Undocumented Students: Illegal but not Criminal


Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown
Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown

by Dave Waddell

Given the nauseating, demoralizing politics that overshadow the complex family issues of illegal immigration, I was heartened to read of the Obama administration’s intentionally laissez-faire treatment of students who were brought to the United States unlawfully as children.

To me, the best way to counter the demonization of all illegal immigrants, including these students, is to put a human face to their plight. So I’d like you to meet “Alicia,” my student.

I put quotation marks around the name because it is an alias. I would prefer to use her real name, but she fears being identified, despite the fact that students like her are increasingly stepping up and speaking out. Alicia was conditioned by her family to not “rock the boat.” That’s understandable when a wrong move could result in detention and deportation.

Alicia is a private person, so I’ve learned only in bits and pieces of her origins in Mexico. Alicia’s father died before she was even a year old, and her mother, who is also deceased, left Alicia in the care of her grandmother at an early age. Even though she lived in Tijuana, Alicia began attending California schools in kindergarten.

When the grandmother became too sickly to care for Alicia, she asked Alicia’s uncle, who is a U.S. citizen, and his wife, who is not a U.S. citizen, to raise her. They relocated Alicia to be with them in the San Diego area, which I assume was the best–if not only–option for the family.

After high school, Alicia went on to become an honor student at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, where she was editor of its nationally-acclaimed student newspaper, The Sun. I recruited Alicia to attend California State University, Chico, some 600 miles from her home. Today, she is one of the top students in our journalism program and an editor for The Orion student newspaper.

One sound bite that I’ve heard from those who would want to send Alicia south across the border goes like this: “What is it about the word illegal that you don’t understand?”  In contrast to the Obama Administration, which has the basic common sense to differentiate between students and the criminal elements that it has, in fact, aggressively deported, this sort of rhetoric seeks to portray all undocumented residents as out of the same mold.

Well, they’re not. It was not Alicia’s idea to sneak into the country to take dirty, low-paying jobs away from Americans. She was only about 7 years old when family members brought her to this country to live. She had no choice in the matter.

The politicians who rail against illegal immigrants tend to be the same folks who promote their narrow type of “family values.” Is there a family value of more importance than the willingness of Alicia’s aunt and uncle to care for their orphaned niece, despite their own very modest circumstances? The reality is that Alicia has nothing and no one to go back to in Mexico.

While I tend to be cynical when it comes to politicians of all stripes, it does matter who we elect to high office to the Alicias of our nation—and there more than 700,000 undocumented students in the U.S., according to the New York Times. Would a McCain-Palin administration have decided against deporting undocumented students who arrived in the U.S. as children? I don’t know, but I’m fairly sure that any government initiative to deport them would tear this country apart.

It’s certainly not my purpose here to tout the California gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Jerry Brown, who has been missing in action on the immigration issue and whose website is still spinelessly silent on the subject. However, this much I know: His mega-rich Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, would bar Alicia and every other undocumented student from admission to all public institutions of higher education in California, a position Brown has been quoted as calling “horrible.”

I know this is Whitman’s position because it’s on her campaign website, while she is simultaneously trying to cozy up to the Hispanic community whose votes she will most likely need to win election. It’s little wonder that I’m politically cynical and that Alicia does not want her real name printed here.

It’s worth noting that Alicia has been married to a U.S. citizen since 2006. In Chico, they live in an apartment they share with other college students. Money is tight because higher education is expensive, and Alicia receives no financial support from her family and is not eligible for student loans. Her husband, who has only a GED, works two part-time jobs to support them. He also has been taking community college classes with the hope of enlisting in the Navy after he’s accumulated a certain number of credits.

One might think that being married to a U.S. citizen who has served in the nation’s armed services would eventually bolster Alicia’s chances of gaining citizenship, but that is by no means a certainty, according to an immigration attorney that I have consulted. So her future is very much in the hands of the politicians that we elect.

As her teacher, I can see that Alicia has much to contribute to our society—yours, mine, and, yes, hers. But it will be impossible to be all she can be when she can’t even obtain a driver’s license or board an airplane. The thought of her having to spend the rest of her days unable to gain legal employment while cloistered in society’s shadows is a very disturbing one to me.

Yes, as a child, she was brought to this country illegally, but she has stayed out of trouble here and worked extremely hard to be an excellent student and to become a professional journalist. In this great nation of immigrants, providing Alicia and others like her with a path to citizenship seems like nothing more than the American way.

Dave Waddell teaches journalism and is faculty adviser to The Orion at California State University, Chico. Respond to this column by writing to chicosol@sbcglobal.net and let us know if we can publish your comments

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