Friday, October 17, 2008

CESTL Paper-Growing up Ilegal

Growing up Illegal: Searching for Hope
How does being an Illegal Immigrant Affect Learning?

By Nilda Moreno
EDCI 4322-01 Human Development & Instruction
School of Education
University of Texas at Brownsville
Spring 2008

This Paper was presented at the 2nd Conference of Elementary Secondary Teaching & Learning (CESTL) in April, 2008, Brownsville, Texas. If you have any questions or comments regarding this paper, please contact the authort directly at

Many people today believe the American Dream merely means “keeping up with the Joneses.” All we have to do in this life is to collect as much or more than our neighbors or friends; failure to accomplish this means you are not living for the dream. However, for many undocumented people in the United States, the “American Dream” simply means to live, to survive, and to have a better life for themselves and their children. This new generation of illegal immigrants came here not by choice but because their parents believed in America. Their ultimate goal for life is simple: their children would become educated and live a life which they themselves were never able to have.

Childrens in this situation are fully aware that the road ahead of them is a narrow and risky journey yet, they still continue to crave for knowledge. They can attain all the education they want including higher education, and the sky is not the limit. However, after college their dreams come to a complete halt, with countless job offered in their field, they are forced to decline one job after another. The reason is simple: Their lack of a permanent residential status (green card) keeps them from working in their own field in which they have invested long hours and dedicated their lives.

Every “illegal” immigrant has a story. Like many, my story started when I was five years old. My parents brought my sister and me into the U.S. with a Mexican visitor’s visa, which allowed us to come in and out of the United States legally. By the time that our Visa expired, my parents had become U.S. Permanent residents and had found decent jobs earning enough wages to provide us the basic needs for us to start our own life journey towards our “American Dream.”

Fortunately by the time I arrived in U.S., the American court had opened the door for illegal immigrants to American education. According to Plyler vs. Doe, the court held that, “ A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Because of this law change, many illegal students were given the privilege of being educated in the finest country in the world. Almost immediately after I arrived in America, I was enrolled into Victoria Heights Elementary school, where I started my journey towards the education which my parents themselves were never able to do.

During my elementary years, my status as an illegal immigrant did not mean much to me. My father on the other hand never forgot to remind me of where I would end up if I did not take advantage of the education opportunity. His glimpse into our future included hard labor jobs which required working under the hot Texas sun. What my father wanted the best for his girls was very simple: jobs that included security, success, and most importantly, air conditioning.

I was very eager to learn during my elementary school years. My eagerness came not only from my father’s push but also from my toughest “enemy” that I like to call: The Great Language Barrier. The first obstacle that an illegal student must overcome is the learning of a new language. Many factors that contribute to the failure or success of learning a new language such as family support, teacher and peer encouragement, and daily practice. The problem is that most students’ practice of the language stops after the bell rings and when they return home to a fully Spanish speaking household. This takes away from what they have spent their entire day’s work at school because they cannot go home and practice with their parents. When it comes to homework, some students just do not do it. Some can try their best by staying after school working one-o-one with a teacher.

Peers play an important role in an immigrant’s learning too. In an interview which I conducted with Rose Rene, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, Rose confessed that her peers unknowingly encouraged her. Miss Rene stated: “They didn’t know it but they pushed me to be better. I was in the same technology courses and they were all Anglos, it was always a race of trying to learn more and trying to catch up with them.”

An advantage that we have in Brownsville, Texas, or in any bilingual city, is that most of our teachers speak Spanish which allows students to communicate with them in their first language. Teachers who take the extra time to help are the ones who are held up as true educators in the sight of the student, leaving an influence that will stay with the students for the rest of their lives. Students with teachers who help out and stay the extra five minutes explaining will strive to do better. It can take some students as much as into their high school years to really get a grasp on the English Language. Fortunately, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered. The older a student is, the harder it is to pick up a new language. Although I did not struggle as much as my other Spanish speaking friends, it was tough learning the English syntax and grammar. One of my greatest achievements was being able to transfer from bilingual to all English speaking classes in the third grade. I continued through my elementary years as a A-honor roll student.

In the midst of my early education, my parents chose the right “legal” course and submitted a petition for my residency in 1992. This process was supposed to be as simple as filling an income tax return. All we needed to do was to fill out the paper work and wait.

