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Ed. Magazine

What About the Dreamers?

What About the Dreamers?

Gloria Montiel, Ed.M.'11, can't recall the first time she heard about a place called Harvard, but from the sixth grade on, she could dream of nothing else.

"I was sure I was going to go there," says Montiel, who set about figuring out how. At the top of her class in eighth grade, she learned of a program that places children of color in elite prep schools. But her school counselor revealed a devastating truth: Montiel couldn't apply. "At that moment, I realized that all this time, everything I had been doing toward my goals — this was going to become a problem," Montiel recalls.

This was her status as an undocumented immigrant. When she was eight, Montiel's parents crossed the border from Mexico and settled in Santa Ana, California, where Montiel established herself as a serious student in the local schools. It had never occurred to her that something about her identity would hurl into her path an insurmountable obstacle.

From that painful moment in the counselor's office to this day, Montiel's status is never out of mind. Like the estimated 65,000 or more undocumented students who graduate high school each year into uncertain futures, the reminders of their precarious situation are constant. For those who hope to go onto college, one of the most daunting challenges is how to pay for it since their families typically can't help and their immigration statuses preclude any federal financial aid. No Pell grants, loans, or work study.

In high school, Montiel couldn't get a job without a social security card, and her parents — also undocumented — worked in a restaurant for under-the-table wages. Her dream seemed to be receding. When she was a freshman, a friend asked Montiel why she was in upper-level math.

"I said, 'I want to go to Harvard,' and she said, 'Don't you know Mexican girls don't go to Harvard?' I went into the bathroom and started crying. It was a reminder that I'd have to pull off a miracle." The next year, the school valedictorian, one of Montiel's best friends, received a prestigious Regents Scholarship to attend a University of California school — which was rescinded because he was undocumented.

But when Montiel learned of Harvard's need-blind admissions policy, she sent in an application, along with applications to local colleges that she might, perhaps, be able to afford. When Montiel received her Harvard acceptance letter, "I just started jumping up and down," she recalls. "It was my hope that I wouldn't have to worry about finances, and I could finally just focus on studying."

That hope, she learned, "was only partially true."

Harvard offered a generous scholarship but still pegged her required contribution at $3,000 a year — a small amount to some, but not to a struggling, undocumented family ineligible for a Pell grant, work study, or federal loans. Montiel scraped up money to cover the cost by babysitting. Once at Harvard, unable to afford travel, she spent winter and other breaks far from her family in the near-empty dorm and didn't tell her roommates or anyone about her status.

What About the Dreamers
"At that time, the national discourse was dominated very much by conservatives who used terms like 'illegal,'" she says. "It would have taken so much emotional preparation for me to say this is my situation, especially when they couldn't help me at all, that I wasn't ready to share with them." It was an often-lonely existence; only months before graduation did she meet another undocumented undergraduate.

Montiel's status was outed soon enough. Credentialed to teach through the Harvard Undergraduate Teacher Education Program (UTEP), she decided to apply to the Ed School but, reluctant to reveal her status, she waited too long to apply for school-based scholarships. The Ed School, like most graduate schools, has a limited financial aid budget, which can result in a gap for some students. Most students at the graduate level can offset that gap by applying for federal loans like the Perkins or working on campus through the federal work study program. Some apply for private loans through banks. International students often receive scholarships and loans available in their home country.

None of these were options for Montiel because of her status. (A private bank may have considered her for a loan if she could have found a U.S. citizen to co-sign.) So Montiel went back to California and worked for a year for one of her mentors at a nonprofit. The mentor encouraged Montiel to reapply to the Ed School and promised to help raise funds to fill the gap. Montiel was again accepted, and received an Ed School scholarship, as well as funding from Fundacion Mexico en Harvard, a nonprofit organization that provides financial support to Mexican graduate students in exchange for either teaching in Mexico upon graduation or paying back the money. To offset the rest, Montiel got creative — and she went public. She set up a crowd funding website that garnered local news and generated donations. Additional money was raised by local women who sold tamales and a $10-aticket turkey mole event at the restaurant where her parents worked. It helped: Montiel spent a year getting her master's in the Learning and Teaching Program and graduated in 2011.

