Marcelino Benitez said his best academic year was 12th grade. He got all A’s and B’s, learned to install heating and air-conditioning systems in a vocational training program and won a college scholarship. But unlike many of his classmates, he dreaded graduation. After that ceremony, the Mexican immigrant had a diploma from Virginia but still lacked the other documents he needed to make his way in the United States.
For illegal immigrants, public school is a rare refuge. There’s no requirement to prove legal immigration status to enroll in school. But the transition into the adult world can be abrupt. About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year, unable to work legally and often unable to afford college without access to in-state tuition or government-backed financial aid, according to the Urban Institute.
These students pose special challenges for guidance counselors and other educators. Some have scouted out ways to help undocumented graduates pay for college. A few have sought to open more doors for promising students, delving into the maze of immigration law and attempting to help them legalize their status.
Benitez, now 21, found help from two parent liaisons and a guidance counselor who run a homework club at Dominion High for English language learners. They contacted their congressman and hired an immigration specialist to speed up his stalled resident visa application.
Nearly two years later, after spending about $10,000 and more than a year back in Mexico, Benitez has a fresh visa pasted into his passport. Now he is back in Northern Virginia, ready to pursue more skilled jobs in construction and eager to earn a degree in psychology or theology.
“This is a safe haven for kids,” said Taryn Simms, one of the liaisons who helped Benitez. “Whether they are documented or undocumented, they didn’t have a choice to come here, and they have to come to school.”
The main hallway at Dominion High is lined with flags representing the more than 70 countries in which its students were born. The largest immigrant group is from El Salvador. Others come from elsewhere in Latin America, and many recent immigrants have settled into the townhouses and apartments of eastern Loudoun.
Like other schools in the area serving immigrant communities, Dominion High is a hub for social services. Many schools offer computer training or English classes to parents. They also connect families to food banks or medical care.
Among those facing barriers are some of the highest achievers. A recent graduate from Osbourne Park High School in Manassas finished her senior year among the top students in her class and received a prestigious award from the faculty.
Teachers at the school are trying to help the 18-year-old Salvadoran get into college by contacting people at local universities and researching scholarships. “We have even investigated getting her name attached to some sort of bill in Congress,” said Anita Al-Haj, director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. “We are trying everything in our power to help her.”
ESOL teachers in Prince William County are developing a standard curriculum for their 13,000 students to explain clearly the path to graduation and the options afterward for documented and undocumented students. They plan to include a unit on immigration law.
Such systemwide programs targeting undocumented students are unusual, however. Most efforts come from individual teachers or counselors hard-wired to help students succeed, as they encounter individual children in need.
At Annandale High School in Fairfax County, history teacher Eleanor Shumaker, now retired, became the legal guardian of a Somalian student in the late 1990s who came to the United States illegally and alone and had become homeless. More recently, a counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington County, who declined to give her name, sheltered an immigrant student in a spare bedroom so she could graduate from high school.
Benitez came to the United States with a friend when he was 15, hoping to join his mother in Loudoun. After walking across the desert for a day and a night, he was picked up in a small truck packed with other border-crossers and driven to Phoenix. “They just lay you down like cigarettes, one after another one,” he recalled. From there, he made his way to Northern Virginia.
He started ninth grade a few weeks later. He recalled long days trying to comprehend rapid-fire lessons and late nights working at Wendy’s, where he earned money to send to younger siblings in Mexico and to help his mother pay medical bills. He applied for a resident visa early on as a relative of his stepfather, a U.S. citizen.
Butkovich and Simms [“liaisons” hired by the school system] met with U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and asked him to look into the student’s immigration case. Wolf’s staff discovered that his visa application had been filed improperly, causing a long delay. The Dominion staff hired an immigration specialist who helped him refile the forms and added a letter detailing his accomplishments.
A month after graduation, Benitez had an interview at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.