Higher Education

Undocumented high schoolers work long hours, putting college further out of reach

Working to support themselves and their families through the high school years hits undocumented teens disproportionally hard. Three young people describe their paths to higher education.

“I had moments last semester when I didn’t want to study anymore. I thought: I’ll just work my job and get paid, and that’s it,” said Zuleima Dominguez, a student at Hunter College.

“I had moments last semester when I didn’t want to study anymore. I thought: I’ll just work my job and get paid, and that’s it,” said Zuleima Dominguez, a student at Hunter College.

Ranferi Avilez is meeting friends for a late lunch. It’s unseasonably hot in Houston for mid-October, but instead of spending his Saturday as usual pouring cold brews and squirting whipped cream on iced caramel macchiatos, the 18-year-old is doing something special for himself: He is taking a day off.

Avilez is a high school senior at YES Prep Gulfton, part of a Houston college-preparatory charter school network. He received his work permit at age 16 via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (known as DACA), after his parents illegally brought him into the country from Mexico as a baby. Since getting the permit, he has worked evenings, weekends, and school vacations. He sold shoes at Journeys, did a stint in construction cleanup, and now works 25 hours each week (plus additional shifts covering for colleagues) as a barista at Starbucks.

Like many teens, his life is a precarious balancing act of long school days, homework done on the fly, and looming college application deadlines. But unlike many high schoolers, Avilez does not have time for internships, after-school enrichment classes and sports, or other application-boosting essentials that selective colleges look for.

“Honestly, it would just be another burden that I can’t take on right now,” he said. Because he works so many hours each week, he struggles to complete his homework, let alone find time to study for important standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT. “Working as much as I do, it puts me behind, it stresses me out constantly,” he said. “Which I know holds me back from being a high performer.”

The Houston teen is part of a group of students who must leap huge hurdles to get into college and, eventually, build better lives. About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but a staggeringly low 5 to 10 percent continue on to college, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education. And only 1 to 3 percent of undocumented young people will graduate from college, according to a report by the United We Dream Network.

Related: What some colleges are quietly doing to help undocumented students

DACA, the Obama-era program that Trump has pledged to end and Congress is charged with replacing, requires that applicants be in school, or have a high school diploma or equivalent, in order to be eligible for work permits.

Currently, about 87 percent of the young people in the DACA program are employed, and America’s 1.3 million DACA-eligible youth, including those who haven’t enrolled, contribute an estimated $2 billion in state and local taxes, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. One of the express purposes of DACA, beyond protecting immigrant youth from deportation, was to enable them to legally work — but, as Avilez noted, the work itself can become another roadblock to the dream.

With postsecondary education closely linked to economic mobility, these facts reflect a problem the nation will pay for later. To successfully bring more of these young people out of the shadows and place them on a path to the middle class, more needs to be done to remove the obstacles they face in getting to college, experts say.

Related: Eight steps to establish support systems for undocumented students

Finances are a big reason so few of these young people go to college, but the steep and rising costs — exacerbated by the fact that most states require undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition at public universities, even if they have lived and paid taxes in the state for years — is just one of the obstacles these teens face. Many must also help support their families. They usually lack mentors to help them prepare for college, even when — as is often the case — they would be the first in their families to go. They routinely face unsupportive higher education administrators and policies that discourage undocumented students from going to college and offer little to help them adjust if they make it there, according to the Center for American Progress. And along the way, they must overcome their own considerable fear and anxiety about deportation, omnipresent for most children of illegal immigrants. Thus, while the economic contribution of undocumented young people is significant, and would increase exponentially if their education levels improved, the path to and through college is so thoroughly filled with roadblocks that many give up altogether.

“A lot of young people work, but young people who are undocumented are working longer hours at more labor-intensive jobs,” said Maggie Jo Buchanan, southern director for Young Invincibles, a Texas-based group that advocates for economic security for young adults. “They are often critical parts of their families’ larger financial security picture. So there’s a lot of pressure on these young people, and a lot of drive that these young people feel, to do well and bring in that income.”