Today, she is working at a nonprofit and paying back her loan from Fundacion. She is getting her Ph.D. in education policy, evaluation, and reform at Claremont Graduate University in California, where she's among a group of four undocumented students who support each other. "In general, a lot has changed since my days at Harvard," she says.


In 2012, the Obama administration announced that youth who'd arrived in the United States as children could request consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows them to stay in the country two years at a time and to work. Free from fear of deportation, at least in the short run, an untold number of these young people are enrolling in institutions of higher education. At the same time, on college campuses and in middle and high schools, there's far more advocacy and support. The year after Montiel graduated, Act on a Dream, a student-run group for undocumented undergraduates and their allies, launched at Harvard College to provide information and community; it currently has about 25 members. Similar clubs and support networks are growing across the country.

But financing higher education remains a huge challenge. While a sizable number of states now offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, and some private universities are targeting them for special assistance, it's not an easy path.

"I feel very fortunate and thankful to Harvard because it was a dream I had since I was 12," Montiel says. "Being undocumented, that was unheard of, and I'm just very thankful for everything. But, in general, she says, many colleges and universities across the country have to make an intentional effort to make financial aid opportunities available for students, rather than just admitting them. "That," she says "is only half the battle."


An estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States today, and their fates — especially as the 2016 presidential election looms — is a highly contentious issue. Although 56 percent of Americans think they should be allowed to apply for citizenship, 29 percent think they should be deported, according to a 2014 New York Times/CBS News poll. Ensnared in this political battle are the approximately 2.1 million youth — 1 million of them now adults — brought to the United States as children by their families and whose futures hang in the air.

This cohort of undocumented children and youth is fairly new, explains Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at the Ed School, who, as one of the nation's leading experts on undocumented youth and young adults, has been studying this group for 23 years. In 1986, under President Ronald Reagan, 2.7 million undocumented immigrants received legal status, in what was the last comprehensive national effort on this front. At the same time, the government beefed up security at the borders, making it much harder for seasonal workers — most from Mexico — to travel back and forth. When they began bringing their families into the United States to stay, a new social problem was born.

Until they graduate high school, undocumented children in the United States are pretty well protected (although their parents are not). In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe held that undocumented children have the legal right to a K–12 education, and schools cannot release information about them to immigration authorities. But until DACA, those rights ended after high school, making the transition to adulthood jarring and frightening.

Assimilated into American schools and internalizing American beliefs, these youth may not think about their legal status until they learn they can't get a driver's license or a social security number in order to work.

"For many of them, that's the first time they find themselves on the outside looking in," says Gonzales, who has a book that will be published in December on his 12-year study of undocumented young adults in Los Angeles, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.

Before DACA, prospects for these youth were grim. Undocumented kids have the highest high school dropout rate in the country except for Native Americans "because if you're going to be consigned to a life of working under the table, why not start at 16 rather than 18?" says Karen Willemsen, Ed.M.'94, education director for Define American, a media and cultural campaign to share stories of the immigrant experience. Nationally, 40 percent of undocumented adults ages 18 to 24 did not complete high school, according to Gonzales' current longitudinal study of about 2,700 undocumented youth, the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP), which is investigating how DACA affects this group. It is the largest study ever of any undocumented immigrant population in the world.

Of the estimated 65,000 undocumented youth who do graduate high school every year, what then? Only about 5 to 10 percent move on to higher education, it is estimated, although the number may be higher since that data was compiled before some states began to offer in-state tuition, Gonzales notes. Most attend community college rather than four-year institutions, and little is known about retention rates. Primarily for financial reasons, 45 percent of undocumented students in college "stop out" — leaving with the intention of returning — and many do so multiple times, he's found. "Many go to school one term at a time, then leave, work for a while, then go back," Gonzales says. "It takes them six or seven or eight years to graduate."

