Crossing the education border
Local college supports undocumented students
June 5, 2017
One choice can change a life. For some families, they only have two options. Stay and be subject to violence and poverty or go and try to start a new life for their family, where their children can grow up to have better opportunities.
Even then, they may soon find those opportunities are not always waiting on the other side.
As a little girl in New York City, Elizabeth Kiss (pronounced quiche) grew up in a diverse community, rich in culture, language and race. Being the daughter of Hungarian refugees, she didn’t learn English until kindergarten, but had friends of many different backgrounds.
Still, she had no idea what it meant to be documented, undocumented or a legal refugee.
Now, in her 11th year as the president of Agnes Scott College, Kiss enjoys the intentionally diverse student body, including undocumented students.
While Kiss grew up feeling proud of her identity as the daughter of refugees, some undocumented students aren’t aware of their status until they start applying for college.
“They say, ‘I was starting to think about colleges when my family sat me down and said they need to tell me something,’” Kiss said. “‘We’re not documented, so you might not be able to go to college.'”
Kiss observes how undocumented students are thrown off track after successful high school careers because they aren’t allowed entry into selective public institutions.
“[Undocumented students] are hard working and want to succeed,” Kiss said. “Through no actions of their own have all of these avenues closed off on them.”
In 2012, a small portion of those avenues opened up.
One such avenue was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an executive order by President Obama.
DACA provides temporary protection against deportation, eligibility for work permits and the access to a social security number and driver’s license for young undocumented people. Those who are eligible are granted provisional legal status, allowing them to attend college.
When the program was announced, Kiss and a student attended an informational session at the Latin American Association, an organization that provides social and legal services to Atlanta’s Latino community. There, they ran into the student’s former classmate.
“‘I’m not one of the lucky ones,’” the student told Kiss. “‘I didn’t get a scholarship. I wanted to go to Georgia Tech because I wanted to become an engineer. But that can’t happen.’”
According to Kiss, the two students were the valedictorian and salutatorian of their high school class.
The male student now works in landscaping. Kiss believes his hard work in high school should’ve taken him much further, though.
“That was my wake-up call moment when I thought, ‘this is just wrong,’” Kiss said.
While DACA provides short-term relief, it still doesn’t allow students to get into selective schools like Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia. Undocumented students also can’t receive aid such as the HOPE scholarship, Tuition Equalization Grants (TEG), Pell grants or any other form of state and federal financial aid.
According to Kiss, more odds are stacked against undocumented students as opposition to immigration rises.
“With the anti-immigrant voices that have been given free reign in the wake of President Trump’s election, I think and fear that this is a much more anxious time for immigrant kids,” Kiss said.
When participating in the Women’s March on Washington, an Agnes Scott alumna told her a story that moved her to tears.
“She told me that the reason she came was that three days earlier her son had come home from school, and he said, ‘Mommy, are we going to have to go back?’” Kiss said. “There is enough rhetoric in his school about immigrants that he started getting really anxious about his own family and status even at his age. She knew she had to get him to the march.”
For Agnes Scott College student Rose Williams*, this feeling of uncertainty didn’t arrive until a much later point in her life.
Williams was first brought into the country on a plane, sedated and accompanied by a family that wasn’t hers. A few weeks later her mother flew from El Salvador and joined her.
Thus began life in America. Williams was only two years old at the time.
Like other undocumented children, called “Dreamers,” the United States is the only country she’s truly known and considered home.
“‘[Dreamers]’ created this label for themselves as a way of connecting with the American dream,” Kiss said. “Almost all of them dream in English, as they’ve been brought to this country as children. They are completely engrossed and immersed in American culture. Their dream is to be Americans.”
Concerns over Williams’ status arose as applying for college grew closer.
In Williams’ junior year, her English teacher had her write down her top three picks for college: UGA, UCLA and Georgia State. She also wrote that she was undocumented and hoped to get more information about the future of her education.
“I had no idea what my limitations were,” she said. “[My teacher] took me out of class and he told me that I couldn’t go to the three colleges that I wanted to go to.”
