Posted on April 1, 2010

Living in the Shadows

Elizabeth C. Pezza, Harvard Crimson, April 1, 2010



Around the country, student advocacy for immigration reform has recently adopted this practice of “coming out,” of putting a face on the cause. In Chicago, eight undocumented students spoke at a rally that drew a crowd of 1,000 people on the same day as Harvard’s event, and cities from Los Angeles to Orlando followed with rallies of their own. In Florida, four undocumented and formerly undocumented students began a 1,500-mile walk on New Year’s Day. They planned to go from Miami to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about the DREAM Act and their situation. Their “Trail of Dreams” campaign has attracted supporters as well as opponents, including an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

Of course, most undocumented students keep their status quiet for fear of deportation or the stigma attached to being illegal. But as the wait for immigration reform continues and the obstacles to a normal life become more apparent, more are pushing their fears aside and speaking out.


A 1982 Supreme Court decision requires that students have access to a primary and secondary education regardless of their immigration status, but there are no similar measures regarding higher education. Edward Schumacher-Matos, who directs the Harvard Inter-Faculty Initiative on Immigration and Integration Policy and Studies, believes the primary reason to pass the DREAM Act is that it is in the country’s best interest.

“We have invested so much in training and educating this group of young people,” he says. “If they’re good enough and have responded enough to be able to get to go to college, then we as a country need these people and should want these people.”

While many undocumented students may have day-to-day experiences similar to those of their documented peers, the fundamentally restricted structure of their opportunities becomes clear when it comes to certain milestones: 16th birthdays do not mean driver’s licenses, and high school graduations do not open the doors to college or a job.


Because they are guaranteed a K-12 education, the first major limitation that most undocumented students face comes when they look ahead to college. Although there is no federal law barring universities and colleges from accepting undocumented applicants, these students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and most private aid and scholarships are restricted to legal residents.

Eleven states currently offer in-state tuition for undocumented students, who often still struggle to pay these lower rates. {snip}

A select few are able to defer the limitations of an undocumented future when they are accepted at schools like Harvard. In its efforts to recruit the best students from the nation and the world, Harvard is one of very few universities with the financial resources to offer merit-based, need-blind admissions standards for all students, including those ineligible for federal financial aid.




Much of the current intensity over unauthorized immigration goes back to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal for employers to hire or recruit undocumented immigrants, while also granting amnesty to immigrants who had come to the U.S. before 1982 and resided here continuously since that point. The law was largely ineffective at decreasing unauthorized immigration, the undocumented population continued to rise, and the resulting widespread backlash against immigration persists to this day.

The DREAM Act has become tangled in this politicized debate, despite a solid base of bipartisan support. “The real political issue is that both sides are using the DREAM Act to hold the other side hostage,” Schumacher-Matos says. Proponents of more progressive immigration policies want to leverage the bill’s bipartisan support to pull through comprehensive reform, while their opponents will support the DREAM Act only in exchange for stricter enforcement. There are also those who reject amnesty in any form.

Due to the tensions surrounding immigration policy, students advocating for the DREAM Act have found themselves performing a balancing act.

In March of 2008, Scott M. Elfenbein ’11 led a group of students to found Harvard College Act on a Dream, which strives to raise awareness and push immigration reform forward. But since then, the club has had to reassess and redirect its initiatives multiple times.

Tran [Melissa Tran, ’10, current president of Harvard College Act On A Dream] recalls that one of the club’s first initiatives was to prompt Harvard to advertise itself as a “sanctuary university”, modeled after sanctuary cities. There are more than 30 of these cities around the country, which openly publicize practices that refrain from inquiring about immigration status. Act On A Dream reached out to Harvard University Police Department and the admissions office, but faced some resistance. They backed off amidst worries that pushing too hard on HUPD would draw negative attention to undocumented students.


The group faced a similar situation last spring, when it began lobbying for President Drew G. Faust to show her support for the DREAM Act. {snip}

But Faust ended up publicly endorsing the DREAM Act in a letter to federal lawmakers last spring, a step that was in line with support from the Association of American Universities and The College Board, and has since been replicated with support from presidents at other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford.



Higher education at places like Harvard offers a temporary respite from the undocumented life in the outside world. {snip}

But even though Mariana [an undocumented student who graduated last year] says she cannot imagine Harvard having done any more for her, it could not provide a shield from all the difficulties of life as an undocumented student. Mariana knew that she would never be able to study abroad or get a term-time job, and while her peers were stressed about finding summer internships, most of them were not even options for her. {snip}

Eventually, Mariana convinced herself that she could only take advantage of the opportunities she had now, even if the future remained uncertain.

“I think that most [undocumented] students are fine throughout their undergraduate years. It’s fairly easy to do as much as you can and you have learned to be satisfied with the things you can do,” Mariana says, {snip}.



For those students who know that a Harvard degree will not allow them the same opportunities as their peers, other sources of motivation are necessary.


For many Harvard students, once graduation looms, their concerns about speaking out also begin to give way. “The students who are more willing to be vocal are the ones that have graduated and are really experiencing what it means to be undocumented in the real world, not Harvard’s safe place,” Mariana says.


In looking toward the future, there are only two real pieces of advice that people can give Mariana: get married or move back to Mexico. “I don’t know the place at all,” she says. Mariana also cannot leave her family behind, knowing that her mother is still sick. And as far as marriage: “I’ve been proposed to more times than I care to get married,” she says, remembering the offers of friends she has told about her situation.

Mariana says she would rather be a sacrificial lamb than take the easy way out through a marriage of convenience. {snip}