Immigrant Students At Risk
By: Sabrina Escobar, Managing Editor
THE LOFTY CEILING of the Jepson Faculty Lounge, which usually echoes with the quiet turning of pages, reverberates with the gasps that accompany high school gossip. Children laugh as they race through the corridors and climb on couches, their exasperated parents running after them and scolding them in Spanish.
While their parents and younger siblings can leave campus and enjoy their Saturday afternoon, the high school students enrolled in the Scholars’ Latino Initiative (SLI) are ready to spend the rest of the day preparing for the SAT and taking a college-level course — despite having no assurance of attending college at all.
For the 15 immigrant students participating in the University of Richmond branch of the SLI, higher education has always been a far off, seemingly unattainable dream. Now, with looming immigration policy changes proposed by the Trump administration, many of the students feel the possibility of going to college slipping further away. The repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act, which deferred deportation of a person who was brought to the United States illegally as a child, especially dampened the spirits of many of the students.
“DACA is dead,” said Ramon*, one of the SLI students from Mexico. “We’re scared with whatever happens next.”
Even though most students did not meet the criteria for DACA because they entered the United States after the cut-off date, its existence had always promised the possibility of finding a way to stay. Applying to both DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) were options that past SLI scholars had pursued in order to obtain legal status and easier access to higher education, said Peter Kaufman, Jepson faculty member and founder of SLI.Since its inception in 2003 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, SLI has been helping hundreds of first-generation immigrant students enroll in colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status.
The goal of the program is “to build indigenous leadership in the Hispanic community and assist those with legal or socioeconomic problems or both,” Kaufman said.During the beginning and middle stages of the program, SLI graduates were enrolling in universities such as Harvard, MIT, UNC-Chapel Hill, and even UR, Kaufman said. In these times, before the DACA crisis, SLI’s success rate was high; only 1 in 10 students dropped out of the program.
“Now, since the election of Trump, and actually since the hatred of the campaign, we’re losing one for every three we keep,” Kaufman said.
Students and their families are relocating — either back to their home countries or to a different area to avoid deportation — and institutions that would previously accept SLI students are backing out in the face of uncertainty, he said.
For the SLI students who persevere, the uncertainty they face in the future is nothing compared to what they left behind. Sitting around the conference table in the Dean’s Conference Room, with used paper plates from their pizzas littering the table, they swapped harrowing stories of how they crossed the border, in the same way people exchange pleasantries at the supermarket.
Luis*, 17, left El Salvador when he was 7 years old. Before then, he lived with his father in El Salvador while his mother worked in the U.S. “They started telling my dad that if he didn’t give them $12,000, they would kill me,” Luis said. Somehow, the blackmailers obtained his mother’s American phone number and called to threaten her, too, he said. Within a few hours, his uncle had whisked him and his father away in search of safety. Ana*, 18, and Julia*, 15, are two mentees who came to Richmond illegally four years ago from El Salvador. Their current immigration status is unknown. After traveling a month to get to the border, they were detained by border patrol — la migra. Because Ana was 14, she was taken as an adult and her hands and feet were cuffed, she said.
“My sister would help us go to the bathroom,” she said, giggling and shooting conspiratorial looks at Julia. “She would close her eyes to help us pull our pants down.” Laughter erupted around the room as Julia mimed covering her eyes.
From there, they were transported to a temporary camp, she said, where they waited to talk to their parents. Most days, the camps were overcrowded, filled with other children and mothers trying to get to the U.S., Julia said. “We had to take turns to sleep, because there wasn’t enough space,” she said.
Maria*, 17, completed the journey alone when she was 11 years old. She came to live with her father, a man she had never met, to escape the cycle of poverty that her family had always lived in, she said. “Sometimes I couldn’t go to school because I didn’t have the cora [quarter] to take the bus,” she said.
Upon arriving to the U.S., mentees realized their expectations were vastly different from the reality. “People tell you stories of how when you come to America, it’s going to be like Cinderella, going from poor to rich,” Julia said. “But the same way you earn more, you spend more.”
Mentees also encounter academic and social difficulties when they enroll in high school. Most immigrant students in public schools struggle with this component, as many have grown up in environments where the primary language was Spanish. “Other students would make fun of my accent,” Maria said. “It just made me stronger and want to learn more. They were wrong to say I wasn’t going to learn.”
While language barriers are obstacles to adapt to new environments, they pose a larger threat when applying to — and attending — college. For this reason, SLI mentors, who are UR students, meet weekly or bi-weekly with mentees to guide them through the college application process and work on improving skills such as grammar and vocabulary. Through Kaufman’s college-level course, mentees are challenged to hand in high-quality essays and attend lectures, in the hope that it prepares them for the hardships ahead.
Balancing SLI alongside their regular course load and responsibilities is one of the main difficulties for the mentees, said Melisa Quiroga-Herrera, senior mentor coordinator. “They’re caretakers, breadwinners, students — Kaufman’s students — so it’s hard,” she said.
SLI mentees and coordinators do their best to prepare students, but even so, most students who make it to college struggle adapting to the new environment. “These institutions weren’t made for us,” said UR and SLI alumna Jennyfer Hernandez. Hernandez graduated from SLI in 2011, and thanks to the program, was able to complete her political science and international studies majors. Today, she works as a paralegal for an immigration law firm in Richmond.
“Don’t give up,” she says to students currently in SLI. “It gets better. And push yourself. And don’t get intimidated by the culture of the campus and the academics. You deserve to be here.”
Neither she, Kaufman, the mentors, mentees or their family members know what will happen in the wake of the coming immigration reforms. Nevertheless, they all share an optimistic viewpoint that SLI can continue working on its mission. “Just because they don’t have DACA doesn’t mean they don’t have a future,” Hernandez said.
Editor’s note: The names of the children quoted in this article have been changed and kept anonymous to avoid any legal repercussions or harm to them or their families.