Life After Graduation Is Especially Tough for Undocumented Students
Unlike for many of her classmates, post-graduate mornings for Teresa Serrano ’10 don’t consist of 6 a.m. showers, daily caffeine rushes courtesy of Starbucks, or crowded subway rides to Wall Street. Nor can she be found enthusiastically singing the alphabet song to a group of kindergarteners in New Orleans as a Teach for America volunteer.
Instead, the 22-year-old Latina spends most of her days at home in Texas, unemployed, unable to drive, and underachieving because of the place she was born.
“My status has limited my life in unimaginable ways,” said Serrano, whose name has been changed to protect her. Like the other 9.3 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, Serrano lacks the rights of a U.S. citizen. She cannot get a driver’s license and is unauthorized to work because, though she grew up here, she does not reside in the United States legally. For now, she remains trapped in limbo, educated and unemployed.
Home Sweet Home
In the late 1970s, Serrano’s parents traveled from Honduras to the United States in search of economic opportunities and social advancement. Civil unrest and political instability plagued their home country, and her parents sought refuge away from an ongoing civil war.
Her parents’ attempts to bear children led them back home. Her mother experienced several miscarriages and when she became pregnant with Teresa, she was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease that qualified her pregnancy as high risk.
“In the United States, my parents were alone and on their own, whereas in Honduras they had the support of their family and loved ones,” Serrano said. “They were more familiar with the language, customs, and medical procedures there than in the United States, and this made the birthing process easier.”
At 13 months, when her mother was healthy again, Serrano returned with her parents to the United States on a tourist visa. Even after this visa expired, she continued to live in Texas with her parents. Shortly after their return to the United States, Serrano’s parents gave birth to her brother, who is now 18 years old and attends Columbia University. Serrano’s father finally secured a green card in 2008, but for the majority of her life, he could have been deported at any moment.
Growing Up American
Serrano’s parents raised her on working-class wages. Her mother, 52, works as a nanny, and her father, 54, is a maintenance worker. For several years the family lived together in a small two-bedroom apartment. After years of saving, her parents were able to purchase a new home. They were “extremely resourceful,” Serrano said.
Despite economic hardships, Serrano grew up in a loving household and retained strong bonds to her Hispanic heritage. She recalls a fondness for her mother’s empanadas and her father’s carne asada at family gatherings. Her mother, a devout Catholic, took her to mass every weekend and instilled in her the importance of faith.
She grew up with American culture as well. “I learned English from a purple dinosaur and my favorite food was chocolate chip cookies,” Serrano recalled. “I had a pretty happy, normal American childhood.” Like other girls, she flirted in high school and had two-week-long crushes. She was an active dancer and held records in cross-country track.
“Although I grew up in an inner-city household and my parents juggled several low-wage jobs to provide for my brother and me, they were always there for us, and they made our education a priority,” Serrano said.
Her high school in Dallas had a high drop-out rate, but Serrano beat the odds. She excelled academically, ranking third in a graduating class of 250 and receiving the National Hispanic Scholar Award. Like the rest of her close friends, Teresa dreamed of attending college, and she applied to schools in Texas and on the East Coast. By her final year of high school, however, she realized she faced an obstacle her fellow classmates didn’t.
“There was never a single light-bulb moment,” Serrano recalled about finding out she was undocumented. Growing up, she had a vague sense that her parents were in the process of legalizing their status, but until middle school, she believed she was born in the United States.
In high school, the fragments of Serrano’s complicated and broken immigration story began to come together. When she wanted to apply to get a driving license, her mother hastily changed the subject and wouldn’t let her. When she started applying to colleges and wanted to get a job to save for tuition, her parents said no.
“That’s when it sort of dawned on me that I wasn’t a U.S. citizen,” Serrano said. “That’s when I began to realize the extent to which my life would be restricted and shaped by my status.”
The Educational Escape
Yale University was among the list of colleges to which Serrano applied, identifying herself as an international student. She was admitted and offered full financial assistance even though she could not supply all the required documents to qualify her as a true international student. She is one of a small group of undocumented students admitted to Yale.
