OR: Illegal Scholar
The Willamettee Week,
November 20, 2006
By Beth Slovic
Carlos is a bright high-school senior who wants to go to college. Here's the problem: He's an undocumented immigrantCarlos is 17 years old with closely cropped black hair and an off-center smile. A senior at Southeast Portland's Franklin High School, he dresses like many of his peers-in spotless Adidas sneakers, extra-large hooded sweatshirts and crisp black pants that hang a foot below his waist. He loves The Simpsons, Snoop Dogg and the Oakland Raiders. He drops his G's and peppers his speech with exaggerated "yeaahs." He's a typical teenager.
Except for two things.
First, he's a "gifted" student and writer, according to his teachers. His GPA is 3.52, and his schedule is loaded with honors classes and Advanced Placement courses.
Second, he's an illegal immigrant. Carlos' parents brought him to this country from Mexico on a tourist visa when he was almost 8 years old. More than nine years later, the family is still here-hidden in plain view in one of Southeast Portland's working-class neighborhoods.
Carlos is aware his presence in this country is at the center of one of the most heated debates in American politics today. (WW agreed not to publish his real name or photograph.) "It affects me every day, this whole immigration thing," Carlos says.
But he has learned to live with it. "I don't worry about it," Carlos says of the possibility that he could one day be deported. "I'd have to start over again, but that's the case for everybody."
To a certain extent, his calm is understandable. Even though Carlos wasn't born in the United States (if he had been, he'd be a U.S. citizen), he is one of an estimated 1.8 million undocumented children for whom public schools in the United States are safe havens. A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that public schools must educate all kids, including illegal immigrants, who are nonetheless breaking federal law by living here.
"I will not deny the fact that we have certain percentages of students who are undocumented," says Franklin principal Charles Hopson. "But I don't even entertain arguments about who we should educate."
But now, as a senior in high school, Carlos faces a host of written and unwritten rules that simultaneously punish and seduce the world's tired, huddled masses.
Carlos could go to college, or he could get to work.
The irony embedded in America's immigration policy is that most Americans would turn a blind eye if Carlos decided he wanted to go straight to work, resigning himself to a life of low wages as a landscaper, a waiter or a construction worker.
Instead, Carlos wants to go to college. And this country's response-after shepherding him through high school-is as confusing and inconsistent as the Medicare Part D doughnut hole.
"In kindergarten through 12th grade, it's wink wink, nod nod," says Jennifer Satalino, a manager at the Northwest Education Loan Association, a charitable group in Portland that helps low-income students pay for college. "But now we're slamming the door."
Carlos came to this country with his mother and his younger brother almost a decade ago. His father was already in Portland at the time, having made the trip to the United States about 18 months earlier.
Looking back, Carlos does not remember much about his life in Mexico, but it all seems very innocent to him now, a time in his life when he spent many carefree hours playing with his little brother, he says.
"It was pretty much a normal kid's life, I guess," Carlos says, sitting with his parents on a tan sectional sofa in their neatly appointed, beige living room.
It was October when Carlos arrived in Oregon, where his father had settled after a few months in California. It was raining all the time. And Carlos was startled to discover that his family was poor. Somehow he'd imagined life in America would be like life on American television.
"The image that you get from the U.S.A. is that, when you come here, you're going to be in a happy, sunny, rich little neighborhood with a whole bunch of little kids and you're just going to play," he says. "When we got here, it was kind of the opposite."
Enrolled in the second grade, Carlos was just about to turn 8 and his brother was 7, but his parents immediately started working. And since the couple could not afford babysitters at the time, the boys often returned to an empty home, where they watched television and entertained themselves. Carlos' mother, who is 40 and petite with curly reddish hair, says she still feels guilty. In fact, her only recurring nightmare has nothing to do with being deported. Instead, she's haunted at night by images of her two children at home alone looking sad and bored, she says.
Adjusting to life in America, Carlos' parents enrolled in adult-education classes, where they studied English three days a week. At the same time, Carlos and his brother were learning English at Sunnyside, then an elementary school in Southeast Portland. Today, they all speak fluent English, although the parents have light Mexican accents. And switching back and forth between Spanish and English causes Carlos to forget words in both languages, he says.
The family has not returned to Mexico once since their departure. Their only option for returning would be to sneak across the border, and the family is not willing to take that risk.
The parents do take other risks, though.
To work, they use fake Social Security numbers, which they bought nine years ago for about $30 apiece on a street in Woodburn, in a transaction that went something like a drug deal, Carlos' father says. "You have to go and look for it," says Carlos' father, who is 39, stout and 6 inches shorter than his son. "You go to the streets and ask for it."
