Andrea Torres is not your typical criminal.
Squinting through rectangular glasses in the April sunshine, the 21-year-old with a youthful face blends in with the other students as she walks across the Bellevue College campus. Last quarter, she got straight A’s.
But, while she may wear Converse sneakers and carry a Hollister book bag, it’s the writing on Torres’ T-shirt, “Undocumented, unafraid and unashamed” that might make a person take a second look.
Torres, a Mexican American, is an undocumented immigrant.
“I remember my dad saying, you’re an immigrant – you’re going to have to work so much harder than everyone else,” said Torres, who came from Mexico as a child to live in North Carolina, and then Washington – where she now lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
The family knew life in the U.S. would be hard.
Torres said her father, who has a valid driver’s license, was pulled over in North Carolina several times – despite that he hadn’t been speeding, swerving or driving with a busted tail light.
In high school, she remembers what some of her classmates would say: “Illegals, go home,” or the time she ran to the bathroom in tears after a community college representative singled her out in front of the class and told her she wouldn’t be eligible for college.
“Some people don’t even see me as a human being,” Torres said. “To them, I’m just an illegal alien.”
Torres’ situation is one example of the barriers that stand between Latino students and a college diploma.
From the policymakers who argue that undocumented college students steal spots from U.S.-born students, to Latinos being labeled as “underachievers” not fit for higher education, to an alarming rate of students who drop out of high school – there are a variety of factors that contribute to only 19 percent of Latinos having a college degree.
That’s less than half the national average of 41 percent, according to College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.
A PROBLEM AFFECTING EVERYONE
While in recent years, Latinos have been bridging the gap in college enrollment, they still remain the least educated major racial or ethnic group.
Some are worried about this trend, coupled with an influx of immigration and high birth rates that have led to a skyrocketing Latino population in Washington and across the U.S. – where they are projected to account for one-third of the population by 2050.
If one-third of the U.S. is mainly low-income and working as unskilled laborers, it’s not just Latinos who miss out – it’s the U.S. economy, said Tom Finaly, Chief Operations Officer of Southern California-based U.S. University, which caters primarily to Latino and military students.
The booming Latino population could be instrumental in filling positions in the health-care industry for example, especially as baby boomers retire, Finaly said.
“If you look at it from a national standpoint, we are going to lose the fastest-growing population to unskilled labor – and we already know that unskilled labor is not the future.”
LACK OF RESOURCES
Despite that House Bill HB 1079, signed under Gov. Gary Locke in 2003, gave undocumented students the right to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities, Henry Amaya, a retention specialist at Bellevue College, said the law caters to only a portion of students.
To qualify, students must have lived in the Washington for three years and have graduated from a state high school.
The reality is, many young Latinos grow up constantly moving from place to place, wherever their families can find work – often picking fruit or working construction jobs.
What Amaya and others see as crucial to helping undocumented students like Torres is the passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a federal bill in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, that would grant certain undocumented students temporary legal residency and allow them to work toward permanent residency.
The DREAM Act has gained momentum over the years. For example, major corporations such as Microsoft and multiple Washington colleges have publicly endorsed the act. However, it’s still been almost 10 years since it was first introduced.
Bárbara Guzmán, a program manager for Seattle-based Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP) said many students are willing to “come out” as being undocumented to help draw attention to how much the DREAM Act is needed.
Without the passage of this act, which congress will revisit in 2013, Guzmán said young peoples’ hopes, and even safety, could be on the line.
“So many students have become disillusioned waiting on the DREAM Act. When it didn’t pass the first time, some contemplated suicide.” she said. “We’re very worried about that desperation.”
These undocumented students have little options, having been brought here as children by their parents and raised in a country that doesn’t recognize them, said Adrian Morales, a founder of Seattle-based Campaña Quetzal, a coalition to improve Latino success in schools.
“It’s not their crime, it’s their parents’ crime – but is it really a crime to want a better life for yourself and your family?,” he said.
It’s not just undocumented Latino students who struggle to get to college.
Because Latinos are family-oriented, they tend to make decisions, even the choice to go to college, as a group, said Amaya, who recently helped organize the first “Latino Night,” at Bellevue College, co-hosted by Bellevue School District. At the event, middle and high school students and their families, listened to speakers give presentations in Spanish about college requirements, the application process and financial aid.
