Fear, finances, faith: Being undocumented at UI

Ryan Fang

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

Ana Rodas remembered lying with her grandparents on their terrace in Guatemala City and watching the fireworks. While she did not remember the occasion, she held onto the moment. With her parents thousands of miles away, her grandparents were her everything. 

Ana’s parents decided to leave Guatemala when she was two years old. Their life was at a dead-end in their native country, and they wanted to pursue the American Dream, looking for a better future for Ana. The family obtained visas and left for California, with no intention of returning; however, they did not find what they were looking for.

Ana’s parents struggled to find decent jobs. They couldn’t earn enough to support their baby. Even though Ana’s uncle, a U.S. citizen, had helped them settle, their living conditions were unfit for a child.

Her parents made a tough call and sent Ana back to Guatemala. She was separated from her parents for two years before they reunited. 

Most immigrant children must endure this separation. A Harvard University study found that 85% of all immigrant children who eventually end up in the United States spend at least some time separated from a parent in the course of migrating.

Looking for a steady income, Ana’s parents soon moved to Grayslake, Illinois. In Grayslake, they found part-time jobs serving fast-food and cleaning offices that helped set up the foundation for Ana’s life now.  She is a 23-year-old graduate student studying graphic design at the University.

Childhood Arrival

By 2001, the Rodas had saved up enough to bring Ana, whose visa was still valid, to the States again.

She flew to Chicago, with her grandmother and uncle, to reunite with her parents — but not without a final hitch.

Ana’s uncle rented a car and they left the airport to meet her parents halfway between Grayslake and O’Hare.

“My uncle kept getting lost. It was the longest car ride of my life,” she said. “It felt like we just kept going in circles, it took forever.”

It was her uncle’s first time in the U.S., and he couldn’t drive as well as he had thought. Eventually, he pulled over in a rest area and waited for Ana’s parents to come to them.

At twilight, they arrived. Ana was in the backseat of her uncle’s car, and her parents entered from both sides to embrace their daughter.

Flanked by her parents on that fateful evening, Ana’s life in the United States began. 

She had entered the country legally. But a few months later, after her visa had expired, her life as an undocumented immigrant began.

Being Undocumented

Immigration continues to be a contentious issue, especially with the 2020 elections approaching. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, according to 2017 estimates. Most arrive as children, attend schools in the U.S. and call the country their home. 

Illinois is home to over 460,000 undocumented immigrants, of which at least 100,000 arrived under the age of 16. In Champaign County alone, there are between 7,000 and 11,000 undocumented immigrants, according to estimates from the 2016 census.

Undocumented students face substantial financial barriers to higher education because of their immigration status. Most states bar them from qualifying for in-state tuition despite attendance and graduation from state high schools. 

Only 20 states offer in-state tuition to their undocumented students. Illinois joined the list in 2003, yet students still have to jump through many hoops to qualify. For most undocumented applicants, cost is the key factor when making college decisions. Financial impediments to education discourage many students from even applying. 

The American Immigration Council estimates only between 5 to 10% of undocumented high school graduates go to college.

Currently, only five states — California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas and Washington — offer state-funded financial aid to their undocumented students. Illinois joined this list with the Retention of Illinois Students Equity (RISE) Act.

“The number one thing (for undocumented students) is the issue of affordability,” Rep. Carol Ammons said. She is the Illinois House state representative for Champaign and co-sponsored the bill. “We wanted something that will remove that barrier.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill in June last year after months of debate in the House. He signed it into law among two other pieces of immigrant protection legislation. He expressed support for undocumented students who are now eligible for state financial aid consideration at all colleges and universities in Illinois.

“Illinois is and always will be a welcoming state,” said Gov. Pritzker at the signing. “And we will ensure that every student in this state who wants to go to college should be able to do so without saddling themselves with debt for the rest of their lives.” 

DACA and undocumented students will not qualify for Illinois Commitment, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid

While the RISE Act represents hope for greater access to higher education in the future, the past has not been kind to undocumented students on campus. From the application process to juggling multiple jobs with classes, the college experience can prove grueling.