“We admit students for their academic and personal promise without regard to ability to pay,” explains Jessie Hill, senior assistant director of Yale undergraduate admissions. “We admit a handful of undocumented students every year, and a student’s legal status does not factor into the admissions or financial aid decisions.” Undocumented students are able to secure financial aid based purely on their need; students whose parents earn below $60,000 a year can receive generous aid packages.
This aid and additional private scholarships meant Serrano could pay the annual $50,000 for Yale tuition, but no amount of money could afford her the same Yale experience as many of her peers.
Yale provides ample opportunities for international travel, offering fellowships for research in far-flung places, and summer programs around the globe. Serrano would have loved to study abroad—but because she was undocumented, she didn’t have a passport. Carmen Alvarez, another undocumented Yalie from Peru, whose name has also been changed, agreed that travel was enticing but unattainable.
“The one thing that makes me so angry is when people pass up their opportunities to study abroad,” Alvarez said. “People don’t understand how much traveling is a privilege in this country until they are restricted from traveling home because of their status.”
Serrano, who was unable to travel home to see her family in Texas during holiday breaks, agreed. “We religiously avoid airports and anything resembling a terminal because of the risk of being deported or getting caught up in an Immigration and Customs raid,” she said. “The immobility that accompanies being undocumented can feel, at times, paralyzing.”
Instead, she spent all of her vacations and breaks in Connecticut, thousands of miles away from her loved ones. Her parents couldn’t visit her either: They faced the same difficulties traveling as undocumented persons and couldn’t afford to drive the 1,000 miles from Texas to Connecticut. Serrano passed her summers in cheap sublet apartments, funded by odd jobs like babysitting and Yale psychology studies.
During the school year, she studied anthropology and history. Outside of her academic career, she was a committed community activist for local nonprofits that lobbied for immigration and labor rights.
It was in those moments—when she was working to protect locals and fight for a national cause—that Teresa fully appreciated being a Yale student.
“Despite my looming status, my time at Yale was remarkable,” Serrano said. “I found numerous sources of support at Yale and, although challenging, my experience was full of positive growth.”
According to friends and past roommates, Teresa Serrano was not the type of person to wear her worry on her face. “She was always on top of things and was one of the happiest people that I met during my time at Yale,” Elizabeth Gonzalez ’11 said. Gonzalez met Serrano before her freshman year at Cultural Connections, a University organized pre-orientation program. Additionally, Gonzalez has been a strong proponent and leader on campus for immigration rights through her work with La Mecha, a Chicano social justice student group. She did not discover that Serrano was undocumented until the end of Serrano’s time at Yale. “People were attracted to her bubbly and cheerful spirit. You could have sat next to her and never realized all the issues she was going through.”
Once Elizabeth knew, however, she was aware that the issues weighed heavily on her friend. Serrano worried relentlessly about her future during her senior year, Gonzalez recalled.
The rich tradition of faith and prayer instilled by her mother sustained Serrano at first. “My mother’s answer to most of my questions in life was ‘Si Dios Quiere’—‘If God wants.’ For a long time, that was enough for me,” she said. But as she became increasingly disillusioned with her reality, Serrano found it difficult to maintain her faith. Confiding in friends about her status, however difficult, became a source of comfort instead.
“One of the major challenges for immigrants is overcoming the culture of silence that dominates and colors the lives and narratives of so many non citizens,” Serrano explains. “So many of us are afraid to speak out for our basic rights. My parents simply avoided the subject for years, and I, in turn, inherited that same silence.” Due to the danger of deportation, few students will discuss their undocumented status with their peers. As a result, it is hard for Yale students to identify each other as undocumented. Serrano felt alone, though she knew she was not.
Life After Yale
By commencement in May, Serrano had become increasingly despondent. Her inability to travel for job interviews meant many job applications sat incomplete on her desktop. With growing impatience, her mother insisted her best post-graduate job option was to become a nanny.
Graduation is usually a joyous occasion, but for Serrano, it was a “heart-wrenching experience.”