Avilez’s earnings cover his car payments, car insurance, cell phone, clothing, school supplies, his family’s monthly internet bill, and any other bills his parents need help covering. He dreams of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study mechanical engineering, “but I know that’s out of my reach,” he said. Instead, he is finalizing his applications for the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

So far, he has not been able to save money for college, however. As an undocumented student, Avilez will not qualify for federal financial aid but is eligible for Texas state and institutional college financial aid. Because he has lived in Texas most of his life and is attending high school, he will qualify for in-state tuition, though Texas legislators continue efforts to revoke that benefit for undocumented students. Unwilling to put himself into debt, he hopes to earn scholarships to cover the cost of college.

Katherine O’Hearne, director of academics at Houston’s YES Prep Northbrook Middle School, and formerly Avilez’s seventh-grade math teacher, has seen firsthand how the responsibilities borne by students like Avilez shape their educational experiences. “When I was in high school, I worked to pay for gas for my car, and to buy my homecoming dress; undocumented kids are working to pay the light bill, to help provide for their families, and that always has to come first for them. So when we have a great extracurricular activity, like a visit to a museum, these kids just can’t go because they would miss a shift.”

O’Hearne said schools need to be more aware of the burden undocumented students bear at home, and find ways to help them cope. “They work Saturdays and Sundays, so they never get to rest and catch up. It takes a huge toll. They fall asleep in school, or feel irritable,” she said. “Teachers and administrators may not know this, may not have the facts straight, and the kids are often accused of being lazy or not having their priorities right.”

Related: Counting DACA students

Attentive K-12 educators aren’t always enough, however. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school and soccer practice, Zuleima Dominguez helped her mom clean an apartment building in midtown Manhattan until 11 p.m. By midnight, she collapsed — exhausted — into her bed in her parents’ Bronx apartment, waking up the next morning early enough to get to high school for a 7 a.m. start time. On Saturdays, she worked for $13 an hour with her mom cleaning apartments in a building that would soon become a homeless shelter.

“It was terrible. I would not be able to finish my homework on time so I would have to do it on the train or on lunch break,” said Dominguez. “Sometimes I’d do homework in class while my teacher was giving a lecture. I was so tired that sometimes I didn’t even eat.”

The combination of her family’s financial struggles, her undocumented status, and the impossibility of taking out loans to pay for college kept Dominguez on the bench when her high school peers began discussing college applications. “People would ask me: ‘Are you applying for college?’ And I would just say no,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to tell them why.”

Although a high school counselor and her soccer coach eventually stepped in to help her complete college and scholarship applications, higher education remained out of her reach. When her grandmother became ill in Mexico, the $1,500 Dominguez had earned from a summer job at Dallas BBQ, and carefully stashed away for tuition payments, was used to pay for her medical costs.

Dominguez eventually found a job working 38 hours a week at Lucille Roberts and saved up enough to register for full-time coursework at a community college, but the toll of working so many hours to support herself and her family made it difficult to maintain her 3.3 GPA and stay on track for graduation.

“I had moments last semester when I didn’t want to study anymore. I thought: I’ll just work my job and get paid, and that’s it. But my friends reminded me of all the things I’ve accomplished, all the sacrifices,” said Dominguez. She credits her family and community — she is a youth leader at Make the Road New York, an immigrant-support organization — for helping her overcome the odds, earn an associate degree, and now enroll at Hunter College to study social work. “I have moments when I want to give up. I get migraines, and sometimes I have anxiety attacks. My family barely sees me; I barely see my mom and my little sister and brother. I know I’m pursuing the American dream but sometimes I feel like I’m pursuing it all by myself.”

Related: Defying political pushback, private colleges quietly enroll undocumented students

The future of DACA remains unclear after the Trump administration announced in September that it would end the program. As Washington continues to debate an alternative, what is clear is that thousands of undocumented young people now face even more uncertainty about their futures as DACA permits expire over the next two years. Other protections the group has won are also precarious.

“These kids are fighting just so they can go to school, in spite of the DACA repeal and knowing Texas is trying to take away in-state tuition,” said Astrid Dominguez, immigrant rights strategist for the ACLU of Texas. “For our Dreamers, this means our state is actively targeting us, putting more hurdles in our lives. It has a huge impact on them in their outside lives, and personally.”

