WHEN SERGIO RODRIGUEZ CAMARENA ’16 was in the eighth grade, the unspoken truth about his immigration status suddenly loomed like an obstacle in his path. Until then, the ambitious student had never really experienced the downside of being undocumented.
Sergio is the only one of four siblings born in Mexico, and that was by design. He says his father wanted him to be a mariachi and “an authentic Mexican,” so he took the family back south of the border in time for his middle son’s arrival. But when they returned permanently to California in 2002, Sergio also became an authentic undocumented at age 9.
Soon afterwards, his parents separated, and Sergio stayed with his mother in Santa Ana, where the third-grader joined thousands of immigrant kids cramming classrooms in the predominantly Mexican-American city. He lacked the athletic skills of his brother and the desire to be a mariachi trumpet player like his grandfather. So the boy embraced his studies as a way to shine. Two years later, he graduated from Diamond Elementary School with the President’s Education Award, a national honor reserved for students with stellar academic records. Sergio, son of a seamstress, got a certificate and a letter signed by then President George W. Bush.
“Okay,” thought the fifth grader, “I’m going to better heights.”
And so he was. When it came time to make the big move to high school, Sergio was offered a full scholarship to an elite New England boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The privilege was provided through a program called A Better Chance, founded by the headmasters of 23 private schools seeking to increase enrollment of low-income, minority students.
Just one problem: on the application, Sergio failed to enter a Social Security number.
The omission was just automatic for him. Growing up, he had always been told: never provide your social security number, for any reason. This time, he excitedly asked his mother for the document, so he could complete his application. That’s when reality hit. He realized he couldn’t disclose his number because he didn’t have one.
Sergio was instructed not to talk to the school counselor any more. She called his home daily for a while, but he avoided her until the calls stopped. He says he felt embarrassed and demoralized, but the shame faded over the summer. In the fall, he enrolled at Santa Ana’s Segerstrom High School, with more than 80 percent Hispanic enrollment. And though he performed well there, taking several AP classes, he recalls having to fight against low expectations. One college counselor told him, “You know, you’re going to go to community college; you shouldn’t be working so hard.”
This fall, Rodriguez starts his senior year at Pomona College, one of a growing group of immigrant students successfully pursuing degrees and openly taking advantage of enrichment opportunities the campus has to offer. He just completed a semester of study abroad in Germany, and this summer he’s at Princeton University’s prestigious Woodrow Wilson School, doing a fellowship in public policy and international affairs, with future plans to become an immigration lawyer.
“Yeah, I feel I had a lot to prove,” says Rodriguez Camarena over lunch at Frary Dining Hall. “I wanted to come out of the Santa Ana community because everybody that was undocumented there was not getting the education that they wanted. They had the grades, they had the knowledge, they had everything. But once they start hearing that they’re illegal, that they’re aliens, that they’re criminals, it becomes like a mindset: ‘You can’t go further. You’re limited. You work this hard, but you just can’t.’ So they give up or they just fall into low wages—the path of least resistance. And I think that’s one of the biggest problems, because they start to internalize, as a setback. And I never did.
“To this point, nothing has really, like, derailed me.”
In that respect, Rodriguez Camarena is one of the lucky ones. An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to a College Board report, but less than 10 percent go on to college, the vast majority of those at community colleges. In the past, illegal status kept college degrees out of reach for the so-called 1.5 generation, the children of first-generation immigrants brought here as minors, often before they could even grasp what it meant to be undocumented.
But in the past decade, students like Sergio have come out of those proverbial shadows to fight for change in immigration laws. They have opened new doors for themselves and have brought a new energy to campuses like Pomona that welcome them.
THE GREAT AWAKENING OF the immigrant community dates back to the fight against Proposition 187, the 1994 bill that could have forced undocumented children out of schools in California. It gained momentum in 2006 with the successful fight against the so-called “Sensenbrenner Bill,” with its onerous anti-immigrant provisions.
“In 2006, high school students were among the first to begin the protest, and in fact they served as a catalyst,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American history and Chicano/ Latino/a studies. “Those students are the ones who today are in college. They are the generation that lost all fear because they took on a very public role. And they were able to push society to accept the fact that the immigrant issue is a civil rights issue, a human rights issue.”
Since the start of the century, much has changed for undocumented youth seeking higher education and a higher stake in American life. National efforts to legalize the status of young immigrant students dates back to the so-called DREAM Act, first introduced in Congress in 2001. That legislation, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, would have created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who were brought here illegally as children and who go on to graduate from college. The bill has failed despite votes on multiple versions over the years.