As far as the couple knows, they are the only ones with their particular Social Security numbers, which they shared with their current employers in order to get their jobs. Presumably, their employers use those numbers to have taxes withheld from their paychecks, just like any other working Portlander, Carlos' father says. But the couple also uses tax identification numbers (issued by the U.S. government to anyone, regardless of their immigration status) to file their annual tax returns, and they somehow manage to receive their refund. A spokesman for the Social Security Administration says the agency doesn't have the resources to investigate all cases of possible fraud, although it is a federal offense to buy fake Social Security numbers. Meanwhile, Carlos' father says the complexity inherent in the tax-filing system benefits workers like him.
"People here rely on that confusion, because it's a way of making a living," Carlos' father says. "Somehow it's good it doesn't make sense."
Carlos' parents say their employers do not know for sure that they are illegal immigrants. "The most important thing is that they are happy with our work," Carlos' father says.
The family has health insurance through the father's job. They pay rent and, by extension, property taxes, meaning they support the funding of Portland's schools.
The family has a checking account, driver's licenses, a phone line in their name and a membership at the local video rental store.
To give their kids the life they couldn't have given them in Mexico, Carlos' mother and father regularly put in overtime at their jobs. Carlos' mother is a waitress at a Lebanese restaurant in Portland. And Carlos' father says he does whatever his bosses ask of him, meaning he works as a driver, construction worker and general laborer. "For people like us, you have to be good in one, two, three positions, because we are immigrants," he says. "They don't tell us, but they let us know."
Early on, Carlos exhibited academic ability, giving his mother and father hope that their son could go to college.
But the father is a bit jaundiced, because his experience tells him Americans depend on undocumented immigrants to fill low-wage jobs, he says.
"We don't need Mexicans with college studies, because there is a lot of people around the world that have already studied, and they are dying to come here," he says.
Carlos' parents refuse to buy him a fake Social Security card. His father says it's because he wants his son, who is still only a child, to stay "clean." "I just don't think he needs it right now," his father says.
In the meantime, Carlos' focus on school has some unintended ironies.
Last May, when about 10 percent of Franklin's students skipped class to protest the immigration legislation making its way through Congress, Carlos stayed behind at Franklin. He thought his time would be better spent in class, he says.
"As a way of action, I study; that's what I do," Carlos says.
Just three miles from his house, Reed College's campus might as well be on another planet. For one thing, full tuition, room and board is $43,530 a year, not including basic expenses like books.
It's a Wednesday when Carlos visits with two of his friends from Franklin. And as he sets out on a tour of the leafy campus, he's looking just as nervous as the other high-school seniors gathered around him.
The culture at Reed is somewhat alien to Carlos.
As the tour winds past dormitories and other grand brick buildings on campus, Carlos' tour guides drop cultural references that Carlos doesn't catch. The school's honor code requires that students "be excellent to each other," one tour guide says, repeating the line from the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (released the same year Carlos was born in Mexico). The Decemberists and Ira Glass recently came to campus, the tour guide later boasts. But Carlos has never heard of either the band or the geeky radio host. On any given day, he's more likely to be listening to Chicano rap by Kinto Sol or reading poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca than listening to This American Life on NPR.
But Carlos gains confidence when he attends a Spanish literature class and is surrounded by non-native Spanish speakers, who talk slowly and deliberately and, in more than a few cases, rather idiosyncratically. "Tú puedes decir," one student says repeatedly in Spanglish-a phrase that literally means "you could say," but that no Spanish speaker would ever actually say.
Later, at lunch in the campus cafeteria resembling a Vermont ski lodge, Carlos meets with Reed students who answer his questions about the admissions process.
Carlos' classmate from Franklin, also undocumented, has a question, too. And he seems to be speaking for Carlos as well when he poses it to the Reed sophomore, whose parents are from Mexico, she says.
"Were you born here?" he asks, briefly looking up from his hamburger and French fries swimming in ketchup. What he really wants to know is whether the student is a U.S. citizen. But when she says "yes," he simply continues eating.
Carlos barely touches his food. He's too busy answering other students' questions about what kind of music he likes, what kind of classes he wants to take and why he wants to go into "international business," he says, to eat his sandwich.
"The scroungers will eat it," one student tells Carlos, indicating the untouched half of his BLT. Nearby, a gaggle of hungry-looking students is waiting to eat the leftovers from departing students' trays.
"The who?" asks Carlos, jumping slightly from his seat and turning to see where the others are pointing.
Admissions officers at Reed know that Carlos is an undocumented immigrant, and yet they invited him to visit. Although they have not yet reviewed his application, which is due Jan. 15, they say his illegal status does not disqualify him. In fact, one dean recently met with Carlos' family on a Saturday to discuss his application.
However, because Carlos is not an American citizen, Reed says it would consider him alongside other international students. And Reed has very few scholarships for students who are not from the United States.
