GTCC students at heart of immigration debate

by Amy Kingsley

When Elena’s mother lost her job in Guadalajara nearly six years ago and began looking for another, she encountered a problem common in her neck of Mexico. The state of Jalisco where she lived with her daughter had been walloped by a recession that created too many workers and not enough jobs.

So she cast her net wider and found a job in Chicago. She and Elena obtained passports and tourist visas, crossed the border and never looked back. Elena – who adopted a pseudonym for this article – enrolled as a junior in a Chicago high school. Her visa expired, and her mom’s did too, and the two remained in the country illegally, eventually moving from Illinois to Greensboro, where Elena graduated from Grimsley High School.

A couple years ago, Elena started taking classes at Greensboro Technical Community College and became one of 340 undocumented community college students at the heart of a statewide immigration debate.

“The most important thing for me is to get my education,” Elena says. “I just have to wait and see what they do with the law.”

Like other undocumented immigrants at GTCC and around the state, Elena pays out-of-state tuition for her classes. She studies psychology, and in addition to school and work, she volunteers with the Latino Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

And the law she’s talking about is actually a conclusion reached last month by the NC Community College System that effectively opens the doors to students like Elena – albeit at a higher cost. That decision inspired fierce criticism from all quarters, including gubernatorial candidates from both sides of the aisle.

The backlash roused the policy’s defenders, who included Gov. Mike Easley and the president of the community college system, Martin Lancaster. In a written statement, Lancaster defended the decision not only as a clarification of policy, but also as the right thing to do.

“In every era of American history, the latest wave of immigrants has faced the same opposition that Hispanics now face whether they arrived on our shores with or without documents,” Lancaster wrote. “We are a nation of immigrants and if one reviews the names of those who have called or e-mailed the system office in opposition to our open-door policy, one must conclude that fifty or one hundred years ago, their grandparents or great grandparents faced the same opposition that they are now voicing.”

Students like Elena, in addition to coming up with extra money for classes, must often overcome discrimination from high school and college classmates. In a survey of Hispanic high school students, 40 percent listed discrimination as the greatest danger to their classroom safety, said Marco Arate, president of the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals.

When Elena and another undocumented friend first tried to enroll at GTCC, an admissions counselor told them they had to go back to Mexico and get their citizenship before they could enroll.

“He said we should do construction or whatever other kind of work Mexicans do and save our money,” she said. “We could have believed it, but basically he lied to us.”

Elena, who came to the US with limited English skills and struggled in high school, is an exception to a beleaguered population plagued by high drop out and teen pregnancy rates.

The Society of Hispanic Professionals formed seven years ago in response to high drop out rates and low representation in colleges and universities among Hispanic youth, Arate said. The group sponsors mentorship programs, offers modest college scholarships and holds an annual summit for high school students.

The biggest obstacle for many newcomers is language proficiency, he said, followed by a pervasive feeling that they are not supported by the high school community.

“When we asked the students if they felt supported by their school,” Arate said, “a high percentage said they only felt supported by the ESL teacher. Students don’t do well because they don’t feel embraced by the school.”

When the students feel alienated from school, and when they consequently start failing, they often face pressure from parents to drop out and start working, Arate said.

“A lot of Hispanic parents are really struggling to meet the needs of their families,” he said. “If the kids are doing well in school, they are going to do the impossible to keep that kid in school. But if they aren’t, they might encourage them to contribute to the family.”

Many of the students he works with who do graduate from high school lack the resources to continue their education. Arate said he would like to see the community college system open its doors even wider and offer in-state tuition to undocumented high school graduates.

“The community college policy is more in the spirit of workforce development,” Arate said. “But people get focused on the legal aspect of it. They think you are going to have an invasion of Hispanics, and that is just not going to happen. The percentage of Hispanics that have a college degree is only eleven or twelve percent.”

Nolo Martinez, the director of the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG is also critical of the community college policy.

“One thing that is very important to address is that the decision by the community college president is too much of nothing,” Martinez said. “If you are going after reform in education, you have to let the professionals do that. You can’t give it to the public to decide what to do.”

Arate and Martinez both mentioned the DREAM Act, legislation that failed in late 2007 that would have opened a path to citizenship for undocumented students who graduate high school and either enroll in college or enlist in the military. Martinez said the state’s current policy uses undocumented students to generate income but doesn’t offer them a legitimate opportunity to use their skills after graduation.

“There are a lot of certification programs that are closed to undocumented students,” Martinez said. “So you can study for two years and pay as an international student without having anything to show for it. Don’t entice them to go to college if you can’t let them work.”

The failure to pass federal immigration reform has created a vacuum state governments have been trying to fill with policies like North Carolina’s community college admission guidelines and partnerships between local law enforcement and immigration. Which affect real people like Elena.

In addition to the usual school stress, Elena worries about immigration agents – that they might deport her or her mother. That’s a common worry for undocumented students, said Kristina Johnson, coordinator of the Latino Mental Health Awareness Campaign at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro.

“All of our families live with this stress,” Johnson said. “The constant anxiety causes levels of cortisol to remain unnaturally high, which can affect your physical health.”

Hispanic students who do enroll in college often impose impossibly high expectations upon themselves, Johnson said. Elena is one of those.

“I’m working so much,” Elena said, “for me to be able to prove that I want this. The only way that I can go to university is if I get scholarships.”

Elena lives with her mom, and since she cannot get a NC drivers license, her mom drives her around.

“Because of that I do not feel independent,” she said.

Elena would tell all of those opposed to opening community colleges to undocumented immigrants that she and others like her work hard for their opportunities.

“There are some of us who are struggling very much to get an education,” she said. “Some people don’t get an education by choice, but that’s not our situation.”

Right now, she’s focused on completing her schoolwork, and suppresses all the political distractions.

“It’s been really hard, but I’ll get there,” she said. “It’s really just supplementary whether they change the law or not.”

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