That legislative failure prompted President Barack Obama to implement a stopgap measure called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The White House order protects certain undocumented immigrants from deportation if they entered the country as minors, graduated from high school or are currently enrolled in school. Qualified candidates—nicknamed DACA-mented students—get renewable work permits but no path to permanent legal status. Symbolically, Obama announced the order on June 15, 2012, the 30th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling that barred public schools from charging tuition for undocumented students.
Although DACA didn’t give so-called DREAMers all they hoped for, it did give them a foot in the door of the ivory tower. They were free to reveal their immigration status, and colleges were free to openly assist them. Today, there are all kinds of guides aimed at helping college-bound undocumented students. One website offers 10 tips for college counselors seeking to help them. Another offers a DREAMer’s Bag of Tools, pointing them to a wide range of resources, including financial aid. Even the College Board, known for the SAT test, devotes a webpage to undocumented students, with helpful features such as “6 Things Undocumented Students Need to Know About College.”
In 2008, Pomona College adopted a new policy toward undocumented applicants, who had previously been considered international students. Today, all students who graduate from U.S. high schools are treated exactly the same. That is, their admission is based entirely on merit and promise, without regard to their immigration status or their ability to pay. As with all other domestic students, if they can’t afford the cost, the College provides a financial aid package that meets their full need, up to the total cost of attendance.
The rationale for that generous policy was laid out two years later in the 2010 commencement address by Pomona President David W. Oxtoby. “This country benefits from the ideas, the skills and the hard work of those who do or do not bear proper documents,” said Oxtoby in calling for passage of the DREAM Act. “…So as you leave today with a very important document in your hands—a Pomona College diploma—do not forget the others who surround you who are undocumented. It is our responsibility to work together to achieve justice and opportunity for all.”
Currently, there are some 50 undocumented students at Pomona, about three percent of total enrollment. That’s higher than most private colleges, according to Vice President and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, an immigration scholar. And personally, she hopes the number will grow.
The immigration issue hits close to home for Feldblum, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who came to this country after World War II.
“So it has a very personal resonance for me,” she says. “We want to be the destination of choice for highly talented students, regardless of their immigration status. These students are part of the American fabric… And what we see is that there are some amazing, highly talented students who bring such important experiences and life stories that enrich us and that will certainly help Pomona achieve its goals of graduating the next generation of leaders, scholars and activists.”
JACQUELINE FERNANDEZ ’16 says her grandfather and uncles originally came here from Mexico as farmworkers under the bracero program, which allowed U.S. growers to import temporary workers to fill labor shortages during the ’40s and ’50s. Her parents hail originally from the state of Guerrero, one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. They moved to Mexico City, and her father dropped out of school to work in his family’s small, neighborhood grocery store. Her mother dropped her studies and career plans when her daughter was born, a sacrifice that put pressure on Jacqueline to succeed in school.
The family came to the United States when Fernandez was four years old, and they settled in Santa Ana. Coincidentally, like Rodriguez Camarena, she also entertained the chance of going to a private high school through A Better Chance, but was also stymied by her lack of a Social Security number. Her biggest disappointment, however, came in her junior year when her illegal status prevented her from participating in a paid summer internship through Project SELF (Summer Employment in Law Firm), designed to give real-life courtroom experience to low-to-middle-income Santa Ana kids.
She cried hard when she realized she didn’t qualify. As always, it was her parents who helped her overcome.
“My mom is always like, ‘Don’t worry, something will come up. You just have to keep trying.’ She’s always positive. Both my dad and she have that mentality, so it really helps. They’ve always been really optimistic, even though my status restricts a lot of opportunities for me.”
Fernandez learned the lesson well. When it came time to apply to college, she redoubled her efforts to find schools that accept undocumented students and provide financial aid. She found Pomona through QuestBridge, a Palo Alto-based program that matches low-income students with college and scholarship opportunities.
It’s notable that several of these students often single out their mothers as the ones who motivated, supported and inspired them. They say their mothers have been role models of determination, generosity, and community solidarity.
Rodriguez Camarena, who also came to Pomona through QuestBridge, insisted on using both his surnames for this story, identifying paternal and maternal lineage in the Latino custom. He is estranged from his father, so this is his way of honoring his mother, whose maiden name is Camarena. He says she left a teaching job in Mexico and worked here as a seamstress so he could have the education and professional career she had sacrificed. “I always tell this to people: I’m not the dreamer. My mom’s the dreamer.”
FOR HONG DENG GAO ’15, a Chinese student from New York, the tragedy is that her mother didn’t live to see her graduate this year with an armful of honors, including top prizes in history. But her parents’ hard labor in the grueling immigrant industries of New York’s Chinatown inspired her to leave a valuable academic legacy in their honor.
Gao says her parents didn’t speak English when they arrived in this country, and neither did she. The girl was about to enter middle school when she was brought here on a tourist visa and a false promise to return. Her parents didn’t tell her that the travel plan was a pretense. Once here, she learned she wasn’t going home. For a pre-teen in any culture, that comes as a shock.
