Illegal Immigrant Students Deal With U.S. Dating

Amy Taxin, San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 2011

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For the past two years, the couple have navigated some of life’s rites of passage with this in mind. She does the driving and often pays because even with a college degree it’s hard for [her boyfriend, who is an illegal from Mexico] to find work.

The death of the Dream Act last month dashed many immigrants’ hopes of a path to citizenship. While illegal immigrant students pushed for the bill to improve their access to education and jobs after graduation, the legislation also would have eased the often-overlooked challenges of making friends and dating without papers.

On college campuses, illegal immigrant students face a social barrier anywhere photo identification like a driver’s license is required: from taking a road trip with friends to bar hopping to catching a flight.

That can make it difficult to deepen friendships or relationships–or to date at all.

Nancy Guarneros, a 23-year-old graduate student, remembers how she was primping for a special night out with her boyfriend when he told her they were going to a club. She panicked.

“It’s like, oh my gosh, how can you take me somewhere that requires government ID? What were you thinking?” Guarneros recalled at a recent meeting students held in Los Angeles to talk about so-called “cross-status” dating.

It isn’t clear how many young couples are in similar relationships. Researchers say it would be tough to find out, but the number has probably grown since children brought here as illegal immigrants after the country’s 1986 legalization program have come of age and it has become tougher to get a green card through marriage.

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U.S. citizens and green card holders date illegal immigrants at all ages, but researchers say it’s probably more frequent on college campuses, which foster diversity and create a space where students feel safer revealing their status.

It’s especially likely for those students and people in their 20s who were brought here as toddlers and grew up on American cartoons, speak flawless English and have American friends.

Many never knew they were illegal immigrants until they learned at age 16, unlike their peers, they couldn’t get a driver’s license.

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Issues like dating and friendships may seem trivial–but not to teens and college students yearning to fit in.

Illegal immigrant youth often become angry and depressed when they learn they’re living in a country not truly their own and can’t find work, said Carola Suarez-Orozco, professor of applied psychology and co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University.

And while getting an education and a job top their worries, students say they also struggle to have a normal social life.

Dating isn’t easy, especially for young men who can’t drive and often don’t have cash to pay for a date since they can’t get a steady job.

The students are also viewed with suspicion by the families of their U.S. boyfriends and girlfriends who think they’re after a green card.

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“In my last relationship, she actually told me her mom told her, ‘Mija,’ be careful because you know those people, they only want one thing,” he told the students at the meeting, to a chorus of chuckles.

For those who date illegal immigrants, there’s a constant worry their partners will get deported. They find themselves making excuses as to why the couple can’t meet friends at a bar or travel.

Both are often consumed by guilt: citizens, for the privileges they have; illegal immigrants for the burdens they shoulder.

And that’s before they graduate from college. The pressures only get harder when they leave the safety of campus.

Marriage was once seen as a surefire ticket to a green card. But many illegal immigrants now need to return to their birth countries to apply for papers and will be barred from returning for a decade unless they get a special waiver.

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