During my middle school years, I was told that I could no longer accompany my parents as they visited my grandma in Mexico. Eating tacos at my favorite taco restaurant in Mexico was out of the question. For the first time in my life, my birthplace forbids me to travel freely and I was left with nothing but disappointment and confusion. Being separated from the only country I knew and loved, I was left to submerge myself into the other foreign country surrounding me: American culture. I gained new friends whose influence introduced me to popular American music, cartoons, desire to attend school dances, and even confession my secret crushes. I found myself behaving much like any normal American girl.

Like any other American teenagers, many illegal immigrant students also want to have the same simple things such as getting a driver’s license or a car on their 16th birthday. They want to go out travel with their friends or attend school trips like the rest of their peers. Just like any other teenage girls, I wanted to have a car of my own. However, all these things, which are part of the educational experience, are something that undocumented students like me cannot have.

Although it was impossible to me to get a driver’s license or a car, I did get the permission from my father to drive his car around. It felt really wonderful to have the freedom driving myself to school or anywhere around Brownsville. But this freedom was short-lived and one day I was pulled over by a police officer during a routine license and insurance check. When I was asked to show proof of license and insurance, I was really scared and I regretfully admitted that I was not a licensed driver and the car was insured in my father’s name. The line behind me was getting longer as I was explaining my situation to the police officer. Finally, I was dismissed with a citation in my hand.

When I got home, the fear about appearing in court and possibly being deported from this country had me contemplating the idea of not appearing in court. But I did in the end. With my mom standing at my side, I gathered enough courage to stand in the courtroom and await for my uncertain repercussions. I pled guilty to the charge of driving without a license. The judge requested that if I got my license, he would dismiss my charge. I stood there and told him that I was unable to receive a driver’s license in the state of Texas because I was not a legal resident. It took me a while to explain to the judge that my resident petition was pending. Finally, he decided to dismiss the charges. I left the court with nothing but a sign of relief. I was lucky and I knew it, but that incident did not stop me from driving illegally afterwards.

High school was the greatest time in my life. A big part of the high school experience includes college fairs, armed force recruitments, scholarship fairs, and the occasional job fair. Some illegal immigrants miss out these events because they are scared of their peers finding out about their status or being embarrassed about their status. They go through their education hiding a deep dark secret in their mind, not just because of the fear of deportation but also because they feel ashamed. When asked about encountering discrimination on school campus, my anonymous interviewee stated: “There was none because no one outside my family knew about my status. I tried to hide it as much as I could. I know it shouldn’t have been embarrassing but it was to me.”

Counselors play an important role helping illegal immigrants getting through this difficult time in high school. Their input and encouragement helps the students gain hope and not to give up. Even though they are aware of their uncertain future, good counselors do not push these students aside but include them in all types of events. Miss Rene, one of the interviewees, remembered her experience with her counselors. “They knew our situation but kept us going. They pushed us to do the best in the SAT and the ACT. They didn’t leave us out of things. For example, when recruiters came or when there were opportunities to go to summer camps.” Some counselors fail to help the illegal immigrant students out because they believe these students have no future and it is a waste of time. My second interviewee, Jane reported about their counselor: “No, my counselor was of no help, but my coach tried, she got me involved in advanced classes that could potentially help me out to college.”

When I was a high school sophomore, there was still no sign of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). My parents called to inquire about my status only to be told that no one had received our paperwork. We tried calling for help but no one seemed to have an answer for us. In 1997, my parents petitioned for us a second time. By the time I graduated, the light at the end of the tunnel was becoming dimmer and dimmer. I had always dreamed about attending UCLA so that I could leave Brownsville and all the struggles behind me. I could have thrown myself in the towel but in the back of my mind I knew I should not give up and I should do more. I told myself that being an illegal immigrant was not going to stop me from what I wanted to do.

Upon giving up my UCLA dream, I decided to apply to The University of Texas Brownsville instead. Fortunately, I got admitted only because my petition was pending. I had to bring proof that I had applied to become a resident, bring my parents income tax papers, and proof that they owned land in the city. In the Spring of 2001, I started my college education at The University of Texas Brownsville; but I could only afford to do it part time because I received no financial help from the federal government or the university. On my 21st birthday, INS dropped me down a category, which only meant one thing: there was no hope for me to become legalized resident in U.S.