The American Way

When Ana arrived in Illinois, the family lived in a dark, cubbyhole basement and hopper windows dictated how much light they were going to have. A low round table and a mattress sufficed as furniture, while suitcases doubled as closets for the family.

Eventually, her parents found full-time jobs together as quality control inspectors for a scanner manufacturer. It ensured a steady stream of income and funded a studio apartment, but she said they still hoped for more. 

After their 8-to-5 workdays, Ana’s mother would clock in for her shift as a server at Taco Bell while her father would report for duty as a custodian at a bank. Some days, both would wake up before dawn to mop the floors of a Home Depot in the neighborhood.

Most days, Ana said she was there with them, either doing her homework in a corner or helping them so they could get home early. 

Ana said her parents have always been honest with her about their status as undocumented immigrants. Over time, it started making sense to her — the early morning, the late nights, the perseverance.

On average, Ana said both her parents simultaneously worked three jobs for over 18 years, all to save for Ana’s education to ensure that she wouldn’t have to do the same.

The Next Step

In high school, Ana was a diligent and committed student with a 4.0 GPA. After school, Ana was a three-sport athlete, playing soccer, bowling and golf. In whatever free time she had, she logged more than 100 volunteer hours.

“I was always told, ‘Do well in school, and you’ll get to college.’ That was always the mentality,” Ana said. 

In 2014, Ana became a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. The immigration policy allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 a two-year period of legal protection from deportation. She was not eligible for any type of state or federal financial aid.

‘Why can’t I get this scholarship?’

Abel Montoya, director of outreach operations for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), said many undocumented students are puzzled about how to start the college application process. ISAC is a state-funded organization that provides college planning support to high school students.

“They don’t know if they are supposed to apply using the domestic application or the international application,” he said. “So we have to clarify that the international application is only for students living abroad.”

Everyone who submits an application to the University is considered for merit-based aid, said Mayra Lagunas, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at the University.

Undocumented students are not required to disclose their status when applying, so some are erroneously awarded merit-based scholarships upon acceptance — only for the offer to be rescinded when they file for aid.

Carmen Hernandez, a graduate from the School of Social Work and former DACA student mentor at La Casa, experienced the ordeal as an undergraduate in 2014. 

“The only reason why I chose to come to the U of I was because they were offering me a scholarship,” she said. “But once I got here, there was obviously no knowledge of me being a DACA student, so my scholarship was removed because I couldn’t file for financial aid.”

Though she had private scholarships, it was a serious setback for her and her family. The episode is not uncommon in the undocumented community on campus, Hernandez added.

As the first point of contact for undocumented applicants, students frequently ask Lagunas how they can fund their education. She points them to their only option: private scholarships.

Though, as Ana learned, it can be an asymmetric equation even for the elite candidates. She applied to more than 40 private scholarships but received two.

Even after receiving admission to the University, Ana recalls a time when it seemed like she would not be able to attend college at all. But her uncle, an American citizen, co-signed her student loan to keep her dreams alive.

Belonging on campus

Ana was aware of her legal status from a very young age. If she ever felt excluded, she didn’t show it.

When Ana started as a freshman in the College of FAA in 2014, she was disheartened by the lack of resources available for students like her. In her junior year, to change the reality of undocumented students on campus, Ana began using her experiences to help others like her. She worked with the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations to bring about change.

In 2016, Ana co-founded the Illinois Coalition for Assisting Undocumented Students’ Education (I-CAUSE) with other students. The RSO works closely with La Casa to raise awareness about issues affecting the undocumented student population. The organization also established an online resource, Open Illinois, for information about current immigration policies and private scholarships.

Through I-CAUSE, an alliance of undocumented and DACA students and staff at the University, Ana started sharing her story.

“Sharing my story could help someone,” she said. “By either better understanding others, better understanding themselves and/or their biases, if they have any, in regards to us. It could change people.”

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