Efforts to help them have met strong resistance. In 2001, the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was introduced in Congress to offer legal residency to undocumented youth — now often referred to as DREAMers — who arrived before the age of 16 and met other requirements. But it has languished due to political pressure, despite widespread bipartisan support.

DACA is making a difference. In the past three years, about 650,000 youth and young adults have obtained DACA status, Gonzales says, and now have social security numbers, work permits, and drivers' licenses in states that allow them to drive, which opens up their prospects. "What Roberto says in his research and what many know intuitively is that undocumented youth have terrible prospects if they don't graduate high school or only graduate high school, and that they have much better prospects if they can get through that transition to college," Willemsen says. "DACA has really enabled that."

But only half the eligible population has applied for DACA, Gonzales says. Moreover, an entire generation of these youth was lost before it was enacted; the intended beneficiaries of the DREAM Act, now in their late 20s or early 30s, have aged out of DACA eligibility. And DACA is an imperfect Band-Aid, Gonzales adds. Applicants must pay a $465 fee to apply and reapply every two years, a prohibitive cost for many. And with a huge backlog at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of applications and renewals, young people can get caught in a legal limbo, their work permits in question as they await reissuance.

And DACA has very powerful opponents. On May 26, a federal appeals court refused to expand DACA to include the generation that missed out on it, and, as an executive order, DACA could be rescinded by the next U.S. president.

"If someone who's against DACA is elected, we'll revert back to our previous status, which is kind of a terrifying thought," says Ilian Meza-Pena, an undocumented Harvard College student from Mexico who's lived in the San Francisco area since age 3.

Nor does DACA address financial aid for education. "That's huge," says Gonzales, who teaches Contemporary Immigration Policy and Educational Practice at the Ed School while working on his DACA project. "Upwards of 70 percent of American students receive some form of financial aid, and when arguably your most vulnerable students have no or limited access to that, it's problematic."


Dreamers map
Since Congress has stalled in addressing immigration reform, states are left to deal on their own with the undocumented immigrants in their communities. And it's in the area of education where the most action has taken place, Gonzales says.

Eighteen states currently offer in-state tuition to undocumented students: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL). Virginia offers in-state tuition to students covered under DACA, and the University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan provide in-state tuition rates to admitted DREAMers. Four states — California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington — offer state financial aid to DREAMers.

Others have gone in the opposite direction. Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public college or university, according to NCSL, while three states — Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana — specifically prohibit in-state tuition for them. Wisconsin offered in-state tuition for two years before Governor Scott Walker removed funding for the program soon after he was elected in 2010.

Some university systems are trying to address the lack of federal work-study aid by providing their own work opportunities on campus for this group, but that's not yet widespread, Gonzales says.

Some private institutions, including Harvard, provide very generous need-based financial aid to students who happen to be undocumented, such as Montiel, in what President Drew Faust calls "passport-blind" financial aid. Faust has also come out publically in support for the DREAM Act.

"The DREAM Act would throw a lifeline to these students who are already working hard in our middle and high schools and living in our communities by granting them the temporary legal status that would allow them to pursue postsecondary education," Faust wrote in letters in 2009 to Massachusetts Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and Representative Michael Capuano. "I believe it is in our best interest to educate all students to their full potential — it vastly improves their lives and grows our communities and economy."

Harvard College student Lisette Candia Diaz came to the United States from Chile at age 6 and grew up in Oceanside, New York. "My mom used [our undocumented status] as a way to get me to excel in school because she knew the only way I could go to college was to get into an elite school that would give me a full scholarship," says Diaz, co-director of Act on a Dream, who was at the top of her high school class until her senior year, when her dad lost his job and she began working at Burger King 35 hours a week to support her family.

But schools that can offer this level of financial assistance — Harvard is free to any student whose family earns less than $65,000 per year — are very hard to get into. "Only about 10 undocumented students are admitted to Harvard each year," speculates Meza-Pena, who had planned to attend University of California–Berkeley — and pay in-state tuition — if she hadn't attended Harvard.

