not be able to go to college, I felt like dropping out too.”
A 2004 graduate of Highland Park High School, Castro had taken International Baccalaureate classes and earned a full academic scholarship to the University.
Instead of celebrating like most high school graduates would, Castro started looking for a job.
“Getting the scholarship was almost more of a disappointment because I was pretty sure that even though I got it, I couldn’t use it,” he said.
The scholarship couldn’t be given to him unless he was awarded legal residency by the U.S. government. His family had applied for residency 10 years earlier but still hadn’t gotten it. So the chances of getting his residency within the next three months, he said, looked pretty slim.
But somehow he did.
“We got a call from our lawyer saying our residency might come through by the end of the summer (of 2004),” Castro said. “Then all they did was stamp our passports, and then I could go to college.”
But Castro’s case is very unique, said Alondra Espejel, communications organizer at the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network and a 2005 University graduate.
If Castro hadn’t gotten his residency in the nick of time, his options would have been much more limited.
When students awaiting legal status apply to the University, they might be accepted, but they have to pay out-of-state tuition, said University admissions counselor Michelle Garay, who recruits specifically in Latino communities.
For the 2005-2006 academic year, that meant the difference between $7,140 and $18,770.
Applicants without documents also are ineligible for any government financial aid, she said. That includes scholarships like Castro’s; it also means they can’t take out student loans.
“The only money available to them is through private scholarships, and those are very few and far between,” Garay said.
So even in the case of students who’ve lived here most of their lives, gone through the Minnesota school system and performed well in high school, if they don’t have documents, the University really isn’t an option, said Lisa Sass-Zaragoza, Chicano studies department coordinator.
“There aren’t that many options for these kids,” she said. “And that’s part of the message to the larger community and the ‘U’ — there’s a lot of talent and super-bright kids whose options are being limited, and then we all lose.”
Castro’s friend, Felipe Mancera, was one of those talented graduates.
Like Castro, he graduated from Highland Park and earned a full academic scholarship to the University, as well as a full football scholarship to St. Thomas University. But Mancera wasn’t able to secure residency like Castro, so he couldn’t get either scholarship, he said.
Mancera and Castro said what upset them most was that no one told them until late in high school that being in the United States illegally would prevent them from keeping their scholarships.
“When I applied to the ‘U,’ I listed myself as an international student. They called me back and asked why, and that’s when I realized this wasn’t going to work,” Mancera said. “But I didn’t think that should defy everything I had done up to that point in my life.”
He now volunteers full time at the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, lobbying for legislation that would provide people like him access to higher education.
“The only hope is through legislation in Washington that gives people visas so they can live here legally,” said Mancera, “that or the Dream Act.”
The act would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, said Mariano Espinoza, executive director of the Freedom Network. But they still wouldn’t be able to receive government financial aid, he said.
“One of the things people say about the Dream Act is that undocumented students would be taking away financial resources from kids who are citizens,” Espinoza said. “But that is not true, and people don’t realize that.”
But Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, said it’s unfair for out-of-state students who are U.S. citizens to pay higher rates than people who live here illegally.
He also said there is an idea that, although people are here illegally, we might as well educate them as long as they’re here.
“The problem with that is, all it does is encourage other people to break the law,” Gorak said. “Then they’ll say, ‘If you go to Minnesota, you get in-state tuition,’ and that’s where all of them will head.”
The debate surrounding the Dream Act has many sides, but members of the Freedom Network remain optimistic about other ways illegal immigrants can get access to higher education.
Members from the Freedom Network and the University’s Chicano studies department plan to meet with College of Liberal Arts Dean Steven Rosenstone in June about how to make the University more accessible to high-achieving, undocumented students, Espejel said.
“The perception is that if you’re undocumented, you can’t go to the ‘U,’ ” Espejel said. “And we want to change that.”
In the meantime, Castro has come a long way from his first, rather jarring experience in the United States.
As a legal resident now, he’ll be taking the citizenship test in a few years, he said.
He is working on a double major in child psychology and Chicano studies and hopes to go to graduate school to study education and become a counselor or teacher.
“It’s very important to have counselors who understand what undocumented students have to go through,” Castro said. “After the disappointment of finding out you can’t go to college, you know, trying to keep those kids in school is important.”
Mancera said he remains hopeful the work he’s doing will help him and that some day his younger brother will go to college.
“My mom always says hope is the last thing you lose,” he said. “You can lose your legs, but you don’t lose hope.”