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‘I’m American too’: Undocumented students wait for Obama action

With immigration overhaul delayed until after midterm elections, young people long for far-reaching reform

Immigrants and Arizona Dream Act Coalition staff members wait for guidance from an attorney on a federal program to help young undocumented immigrants avoid deportation, in Phoenix in 2012.
Ross D. Franklin / AP

“I don’t have the legal paperwork to be here in the U.S., and Arizona is the worst state for that,” said Vasthy Lamadrid, an undocumented student.

“As far as the college process goes, being undocumented makes my situation way more complicated. I don’t qualify for federal aid,” she said. “But this is where I grew up, and this is my country. I’m American too.”

After arriving in Phoenix from Mexico when she was 7 years old, Lamadrid excelled in school, performed well on standardized tests and did 600 hours of community service helping other immigrants.

However, with parents unable to pay for her higher education and problems qualifying for tuition assistance, she worried about affording college. Private scholarship opportunities looked more attractive, so she applied to schools as far away as Hampshire College and the University of Portland.

There are some 1.5 million undocumented students (from all grades) in the U.S. But only 1 percent of all college students are, like Lamadrid, unauthorized to live in the country.

Just 21 states allow in-state college tuition rates for undocumented students. And Arizona is not one of them. The state has strict laws that not only prevent such enrollees from enjoying in-state status at public universities but also bar them from receiving state-supported financial aid.

Sarah Harper, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents, said there were “no plans to consider any policy revision” to these rules, which apply to anyone “not a citizen or legal resident of the U.S. or who is without lawful immigration status.”

Arizona, moreover, has some of the most stringent immigration laws in the country. In 2010 the state passed a law that, among other provisions, requires police officers to question people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. That measure inspired copycat legislation in Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. But this year a federal appeals court gave some hope to many of the young undocumented Arizonans seeking to drive legally.

The federal Dream Act, which would have provided a path to legal status for undocumented children and would penalize states that failed to provide in-state tuition for undocumented students, failed to make it through Congress in 2011. But 15 states — including California and Texas — have their own versions of the law. And as an intermediate step at the federal level, President Barack Obama initiated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which falls short of permanent legal status but allays deportation fears for more than half of the Dreamer population, including 18-year-old Lamadrid.

America’s most famous undocumented immigrant, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, 33, exceeds the age limit for DACA. Having flown from the Philippines as a 12-year-old to live with his grandparents in Silicon Valley, he learned he was undocumented only when he applied for a driver’s license. He then went on to write for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time magazine.

“I lived the American dream, but I was living a lie,” he says in his film “Documented,” which, along with his advocacy organization, Define American, explores questions of identity for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who pay an estimated $11 billion in state and local taxes.

Vargas was arrested in July after visiting a Texas border town but was released shortly thereafter. His detainment came as the summer crisis over young migrants was coming to a head, with more than 50,000 Central American children crossing into the U.S.

Like Vargas, immigration activists have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of executive action — in the absence of comprehensive legislation from Congress — to provide large-scale legal relief for undocumented immigrants. Obama retreated from a promise to address the problem by the end of the summer after it became clear the political cost to Democrats in close November races was prohibitively high.

Immigration activists have called Obama deporter in chief for his administration's high rate of deportations — estimated at over 2 million in the last six years. Deportation rates recentlly have decreased slightly, to a daily average of about 800 immigrants, with the president pledging to establish a real pathway to citizenship in the near future while targeting recent border crossers and criminals.

“What’s really lacking is a sense of history,” Vargas told Al Jazeera. “During the potato famine, when countless Irish people crossed the border that was the Atlantic Ocean and landed at Ellis Island without papers, they didn’t ask for any permission. They just showed up. Did we call the Irish people criminal?”

“Now what makes this more complicated is that the undocumented immigrants are mostly Latino and Asian. We’re not white,” he added. “Immigration is not a black-and-white thing.”

‘During the potato famine, when countless Irish people crossed the border that was the Atlantic Ocean and landed at Ellis Island without papers, they didn’t ask for any permission. They just showed up.’

Jose Antonio Vargas

journalist and immigration activist

Vasthy Lamadrid, 18, of Arizona.

Lamadrid, whose father rode into the U.S. in a truck with 18 other people, hopes for change. But her family lacks confidence that meaningful reform will happen anytime soon.

“People have this stereotype about what being undocumented means,” she said. “But my parents came here to give me a better life and a better future.”

Explaining how she doesn't really know Mexican culture, she said it would be wrong to consider sending her back to a country where she would feel completely out of place. She emphatically says her focus is on contributing to American society.

“Sometimes I see that I’m too Americanized and that I don’t live by their values or morals,” Lamadrid said. She believes her mother and father arrived with the right intentions yet wonders if they made the right choice.

“It’s hard to say,” she said, noting her lack of long-term U.S. legal status. “The whole point of me coming to this country was to do good on my own.”

Al Jazeera America presents an intimate look at the lives of teenagers at the crossroads of now and the future on “Edge of Eighteen.” Fifteen stories. One incredible journey. Tune in Sunday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.

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