Illegal immigrants in US find paths to college, careers

By Gosia Wozniacka, AP

FRESNO, California — Going to college seemed inconceivable when Adriana Sanchez, the 12-year-old daughter of farm workers, was brought from Mexico to Central California and the family overstayed their visas. Even though Sanchez excelled in high school, she was in the country illegally, lacked a Social Security number and work permit, and didn’t qualify for financial aid. But she volunteered hundreds of hours and paid her way through college and graduate school with a dozen internships. Now 24, Sanchez graduated last week from California State University, Fresno with a master’s degree in International Relations, a full-time job and no loans to repay. Using a gray area in federal law, she works as an independent contractor. “For most undocumented students, you have to put yourself out there. You volunteer, you go beyond what regular students do,” Sanchez said. “That’s what connects us to opportunities. Now employers call me.” With thousands of young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children now holding college degrees, Sanchez and others are finding creative ways to get around the legal roadblocks and find a career. They are getting work experience, opening businesses and seeking professional licenses in their fields. The Associated Press interviewed about two dozen such graduates across the country. Some, like many legal graduates, are struggling in a grim economy. But others do highly-skilled work, though not always in their professions. Many are open about their status despite the risk of deportation; a few asked not to be identified for fear it could cost them their jobs or alert immigration authorities.

“There’s a pool of talented young people who in their hearts believe they’re American, because they’re raised and educated here, speak fluent English and have a level of education that equals or surpasses that of average Americans,” said Roberto Gonzales, a University of Chicago sociology professor who has collected data on hundreds of such young adults. “Our colleges don’t teach them to be undocumented immigrants.”

The growth in young illegal immigrants with college degrees is spurred by demographics — children who crossed the border with their parents are coming of age — and by laws granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition, Gonzales said. Eleven years ago, California and Texas passed such laws, followed by a dozen other states. These laws make illegal immigrants in these states eligible for the same lower tuition rates at public colleges that other state residents pay. Students from other states or foreign countries are charged much higher tuition rates.