Doing this kind of outreach makes the planning process easier on busy parents, especially because many of them are low-income and working multiple jobs, Amaya said.
The children of these parents, such as 21-year-old Gabriella Gonzalez, are often left to choose between their studies and having a place to live and food to eat.
Growing up, her parents always encouraged their daughter to work hard in school. ”Échale ganas,” do your best, they’d say. But despite their support, the Renton resident took a year off of Bellevue College to work two full-time jobs, one at the mall, the other at Wendy’s.
The money from her 4 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift would go toward her family’s groceries, rent and utility bills.
“My family needed me,” Gonzalez said.
Students’ “échale ganas” spirit, plus the hard work of parents who have fought for more dual-language instruction, has helped make strides in the Latino community.
Washington has seen an improvement in high school graduation rates for Hispanics in the past 10 years, jumping from less than 50 percent in 2002 to currently 64.5 percent – less than whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders, about on par with blacks, and higher than American Indians, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
As the immigrant Latino population continues to deepen its roots in Washington, Latino students will have more examples of people from their same background, a cousin or older sibling, or even a teacher or someone in city government, who have attended college, Guzmán said.
“Without realizing it, a Latino student going on college becomes a role model for the next generation,” she said.
TAKING A STAND
Torres, for one, has been inspired by her own role models.
“Every time I hear of an undocumented person graduating from a university, it inspires me to keep going,” she said.
It’s the thought of these people who comfort Torres when she is feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly endless list of obstacles.
Torres takes an hour-long bus ride to the Bellevue campus. Without a social security number, she can’t get a driver’s license, qualify for financial aid or get a job to help pay for school.
Instead, she relies on money from her father when he can spare it. He has a government-issued tax identification number that he uses to pay taxes on his tiling business, but it would be illegal for him to hire his daughter.
Once, when Torres needed money for books, she volunteered on campus in exchange for vouchers at the book store.
Nothing comes easy. Money is always a problem. And even if paying tuition wasn’t an issue, she’ll still have trouble finding employment without a social security number.
This problem is precisely why she wears her “undocumented” T-shirt.
While Torres says she’s proud of her Mexican roots – like many others who grew up in the U.S., she too, has an American dream.
As she sees it, the future she envisions for herself of finishing her associates degree, transferring to a university, and ultimately, becoming an art therapist with legal U.S. residency, are at stake if the laws don’t change.
Going on 10 years with still no Dream Act, Torres continues to put her goals on hold.
In the meantime, she’ll be waiting – undocumented, unafraid and unashamed.
Gabrielle Nomura is a Seattle-based freelance writer.
The Latin America Culture Club, El Centro, the Black Student Union,
and theAssociated Student Government take a minute at Bellevue
College to support the Dream act. The National Immigrant Youth
Alliance collected photographs like this online from across the nation.
BY THE NUMBERS
– There are 47 million Hispanic Americans in the United States, accounting for 15 percent of the U.S. population.
– Only 19.2 percent of Latinos have a college degree; less than half the national average of 41 percent.
– The American Latino population represents the largest minority group in the U.S., and has been the fastest-growing segment during the past five decades.
– The Hispanic population, 42 million in 2005, will rise to 128 million in 2050, tripling in size. Latinos will be 29 percent of the population, compared with 14 percent in 2005.
– Latinos will account for 60 percent of the nation’s population growth from 2005 to 2050.
– Washington’s Hispanic or Latino population was the fastest-growing minority group, increasing 71.2 percent from a decade ago to a population of 755,790 in 2010. Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin (of any race) now represent 11.2 percent of the state’s total population, and comprise more than 50 percent of the populations in Franklin and Adams Counties.
– In the 2010-2011 school year in Washington, Hispanics had a graduation rate of 64.5 percent, less than white students (80 percent) Pacific Islanders, 66.2 percent and blacks, 65.4 percent. American Indians had the lowest graduation rate at 56.6 percent. Certain subgroups, including special education, limited English, low-income, and migrant students have graduation rates lower than the rate for all students.
Source: Pew Hispanic Center. College Board Advocacy & Policy Center and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2010 Census data.