Recently, some private schools are going further. Last year, New York University, prompted by a student group for undocumented students, invited undocumented New York residents to apply for scholarships. Both Pomona College and Oberlin College have been very public in welcoming undocumented students. In April, Emory University announced it would provide financial aid to DACA students while Tufts University announced it would actively recruit undocumented students and provide financial aid. That same month, 70 percent of students at Loyola University of Chicago voted to increase their student fees to fund scholarships for DREAMers.

"It's a really big announcement because a lot of other private universities, Harvard included, have what amounts to a kind of 'don't ask, don't tell,' whereby undocumented students get financial aid based on family income," Gonzales says. "What's different about what Tufts and Emory are doing is that they have an explicit policy now whereby admissions offices are actively recruiting undocumented students, so there's intentionality around it." While it's too early to tell, Gonzales hopes these policies "may impact issues of retention and graduation."

For anyone working with undocumented students of any age, it's important to know the legal landscape and financial options for these youth, including exciting new opportunities. For one, TheDream.US scholarship fund, whose program director is well-known DREAM Act advocate Gaby Pacheco, has raised $81 million for DREAMers nationwide.

It's also essential to recognize the personal — and deeply individual — experiences of these students, DREAMers say.

"Our stories are really complex and not as simple as sometimes the media portrays them," says Carolina Vildivia, a current undocumented student who chose the Ph.D. Program at the Ed School so that she could work with Gonzales as she focuses her work on undocumented students. "Try getting to know us — our immigration status, the opportunities we do or don't have, the way we feel about ourselves — and try to know immigration policy. Just stay informed as much as possible."

Vildivia, who writes a blog called "My (Un)documented Life" and plans to become a scholar-activist, believes she is the only undocumented doctoral student at the Ed School but suspects there were at least four DREAMers in the master's program last year. Of course, there may be more. Undocumented students don't always reveal themselves.

Many undocumented students say their teachers made all the difference. "I consider myself one of luckier ones," says Meza-Pena, who has older relatives who, pre-DACA, simply couldn't attend college. "I have five mentors, older students and educators, who supported me through the entire process." And, as a California resident, she could pay in-state tuition at a state school.

Mentors made a difference for Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who's written for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, founded Define American. A native of the Philippines, Vargas was sent at age 12 to live with his grandparents in California. A high school superstar — editor of the newspaper, on the student government, in theater — he learned he wasn't eligible for college financial aid and resigned himself to working at a local newspaper for $10 an hour. But when the school superintendent and principal learned why he wasn't going to college, they connected Vargas with a parent at the school who paid for him to attend San Francisco State.

Four years ago in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant and now travels the country speaking about immigration reform, especially as it pertains to children and youth. He hopes that teachers and other educators, on the front lines of the issue, will join in the effort.

"Right now, undocumented people in this country are under attack in so many ways," says Vargas, who regularly appears on Fox News, the O'Reilly Factor, and other national programs. "What if we heard from our allies — from our teachers and mentors, all across America — what if they came out, too? I actually think this is the moment now when there is no other choice but to come out, to say, 'This is not what you think — these are our kids.'"

It's also important for teachers to establish safe places for students to reveal their status. For teens and young adults, getting embarrassed in front of their peers may be a more paralyzing fear than worrying about deportation, Gonzales notes. Teachers can place a symbol on their doors to designate a "DREAM Zone Safe Space," Gonzales suggests, similar to LGBT safe-space designations.

What's paramount, Gonzales says, is that everyone is responsible for recognizing these youth: the talent they offer, the particular struggles they face. While nearly every American family struggles to keep up with the incredible cost of college education, those without access to financial aid face a dark future. Without more resources and help, Gonzales says, "undocumented kids are being left further and further behind."

— Elaine McArdle is a writer whose last piece in Ed. tackled the rocky waters of the Common Core State Standards.

— Illustrations by John S. Dykes

Listen to an EdCast with Jose Antonio Vargas.


Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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