The next year, Williams encountered more unexpected setbacks. She couldn’t attend public colleges, receive scholarships or apply for financial aid.
Many students use DACA to give them the extra push to college. Williams, on the other hand, has Temporary Protection Status (TPS).
According to the Department of Homeland Security, this status is given specifically to immigrants of countries experiencing war, environmental disasters, epidemics and other extraordinary conditions.
El Salvador suffered a civil war and an earthquake before Williams applied, putting it on the TPS list in 2001. With this status, Williams is protected from deportation, can attend some colleges and has more potential for job opportunities.
With her seemingly promising status, private schools were a less limited option than the majority of Georgia’s public institutions. She eventually found her way into Agnes Scott’s opened arms, but can still feel her grasp on her career aspirations slipping away.
“Right now I’m majoring in biology, specifically nursing. Originally, I wanted to go to medical school, but being undocumented prevents you from becoming a licensed doctor or nurse,” Williams said. “So I’ve had to choose different routes.”
She now participates in Freedom at Agnes, a mostly student-run group where both documented and undocumented students meet weekly to discuss issues surrounding education for the undocumented community. They also promote awareness on sensitive topics, like the use of the words “alien” and “illegal.”
According to advisor Liz Bagley, the group has become a safe place for students to talk freely. Some students speak on their roots and how they came to this country, as well as the challenges they’ve faced while getting into college.
“It’s incredibly difficult for families, especially if they don’t have HOPE, TEG, Pell or any other sources of funding, to be able to partner with a college,” Kiss said.
Private colleges run separately from state schools and offer unparalleled opportunities for undocumented students. While they can’t award government loans, colleges like Agnes Scott can use the funding from private donors to provide scholarship programs for undocumented students.
Both private and public schools like Dartmouth College and Florida State University, among others, have gone as far as to declare themselves “sanctuary campuses.” This means that a college or city will adopt policies to protect undocumented immigrants, including refusing to give up student information and education records without a warrant or subpoena.
However, this declaration doesn’t come without legal consequences.
“Any private institution that declares itself a sanctuary [in Georgia] loses eligibility for HOPE and TEG,” Kiss said. “We are not a sanctuary campus. But we are a campus committed to supporting our students, including our undocumented students.”
Not only have state governments threatened to cut funding for sanctuary colleges, but President Trump will halt federal grants to cities that don’t comply with federal immigration laws.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Mayor Kasim Reed considers Atlanta to be a welcoming community for all but can’t declare the city as a “sanctuary city,” because of the possible consequences.
While many threats exist, the future for young undocumented people appears luminous.
With the Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream of Growing Our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, DACA has the potential to be extended. It was originally a legislative proposal as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001, but if passed by Congress, it will be sustained and can lead to permanent residency and durable legal status for undocumented people.
“There has been some indication from President Trump personally that he thinks these are great kids and thinks that they should be able to stay,” Kiss said. “I am really hoping that that will be the case and I am very, very much in favor of extending legal protection to them.”
According to Williams though, undocumented students can’t always rely on the president’s promises.
“His administration is scaring everyone. They say one thing but we don’t know for sure how they’re going to execute everything,” Williams said. “Everything is so uncertain.”
Still, she said, “Dreamers” remain hopeful.
“I still see myself somewhere in the medical field. I hope that more doors will be opened to undocumented people,” Williams said. “Right now we are still very uncertain, but that is our main goal.”
With a supportive community, Kiss hopes to spread awareness and help others put themselves in the shoes of undocumented students.
“So often, families are fleeing terrible situations. I don’t mean to morally condemn their parents. But, if you think about these kids, they have done nothing wrong,” Kiss said. “Yet people continue to suggest that somehow these young people are lawbreakers.”
Kiss envisions a future where people see the value of undocumented immigrants.
“Our undocumented students are such incredibly hard working, talented, ambitious students,” Kiss said. “They have career aspirations and are pursuing them.”
While the students thrive, Kiss acknowledges the uncertainties of their futures.
“There is always that nagging feeling of what will happen, what could happen,” she said.
*Source requested anonymity
Contact the writer, Isis Amusa, at email@example.com