“What I felt on graduation day was different—something more severe,” she said. “I had spent the past four years at this elite institution, compartmentalizing a painful truth, and I knew that when I graduated I would be confronted with my harsh reality yet again.”
She left New Haven and returned to her home in Texas. Now her daily routine consists of nine-to-five job shifts at fast food restaurants and laundromats, the advantages of her Yale degree negated by her undocumented status.
What comes next?
“I try not to think about the future. I just live life day by day,” Serrano said, adding, “To live as an undocumented person in the U.S. is to grapple with daily exploitation, injustice, and broken promises.”
One such promise was the DREAM Act. The act proposed to grant conditional legal status to undocumented young people who have moved to the United States before age 16, lived here for more than five years, graduated high school, completed three years of college or military service, and committed no felonies or no more than three misdemeanors. The acronym “DREAM” stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.
Yale University President Richard Levin publicly recognized and endorsed the DREAM Act on September 20, 2010. “In my view anyone who has the ability and determination to complete college is the kind of person we should welcome to stay in our great country,” Levin said at the time. “Like many others, I would prefer that the DREAM Act be considered as part of comprehensive immigration legislation.” In the months after his statement, lawmakers and their constituents remained hotly divided on the issue. In Texas, where 37 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin, hunger strikes unfolded in San Antonio in support of the DREAM Act.
These and other protests failed to sway lawmakers, including Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX). On December 8, the bill passed in the House, but a vote in the Senate was delayed. On Dec. 18, the DREAM Act failed to pass again, after the Senate’s motion to prevent a filibuster of the bill fell short by five votes.
After November’s election, Congress is more conservative on the issue of immigration than it has been in years past, but some state politicians are still holding out hope for reform. On January 25, New Haven’s aldermen unanimously recommended that the Connecticut state legislature pass a law making undocumented students eligible to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, a measure New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. also supports. New York, Illinois, California, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and New Mexico all have passed versions of this law, often called a “state DREAM Act.”
Serrano’s post-graduate goal is neither to amass a fortune nor to start a family. It is simply to stay in the country in which she grew up. Her parents have been in legal proceedings to adjust their status for nearly 30 years. While her father recently secured legal status, her mother’s efforts have gone unrewarded. She cannot depend on her younger brother either; even when he turns 21, the necessary age to petition for a spouse or sibling, the process for Serrano would be backlogged for another 15 years.
“Somewhere along the way in our historical trajectory of quotas and immigration rights, the system ran out of gas and broke down on the highway,” Karen Weinstock, an Atlanta-based immigration lawyer, said. “Even if you enter this country legally and file paperwork the ‘right way,’ it can take nearly 15-some-odd years to be naturalized. That’s 15 years regressing your life rather than progressing it.” Currently, the only way that undocumented immigrants can become U.S. citizens is through petitions by family members, company sponsorship, or re-adjustment of status through marriage.
In his State of the Union address on January 25, President Barack Obama addressed the problems with the nation’s current system for naturalizing foreign students educated in the United States. He had previously called the Senate’s failure to vote on the DREAM Act his “greatest disappointment.”
The DREAM Act would have changed Serrano’s life drastically. She describes it as “the only hope for myself and for the hundreds of thousands of dreamers in the US, who have been deprived of basic human rights,” continuing, “It’s physically and emotionally draining to discover the deep limitations that come with being undocumented and the few pathways and decades it can take to legalization. The system is broken, and we need smart, humane, comprehensive immigration reform immediately.”
Unlike other undocumented immigrants, Teresa’s brother’s citizenship and father’s permanent residency increase the chance she’ll be able to legalize her status. But, like many others, she remains in a compromising position, her name and status leaving her in danger of exile.
“The thought of detention and forced removal still sends shivers down my spine,” Serrano said. “It’s the ultimate nightmare—to be detained without justice, to be permanently separated from your family and loved ones, to be banished to a country you have literally no memory of.”
She is left with her hope, her perseverance, and her education.
Liane Membis is a student at Yale University. This article originally appeared in The New Journal, a student publication that receives funding and training as a member of Campus Progress' journalism network.
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