Yet Carlos isn't an international student in the true sense of the category. He's a local teenager in a city that is increasingly Latino and increasingly Mexican. Paul Marthers, the admissions dean, says the case for Carlos' admission is even more compelling to the college.
"One of the important things for Reed is that it look like America," Marthers says. "We try to stay out of the politics of it."
John Keeley, communications director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., is incensed by policies such as Reed's. "That person is not authorized to be in the United States by the U.S. government," says Keeley, who works for a think tank that wants current immigration laws enforced. "I can't understand the sensibility of any institution that would willfully violate federal law."
Keeley says, too, that accepting an undocumented student necessarily means one coveted slot is not going to an equally deserving American student.
But Marthers defends Reed's decision, saying that the admissions process is not a zero-sum game. He adds: "We look at how we can help the individual; we're not getting into the issue of how his parents are here."
Perhaps surprisingly, it may actually be easier for Carlos to attend a private school like Reed than any public institution, where the academic requirements are less rigorous.
The University of Oregon says all applicants must be U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents or international students with appropriate visas. A student who does not fall into any of those categories will not have his application processed, according to Phil Weiler, a university spokesman.
On a recent trip to Western Oregon University, Carlos was admitted on the spot because his GPA is so high. But the public university's letter of conditional acceptance notes that Carlos' application is incomplete until he supplies his Social Security number, which he does not have. Weeks later, it's still not clear to Carlos whether he's been admitted.
Some college-admissions advisers claim that, in practice anyway, many public universities are far less strict-they either fail to follow up on a request for a Social Security number or they allow undocumented students to enroll but charge them out-of-state tuition. In the case of Western Oregon University, that would be a nearly $10,000 difference between $15,789 in-state and $25,284 out-of-state for tuition, fees, books, and room and board.
Either way, say critics, allowing a public institution to educate an illegal immigrant is "a subsidy tantamount to amnesty," according to the Center for Immigration Studies' Keeley. "I can't think of anything more unfair for the American taxpayer," he says.
Then again, without a Social Security number, Carlos cannot apply for federal loans, work-study grants or any other form of public assistance.
"It's completely unjust that a student of his caliber will be denied access to higher education," says Susie Bartley, an English teacher at Franklin who met Carlos when he was a junior.
But without a Social Security number, it's hard to see how Carlos could fulfill his ambition of working for a company as an international businessman.
Aníbal Rivera, a social studies teacher at Franklin, has witnessed many undocumented students like Carlos pass through his classroom. All of them struggle to figure out what they will do after they leave the safety of high school. Some drop out before graduation. Others graduate and then chose to work.
"As a teacher, there is no other issue that causes me as much pain," Rivera says. "[Carlos] would make a great doctor or engineer. He has the potential to be a great asset to our society, but he might not be able to accomplish that."
Rivera's comments are of little comfort to Lars Larson, the radio talk-show host who has become the nose guard for the get-tough-on-immigration movement in Oregon. Larson has banged the drum on this issue for years and was largely responsible for shaping the views of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton. Larson says of Carlos: "His presence is wrong. He's taken over $100,000 of taxpayers' money for his education. I know that a lot of people say that his parents are just trying to better their lives. So is every meth head and burglar. Here's the not so funny thing: In this state you are regulated by the car you drive, how you add on to your house, if you want to move dirt from your house. We climb on the backs of citizens who cross the line to the littlest degree. Citizens are being held to a higher standard than those who have no right to be here."
Last week, American voters elected a Democratic U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where efforts to grant amnesty to undocumented children who graduate from American high schools have been stalled for several years but may now have better chances. Referred to as the DREAM Act, the legislation would also pave the way for public universities to offer undocumented students in-state college tuition.
Similar efforts are under way at the state level in Oregon, too. With the help of newly elected state Rep. Ben Cannon, a Democrat who represents the Franklin High area, the Oregon Students of Color Coalition plans to introduce legislation in the next session that, if approved, would grant undocumented immigrants eligibility for enrollment at public universities and in-state tuition rates.
House Speaker-to-be Jeff Merkley says, "There's a great case to be made for this legislation because we all benefit if each individual succeeds to their full potential."
To Carlos, it all boils down to one thing.
"I just want to learn," he says. "But the same thing I want to break is holding me back."
He did not choose to be in this position.
"We are responsible for him being a criminal," his mother says. "Don't care about us, but care about him."
Publishing this story put Willamette Week on the horns of an ethical dilemma, given that its publication could pose a real risk for the teenage subject.
Carlos and his parents agreed to participate, despite that danger. But in agreeing to cooperate, they asked that the newspaper not use Carlos' real name or photograph.
Early on in the reporting, I met with Carlos and his parents and told them that I would be identifyng Carlos' school and teachers, describing what he looks like and quoting him.
The intent was to balance WW's commitment to telling the truth against the welfare of a subject who did not have to tell his story. -Beth Slovic