They want to stay here and give back

Jaime Mendoza moved with his family from Mexico to North Carolina when he was 5 years old. Jaime (a fictitious name) was held back a year in school until he learned English, but by third grade, he was placed in classes for academically gifted children. In high school, he aced eight AP classes and set his sights on college.

It was not Jaime’s scholastic achievements that most impressed Alessandra Bazo Vienrich ’14G when she met him last year while doing research. Jaime, who is now 19, has worked most of the past five summers picking tobacco. As the child of parents who immigrated illegally to the United States, he had no Social Security card or work permit and had to take a job that would pay him in cash.

“Of all the people I interviewed,” says Bazo Vienrich, “Jaime was the most accomplished. He was a really resilient kid. He got two full academic scholarships; he could pick from two private schools of his dreams.

“Jaime showed no sign of regret or discontentment because he’d had to work in the fields. His humbleness really stuck with me. Many other undocumented students were very frustrated with the system. They really resented it.

“But Jaime never saw his experiences as a tobacco picker as something that was degrading or beneath him. He had learned the value of hard work and was hoping to carry that to college.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

Jaime Mendoza is now enrolled in a public university in North Carolina, where he majors in global studies and economics with a minor in entrepreneurship. His experience and those of other students in similar situations form the subject of the thesis that Bazo Vienrich wrote for the M.A. in sociology that she recently completed at Lehigh. The thesis is titled “In College and Undocumented: An Analysis of the Educational Trajectories of Undocumented Students in North Carolina.”

Bazo Vienrich herself is an undocumented student. Born in Peru, she moved with her parents and younger sisters to North Carolina when she was 12. She earned her bachelor’s degree in 2011 from Salem College in North Carolina and enrolled a year later as a graduate student at Lehigh.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 11 million people living in the United States lack legal residency status. In the past decade, these undocumented people have been the focus of an ongoing debate, as Congress has yet to decide whether or how to legalize their residency status.

About 65,000 undocumented persons graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to Census Bureau statistics. Only 5 to 10 percent go on to college, says Bazo Vienrich, a rate significantly lower than the rate for all U.S. high school graduates.

In June 2012, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that granted temporary legal status to about 1.75 million people who immigrated to the U.S. illegally as children. DACA allows qualifying students and military veterans to obtain work permits and Social Security cards that must be renewed every two years. It does not legalize or change a person’s immigration status or provide a path to citizenship.

For her master’s thesis, Bazo Vienrich returned to North Carolina for several weeks last summer to interview 10 students—eight women and two men—who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in North Carolina when they were between one and one-half and 16 years of age. All have graduated from high school and are attending college.

The project was supported in part by a Dale Strohl Graduate Summer Research Fellowship in the College of Arts and Sciences. Bazo Vienrich’s research was supervised by her thesis director, Heather Johnson, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology, and by her thesis co-directors, Hugo Ceron-Anaya, visiting assistant professor of sociology, and Judith Lasker, professor of sociology.

A lack of information

In her thesis, Bazo Vienrich acknowledges that her sample size “does not allow for the generalization of these findings to the entire North Carolina undocumented student population. Nevertheless, the findings expose some of the obstacles that students within this population experienced throughout their educational trajectories.”

Bazo Vienrich conducted her interviews in person. Each lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 48 questions. Half the questions related to education and the remainder to family, employment experiences and community factors. The names of the participants were kept anonymous.

“I had done interviews before,” says Bazo Vienrich, “but never with people so much like me. I think the participants trusted me because I was Hispanic.” Unless her interviewees asked, she did not tell them her own story—that she was undocumented but that DACA had enabled her to obtain a Social Security number and work as a graduate assistant at Lehigh.

The students in her study, Bazo Vienrich says, arrived in the U.S. in a variety of ways. Some walked with their parents across deserts while others used costly ID card scams. Some were separated from their parents and then reunited. Some cut their hair to look more like Americans.

North Carolina, she says, was poorly prepared to deal with a swelling immigrant population and a growing number of undocumented students wishing to go to college.

“The years 2001-12 in North Carolina were a crucial time with a lot of legislative changes. At first, undocumented people were allowed to get driver’s licenses, then they weren’t. The police targeted undocumented people at traffic checkpoints and interrogated them.

“In 2007, when I applied to college, there were no databases to let us know which colleges would offer us financial aid or loans. Our counsellors didn’t know how to help. Some just told us, ‘You can’t go to college.’”

Trying to “do things right”

Bazo Vienrich’s interviewees reported a variety of educational experiences. Because of their lack of immigration status, a few said they were not placed in advanced classes. Others were tracked for community college instead of a four-year university. Some students at times avoided mentioning their status to teachers or counsellors for fear of encountering discrimination.

All the students succeeded in enrolling at a community college or a four-year university. Some found it difficult to pay the out-of-state tuition that North Carolina’s public schools require of undocumented students. Others were able to secure scholarships to attend private schools. One student’s education was financed by a private benefactor.

“One theme that came through,” says Bazo Vienrich, “was a lack of continuity tied to the inability to pay tuition. Some students paid tuition for the first year and then couldn’t get a loan or financial aid afterwards. They’d have to leave, work and earn money, and then go back.

“So it would take six to seven years to finish a four-year degree, or four years to finish a two-year degree. What was remarkable was their persistence.”

Other themes emerged. Some students felt they had been discriminated against because of their immigration status. Others wanted to join the military out of feelings of loyalty to the U.S. Many students felt strong ties to North Carolina and thus were loath to move to a state with more favorable tuition and financial aid policies.

“It was extremely emotionally draining to listen to kids my age tell me everything they had gone through and to realize how similar it was to my own experience,” says Bazo Vienrich. “These kids have attended grades K-12 here. They’re good people who want to do things right, but can’t. They don’t want to con the country. They want to get a college degree and stay here and give back to the country that has given so much to them.”

Bazo Vienrich plans to enroll this fall at the University of Massachusetts in Boston to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.

“I want to continue my research in this area. The situation with undocumented students is drawing attention from educators. It should get more from sociologists.”