Although most illegal immigrants feel their future is uncertain, having a better life is a big motivation for education among the illegal population. The phrase “knowledge is power” comes alive with many illegal immigrants under these circumstances. Some like Miss Rene think that education is the only way out of their current lifestyle. “I guess where we were coming from affected how we live. We were not poor but we did struggle. My dad worked so hard for the little things we did have. We lived in one room and I wanted to be better than my parents and give them more. The only way I could accomplish that was through education.” Now a teacher with the Brownsville Independent School District, Miss Rene’ motto is: “No one can take education away from you, that’s one thing that you’re always going to have.”

Undocumented students all around the United States have been waiting for something to alleviate their predicament after graduation. However, not every illegal immigrant is as strong and positive as Miss Rene. Giving up can be a downfall to education because students feel like they can not pursue anything. With a tone of disappointment, Jane, another of my interviewees reacted to higher education this way: “No, what’s the point of chasing a higher education and having dreams and hopes if you can’t realize them. You have no one pushing you to reach those goals because they know you can’t. I just tried to get by graduated from high school; but then what?”

High hopes were placed in the DREAM Act bill, a chance that would change some of the illegal immigrants’ lives forever. The DREAM Act is a bill introduced in the United States Senate in November of 2005 by Senator Richard Durbin. The purpose of the DREAM Act Bill was to solve this growing illegal immigrants’ problem. Under the provisions of this bill, those who entered the United States five years prior to the passage of the legislature and were under the age of 16 at the time of entry are eligible for a six year conditional residency status upon completion of an associate’s degree or two years of military service. If the applicant demonstrates good moral character, at the end of the six year conditional residency, the applicant can apply for United States citizenship. This is the opportunity that eligible students hoped for. Unfortunately, like many other bills, there were many glitches with the DREAM Act and it did not pass.

In October 24, 2007, the DREAM Act was once again brought to the senate. Months before dozens of America’s brightest addressed the senate with their stories. Marie Gonzalez, valedictorian of her class, was about to be deported days before the DREAM Act would resurface. Her case kept deferring her departure for a year. Since 2005, Marie has been allowed to stay in the United States but at a price. She now lives alone because her parents were deported to Costa Rica. “There have been times when I have felt like I was on top of the world, living out mine and my parent’s dream of being a successful young woman in her college career, only to be brought down by the realization that at any moment it can be taken away from me.” Another student from the Congo said this about education:

I persevered while my case was pending, despite the looming prospect of removal to a country in Africa where I would not be fully accepted and do not know the language. Soon after college graduation, I was a recipient of the Margaret Jane White full scholarship, which allowed me to graduate with a Masters in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 2004. Academia became my security blanket that allowed me to be something other than that scarlet letter “I” for “illegal immigrant.”

Being an illegal immigrant and the feeling of uncertainty does not stop people from learning. In fact, it actually makes some people more eager to succeed. They want to continue their education until there is no more. The story changes after graduation, many like Tam Tran, from California, become disillusioned with the system.

There is also the fear of the unknown after graduation that is uniquely different from other students. Graduation for many of my friends isn’t a rite of passage to becoming a responsible adult. Rather, it is the last phase in which they can feel a sense of belonging as an American. As an American university student, my friends feel a part of an American community—that they are living out the American dream among their peers. But after graduation, they will be left behind by their American friends as my friends are without the prospect of obtaining a job that will utilize the degree they’ve earned; my friends will become just another undocumented immigrant.

The road of the educated illegal immigrant keeps getting longer and longer because there is no hope for them in the near future. For the lucky ones like myself, the sky becomes the limit after you receive your residency. I met the love of my life during college. We got married and he helped me changed my illegal status because he was a U.S. citizen. I waited all those years to become legalized in this country with no response. However, because of my husband’s citizenship status, I received my green card in less than 6 months. In all those years, I kept on fighting without knowing the outcome. Now I finally felt relieved. Fear of being deported, fear of my secrete being found out by my peers, fear of being a failure have finally become past memories.

I now see the importance in continuing my education. I am glad that I did not give up my hope when at times there seemed to be no hope for me. My perseverance took a big part in my life journey as an illegal immigrant. I will never give up. In one year, I will be graduating with a Bachelor’s in Music Education from The University of Texas at Brownsville.


Dream Act Portal Home Page. 22 April. 2008, <>

“Plyler v. Doe.” Cornell University Law School. Supreme Court Collection. Plyler v. Doe (No. 80-1538), <>

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