She was a national finalist for a prestigious science award and graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class. Now, a senior at a public university in Illinois, she is poised to graduate in the spring with a degree in bioengineering and a 3.84 grade-point average. Despite her impressive academic credentials, Cecylia faces an uncertain future. A native of Poland, she has resided in the United States unlawfully for most of her 21 years. Unless federal immigration laws change and allow undocumented students like her to become legal residents, she won't be able to put her degree to use and work as an American engineer.
For this woman and other undocumented students, who asked not to be identified by their full names for fear that they or their families could be at risk, graduation day—whether it's high school or college—is filled with worry. While a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision entitles illegal immigrants to a free education from kindergarten through high school, neither Congress nor the courts have figured out what to do with the estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant students who graduate from high school each year once they decide to attend college. Resolving the question of their access to higher education ultimately depends on a federal decision on whether—and how—to move the estimated 11 million-plus illegal immigrants in the United States toward proper citizenship status. A proposed federal law called the Dream Act would enable undocumented students who have attended U.S. schools and met other conditions to gain legal status and qualify for some student aid. But, so far, the meas-ure has failed to win enough support in Congress, leaving states to cobble together their own policies for handling these students in higher ed.
Statewide ban. Some legal scholars believe the federal government has already made a stand. In 1996, Congress passed a law barring states from giving unlawful residents "postsecondary education benefit[s]" that they don't offer to U.S. citizens. But since then, state legislatures in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and six other states have waived out-of-state tuition fees for illegal immigrant students.
The pressure for a firm federal decision is building, though it doesn't appear Congress will address the issue soon.
Heightened concern about the slowing economy and illegal immigration already has led some states to close the doors of higher education on undocumented students. This summer, South Carolina became the first state to ban such students from all of its public colleges and universities. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Oklahoma have also drawn a line in the sand and now deny illegal immigrants in-state tuition benefits. Supporters of these policies say that scarce education dollars should be spent on making college more affordable for U.S. citizens, not illegal immigrants. "At a time of economic hardship for so many Americans, we need to worry about American students," says William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee.
Gheen's group has vigorously opposed colleges offering admission and discounted tuition to undocumented students in fast-growing North Carolina. On August 15, the state's 58 community colleges will consider whether to remove or continue a ban on illegal immigrants. Community college officials adopted the ban in May after the state attorney general's office advised them that admitting unlawful residents conflicted with federal law. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has since told the state that federal law does not bar colleges from admitting illegal immigrants. Immigrant-rights groups are now urging North Carolina's community colleges to once again open their doors to all students.
Advocates of open access say it's cruel and wrongheaded to deny undocumented students higher education and an opportunity to obtain legal status. They argue that these students would ultimately pay more taxes and make greater contributions as professionals and citizens. Jacqueline, a native of Mexico who has lived in North Carolina since she was 8, says undocumented students like her should not be punished for their parents' actions. "So unless they literally kick me out," the 20-year-old says, referring to the pending decision by the community colleges, "I won't leave." Jacqueline says she wants to become a teacher one day and help immigrants learn English. Graig Meyer, who heads a mentoring program for students in the area and has taken Jacqueline under his wing, says: "We have a huge teacher shortage in the state. And [Jacqueline] is exactly the type of student we should be encouraging to go to school."
While an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants in North Carolina has caused some families to flee the state, undocumented students there and elsewhere say they have no intention of returning to their birth countries. Mark, a native of the Philippines who has lived in rural Illinois and California since the age of 5, has grown up a typical American teenager. He listens to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and roots for the St. Louis Cardinals. "English is the only language I speak," says the 25-year-old, who lost legal status after overstaying his visa. "I couldn't see myself ever going back."
Like other illegal students, Mark lives in a state of limbo. He's working to pay for community college classes while waiting for Congress or the courts to take action. To raise awareness about their plight, Mark and other "Dreamers," as undocumented students call themselves because of their hope for Dream Act legislation, have sent letters and made calls to members of Congress. They have also forged strong communities online, where they tell their stories and sometimes raise money for their education.
Facing uncertainty about how their citizenship status will affect their chances of getting a job, some undocumented students currently enrolled in higher education are staying in school longer and, in some cases, pursuing postgraduate degrees. Preshika, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Fiji who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is considering law school while she waits for a green card. In Cali-fornia, she and other graduates of the state's high schools are exempt from paying the steep out-of-state tuition fees that would otherwise discourage many of them from going to college. She already has two degrees: a bachelor's in political science and a master's in international relations.
Tuition lawsuit. But California and other states are now under heavy pressure to repeal in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, represents a group of students who are suing California. Their suit alleges that California is violating a 1996 federal law that prohibits states from favoring illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens. California's tuition rate for out-of-state students is about four times the in-state tuition that undocumented students living there are eligible to receive. According to Kobach's calculations, California taxpayers spend $200 million every year to subsidize the in-state tuition of an estimated 25,000 undocumented students enrolled in the state's public colleges. A judgment in favor of Kobach and his clients might force California to reimburse out-of-state students and drop its in-state tuition policy for illegal immigrants. An appeals court is expected to issue an opinion on the matter soon.
Zan Brennan, the mother of a 2005 graduate of the University of Kansas, says it's an outrage that illegal immigrants in states like California and Kansas can claim in-state tuition while U.S. citizens from neighboring states must pay higher fees. In 2005, her daughter, Brigette, unsuccessfully sued Kansas after being told she would have to pay out-of-state tuition even though she went to a Kansas high school. The reason: Her family lived on the other side of the state border, in Kansas City, Mo.
Cecylia, the undocumented student from Poland, remains hopeful that a new president and federal lawmakers will support a pathway for students like her to become legal residents. Her professors have encouraged her to pursue graduate school. But Cecylia shows little enthusiasm for the idea. For her, graduation day could be bittersweet.