Her parents could only find work in Manhattan’s Chinese ghetto, where language was not a barrier. Conditions were brutish, with low pay, long hours and no sick leave or health insurance. Her father toiled as a dishwasher in Chinese restaurants, working 12 hours a day. Her mother at first took a job making dumplings in a basement sweat shop, a tiny room with no windows.
People were getting sick because of the relentless stress at work. Her mother quit and switched to doing manicures, but constantly inhaling the chemical fumes became unbearable. So she started selling fruit at an outdoor fruit stand, hot in the summer and bone-chillingly cold in the winter. At some point, her mother’s frail body started to show worrisome symptoms, itchy skin and yellow eyes, signs of liver disease. “But she still insisted on going to work, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to pay our rent,” recalls Gao. American doctors were too expensive so her mother consulted Chinese healers who gave her “bone medicine.”
“She got worse,” Gao says. “One time she fainted on the street and she was picked up by the ambulance. She was not conscious. My dad and I were contacted and we were in the ambulance, but with our limited English skills we couldn’t communicate what’s going on, or understand what they were asking us. There was no one who spoke Chinese in the emergency room.”
Realizing her condition was life threatening, her mother quit her job. Three years ago this spring, while Gao was taking her final exams, she got word that her mother was dying.
At Pomona, Gao turned the family’s helplessness into activism.
As part of the school’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, she traveled cross-country to explore the link between blue-collar immigration and white-tablecloth dining. The research culminated in her history thesis examining restaurants and race relations, titled: “Three upscale Chinese restaurants in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York.” Her advisor, History Professor Samuel Yamashita, has called the thesis “groundbreaking” and has praised Gao as “one of the most remarkable students I have taught in my 36-year career.”
This year, Gao launched Health Bridges, a program that trains bilingual college volunteers to help immigrant patients at local hospitals. The goal is to assist non-English speakers to navigate the health system more successfully. The program grew out of her work at the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, which fosters interaction between the campus and the outside community.
It’s being launched with a $12,000 grant from the Napier Initiative, awarded to students from The Claremont Colleges whose programs show leadership in promoting social change. Gao, who believes her mother may have survived with better access to health care, hopes to expand the program nationally.
Upon graduation this year, Gao received the coveted Ada May Fitts Prize, for graduating women who show “outstanding intellectual leadership and influence on other students at the College.” That’s a high honor for the once shy freshman who found it hard to even speak to her fellow students.
Gao remembers that she missed the usual campus orientations for incoming freshmen. But she did receive a letter from Dean Feldblum referring identified undocumented students to resources on campus. That’s how she found the Draper Center and met student mentor Diana Ortiz, co-founder of IDEAS (Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success), a nonprofit that helps foster better awareness of the immigrant community on campus. Ortiz urged Gao to get involved and come to meetings, where she learned to open up.
“When I first came here I was just shocked,” says Gao. “Latino students are so much more open about their undocumented status, especially in California. It’s kind of not a thing to do for Chinese or Asian students. I mean, that’s the stereotype, and I would say it’s true, at least for me. I kept things to myself. So it was very inspiring to hear their stories, and it really encouraged me to share mine and just put in my voice.”
AS A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE, the cause of undocumented students is often compared to the gay rights movement. Coming out as undocumented, revealing what was formerly kept secret, has been empowering. Instead of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” today’s undocumented students seem to embrace a policy of transparency: “Go ahead and ask. We’ve got a lot to say.”
In interviews for this article, half a dozen immigrant students at Pomona spoke candidly about the problems they’ve encountered—not unlike those many of their fellow students may have faced. They have struggled with difficult family issues: divorces, absent fathers, domestic violence, sibling rivalries. They have faced serious life challenges: poverty, illness, death.
Despite the challenges—or perhaps because of them—these students display many of the strengths found by researchers to be common among immigrants. As a group, they are highly motivated by the desire to prove themselves. They are extremely appreciative of the opportunities they’ve been given. They are determined, many of them, to use their college training to benefit the communities they come from.
And finally, they don’t always see their immigrant experience as a deficit. The challenges and extreme hardships their parents had to overcome often instill a can-do spirit that is actually very American. Obstacles? Go around them. Setbacks? Get over them. Critics and naysayers? Ignore them.
“The one cool thing about undocumented students,” says Rodriguez Camarena, “is that, because we have been undocumented, we’ve had to find ways to navigate around the system. So we have skills that not a lot of people have. Like thinking outside the box, you know, entrepreneurial skills. These are things that we never claim to have, but we do. And I think if institutions were investing in that, they would be investing in the future of America.”