Immigrant college grads in legal limbo can’t get jobs

Undocumented, they pin hopes on DREAM Act

In December, 11 undocumented-immigrant students who had been given private grants graduated from Arizona State University, some with honors.

In May, nearly 40 more are expected to graduate, some with engineering degrees.

But in the middle of a recession and with immigration reform not a priority now in Congress, the future of these young people, many of whom were brought to the United States illegally as children, is bleaker than ever.

Even as immigration enforcement has escalated across the country, hundreds of undocumented immigrants continue to graduate with associate, bachelor’s and even master’s degrees. But most remain stuck in professional purgatory. Undocumented, they are unable to legally land a job in their chosen career.

The immigrants have put their hopes in immigration reform, including a proposal in Congress called the DREAM Act that would allow undocumented students who complete high school to become legalized if they complete some college or military service. But even with a new president and Democrats in control of Congress, there are few signs that immigration reform will gain passage soon, especially with so many Americans out of work.

In the meantime, a special scholarship program in Arizona that funds undocumented college students will run out of money next year. The program was established after a 2006 law was passed that requires undocumented immigrants to pay higher, out-of-state tuition.

Some undocumented graduates, unable to get good jobs, have returned to Mexico or other countries they barely know. Many toil underground in the same labor and service-sector jobs as their illegal immigrant parents. Immigrant-advocacy groups maintain that these are the kind of immigrants that the United States should legalize and embrace: motivated, educated and on the road to self-sufficiency. They did not choose to enter the country illegally.

DREAM Act opponents

Lawmakers and others opposed to the DREAM Act say the immigrants shouldn’t be given legalized status or tuition breaks because they will compete with Americans for jobs. Also, they say, legalizing them will create incentives for more parents to bring their children illegally into the country.

Guillermo, 22, an undocumented immigrant from Cuernavaca, Mexico, is one of the 11 who graduated from ASU in December. His mother brought him here illegally when he was about 4. He asked to be identified only by his middle name out of fear of being deported.

“It stinks having this education and not being able to use it,” said Guillermo, who earned a 3.44 grade point average and a bachelor’s degree in business management. His maroon-colored diploma sits on top of the television in his Tempe apartment. While his fellow graduates are busy sending out resumes to corporations, Guillermo sells shoes at a retail store, a job he got using an invented Social Security number and fake green card.

More than ever, undocumented youths who want to attend college face a painful dilemma: If they can find the money to attend, they may have little chance of securing work in their fields because of tougher enforcement of laws barring the hiring of illegal immigrants. If they don’t attend, they could get stuck in dead-end jobs.

Their shrinking chances of getting professional work is one of the reasons State Treasurer Dean Martin opposes letting such students pay in-state tuition.

Martin, a Republican and former state senator, was the main sponsor of Proposition 300, which makes undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition, tuition waivers, grants or any other financial assistance paid with state funds. Those students already are ineligible to receive federal financial aid.

Martin thinks it is a waste of tax dollars to help the students attend college because without legal status, they can’t put their degrees to use and thus the state cannot recoup its investment.

Martin says out-of-state tuition more accurately reflects the cost of an education. Residents get the in-state tuition because they are more likely to remain here, make the higher incomes of college graduates and pay more income taxes.

Martin estimates Arizona has saved millions of dollars by blocking undocumented students from in-state tuition.

Out-of-state tuition costly

At ASU last fall, out-of-state tuition cost $17,949 compared with $5,661 for in-state tuition.

Opponents of Proposition 300 say charging undocumented students out-of-state tuition is short-sighted. The students may be able to put their college educations to use in the future if Congress passes immigration reform.

“It is petty. When someone tries to rise from the ground up and we try to squash them, that is petty,” said Carmen Cornejo, director of CADENA, a local grassroots group pushing for the DREAM Act.

Last year, the non-profit group Chicanos Por La Causa stepped in to replace a scholarship program by ASU that helps undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition. The American Dream Fund raised $5.5 million in private donations, enough to cover two years of tuition assistance for about 200ASU students, said Edmundo Hidalgo, president of Chicanos.

But the scholarship will run out of money after the next school year and the program is not accepting new students. That’s because it was created with the expectation that Congress would pass immigration reform that allows undocumented immigrants to earn legal status.

Focus on economy

Demetrious Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said it will be almost impossible for Congress to pass immigration reform this year with the economy so bad.

The DREAM Act, however, may have a slight chance of passing since the program would be limited to only a fraction of the nation’s 12 million undocumented population.

The Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C., estimated there were more than 1 million undocumented immigrants between the ages of 5 and 24 as of 2005 who would qualify for the DREAM Act, including about 360,000 who were college-age. The institute estimated about 50,000 undocumented immigrants were enrolled in college or university that year.

The legislation, however, has stalled in Congress since it was introduced in 2001.

Meanwhile, undocumented graduates remain in limbo.

“They are doing jobs that are not related to their education or their degrees. That is the sad part of all this,” Hidalgo said.

Guillermo, the undocumented business student who graduated in December, is now applying to private law schools. He is hoping that in the meantime, Congress will pass immigration reform. Either that, Guillermo said, or he will continue selling shoes.

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