Even with aid, life after graduation remains uncertain

By Amruta Trivedi | Staff

Alex remembers the smugglers, the heat, the fence. He remembers running across the Mexican-American border at age 11 in the stubborn summer heat of the Arizona desert, thinking that this was just another adventure he'd soon tell his friends about back in Mexico City.

But that was 13 years ago, and Alex, who asked that his real name not be used so his employer would not find out about his fake social security number, has never been back to his motherland and now considers San Jose, Calif., home.

He is one among the state's approximately 2.5 million undocumented immigrants and one among a handful of those who have completed college. He holds a civil engineering degree from Santa Clara University but has had to work under a fake social security number because his immigration status prevented him from being hired by an engineering firm.

Alex is currently pursuing a master's degree at San Jose State University, but his future after graduation remains uncertain. Even with a degree, he is still illegally in the country.

His situation represents a common problem facing undocumented students who stand to benefit from the California DREAM Act: Though it provides financial assistance now, it does not offer a pathway to citizenship later in life.

Immigration experts call the California DREAM Act largely symbolic, an intermediate step towards a comprehensive immigration reform that does little in the long run to change the socioeconomic status of undocumented students and their families.

Because employers cannot directly hire an undocumented immigrant, students have limited work options, and many still find themselves working low-wage jobs in restaurants, fast food joints and housekeeping — the same jobs as many of their parents and other undocumented immigrants who never finished college.

"For many undocumented students, it is very frustrating," said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. "Their English is better than their parents, their education has surpassed their parents, and they are still in the same sort of jobs."

Because undocumented students still have limited job opportunities, Gonzales said he remains skeptical about the long-term effect the California DREAM Act will have on the contributions AB 540 students can make to the economy.

Current immigration policy fails to capture the complexity of the undocumented situation as it lets children believe in the "American dream but fails to give them any options as adults," said Gonzales.

For some who've graduated and haven't been able to find a stable job, their only option is to go to graduate school.

Vianney Gavilanes, an undocumented student, graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in sociology in 2008 but found herself working as a baby sitter and waitress. Now she is applying to graduate programs in education with the hope that by the time she finishes there will be federal legislation to allow her to change her legal status.

Though graduate school temporarily removes the burden of finding a job within the limited legal possibilities, some students consider the options of becoming independent contractors or working through a limited liability company that would allow them to offer services as outside consultants.

"The students have to find creative ways to get some kind of employment," said Kent Wong,

director of the UCLA Labor Center. "If they want to be using their degree, independent contract work is one of the only legal options for undocumented college graduates."

Unless comprehensive immigration reform is passed, there is no legal avenue for undocumented students to be employed in the United States, and depending on whether or not they first came to the United States on a visa, their options for legalizing their status vary.

Assemblymember Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, who supports a referendum to repeal the act, called the new law a "false dream to the students because when they graduate without legal documentation, no employee can legally hire them."

While the state DREAM Act provides the financial support many undocumented students need to finish their education, the implications of being undocumented do not end at graduation.

"It requires a broad infrastructure to extend support beyond college," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who is working to create a support system for the campus's undocumented students. "Resources provided to students now could instead be used to help students after they graduate."

Though the politics surrounding their legal status remains contentious, many undocumented students said the California DREAM Act provides them with a new hope that the education they now have greater access to will eventually lead to legal work opportunities.

Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at UC Berkeley School of Law's Warren Institute, said that though undocumented students have limited legal work options and often struggle to finish their education, this rarely interferes with their long-term goals.

"A degree is something that you can't take away from these students," Kohli said. "What's nice about the California DREAM Act is that the state is recognizing that this population deserves some relief and we as a state are committed to helping these people. As a state with the largest number of immigrants, it sends a very important message to (Washington) D.C."

Despite facing barriers to get a job, UC Berkeley junior Gabriela Monico has dreams of becoming a lawyer and Gladys Castro, who was forced to drop out of UC Berkeley due to the cost of attending and is currently taking classes at Berkeley City College, said she wanted to enter American politics.

But if there is no federal pathway to legalization by the time she finishes graduate school, Monico said she may consider moving back to El Salvador, a country she still considers home.

However, Castro, who moved to California when she was eight and considers herself an American, said moving back to Mexico is not an option.

"I have a slight accent when I speak Spanish," she said. "I can barely point out the state I was born in, and that's because it's on the corner of the country. All my memories are here, I grew up here and I want to help the community here."

For Castro, that starts by entering American politics to aid other immigrants like herself who struggle to finance their education — and to help them achieve the education and financial security she was promised years ago and has yet to find.

"I want to live here, retire here and be buried here," she said, "I want a house with a white picket fence and an American flag hanging from the outside."

Jessica Rossoni of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.