Research shows that depression and anxiety disorders are prevalent among Latino young people. Because many live with the burden of discrimination, uncertain documentation status, and potential parental deportation — and often have limited spheres of support and mentoring — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Latino youth are more likely to feel sad or hopeless and to seriously consider or attempt suicide than white and African-American youth. At the same time, while nonwhite students may regularly experience more stress than their white peers, they are often less likely to seek psychological help.

“It’s hard to articulate the psychological impact the near-constant specter of persecution has on people,” said Buchanan. “These young people who are working so hard to not only contribute to their families but to our economy, they’re afraid to go to work. And they’re afraid to go to school. They’re living with this fear, every single day, just for being themselves.”

Related: Nonwhite students slow to seek mental health counseling for which they’re more in need

Though Avilez said he remains generally optimistic about his future, he worries that the country is currently on track to make it harder, not easier for him and his peers to earn a college diploma. In addition to the efforts to end DACA and roll back other undocumented students’ gains, hotly contested anti-immigrant legislation that allows local law enforcement agencies to act as federal immigration agents is unfolding in some states.

David Briseno is 21 years old and lives in Houston. In his senior year at Sharpstown International School, a Houston magnet school, Briseno received a work permit through DACA and began working 35 hours per week at a pizza shop earning the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“For a high school kid, that seemed like a lot, plus I got free food,” he said. “I had insomnia, so I used that to my advantage.”

Just like Dominguez, he would get home around midnight and wake at dawn for a full day of high school classes and then work. With a 2.8 GPA, he was accepted at Houston Community College and added a second job earning $10 an hour at a nonprofit called Mi Familia Vota. He worked 40 to 45 hours each week, including weekends. “I used half my earnings for school, the rest went to pay for myself and my parents, groceries and other bills,” he said. “It was pretty stressful but that’s what had to be done. If you want something, you have to work for it.”

Halfway through Briseno’s second semester at community college, his parents “went through a rough patch. I needed to give more money to them, so I took a semester off.” That one semester turned into an indefinite break from higher education. He added a third job earning minimum wage at an amusement park. He was working 50 to 55 hours each week. Eventually, when Mi Familia Vota offered him a full-time job, he trimmed his workload to include only the nonprofit on weekdays and the pizza shop on weekends.

Although earning a degree now seems further off than ever before, Briseno has not given up on his college dreams. “I knew at an early age that life is more than just a bad job,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I left a mark. I don’t want to just work until I die. I want to study law, maybe become a paralegal, possibly go to law school, study political science, start my own nonprofit. If we all had the same opportunities, the things we as human beings could achieve by working together could be amazing.”

Avilez has demonstrated what undocumented students can accomplish when they have extra support. His teachers at YES Prep made allowances for the many hours he needed to work and often gave him extensions for special projects and homework. Even though he said the long hours at Starbucks each week held him back from becoming a high achiever, he still managed to become class valedictorian and vice president of the student council. His boss at Starbucks allowed him to keep a flexible schedule because, “she told me: ‘your education is the number-one priority here’,” Avilez said. Still, the teen felt frustrated and bound by the tight constraints on his time and schedule; thus this rare Saturday off, hanging out with friends, going out for a late-afternoon lunch.

O’Hearne, his seventh-grade teacher, described Avilez as “uniquely brilliant.” But the many hours he works each week impact his grades, his achievement test scores, and ultimately, his ability to vie for top-tier schools. “It’s sad that there are things that make him less competitive because he doesn’t have the time to participate in the activities his peers can.”

Avilez mused, after ordering a lemonade to go with his lunch, “If I wasn’t working? I’d study more, get more involved with other school activities or clubs. If I wasn’t working, I’d want to become president of the student council; but I don’t have enough time, so I’m vice president, which is much less effort and time. And I’d look for internships, something that would help me get to college, and help me once I’m in college. I wish I had these opportunities.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.


Sarah Gonser

Sarah Gonser is a contributing writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and numerous other media outlets.… See Archive

Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

No letters have been published at this time.