The generations after us will look back at 2019 one day and be ashamed of our apathy.
They will wonder where we lost our heart and courage as we watched children separated from their parents in the United States and detained in what some have likened to concentration camps. Or how we stood by as children as young as 19 months old died after being in U.S. border patrol custody. They’ll wonder who was even welcome in an America where the president told U.S. congresswomen, who are American citizens, that they should “go back” to the countries from which they came.
It is no wonder that so many young immigrant children, or children of immigrants, whom we are serving in our education system feel unwelcomed and scared. While Plyler v. Doe (1982) ensures that students, regardless of immigration status, have access to free K-12 public education, we have created an environment that confines these students and hampers hopes of higher education. As the director of TeenSHARP’s Delaware Goes to College Academy program, and as the daughter of an immigrant from Mexico, I see the impact of our broken immigration system on students daily and it pains me.
My team and I spent the last few weeks touring Delaware to deliver college preparatory boot camps for juniors, seniors and their parents. It was exciting to see so much engagement from students and parents in each county as they learned how to make their college dreams possible. But while some of our students were preparing to take flight, others were having their wings clipped by fright.
The recent announcements of raids terrified my undocumented students. One even let us know that she would not be attending our program, as she did not want to risk leaving her home. I tried to convince the student to come and even offered to provide transportation myself, but my efforts failed. I have not been able to reach this student since.
Not only has the hostile environment forced undocumented students and families indoors and away from public spaces, it has also put them at high risk for mental-health problems. As research reveals and as I have seen firsthand, many of the undocumented students we work with at TeenSHARP face bouts of depression and anxiety. One talented student stopped attending classes, preferring to take Fs, as she felt hopeless about her family’s situation.
Several of our students, both citizens and undocumented students, have had parents or family members deported in recent years. This has had a detrimental effect on their grades and motivation to achieve their American dream. These mental-health problems are not new, but with an increasingly hostile environment, the volume and severity seem new.
For undocumented students who manage to achieve academic success in high school and persist despite all of these challenges, they are confronted with even more obstacles to their dreams. The top colleges we prepare our students for usually admit only a handful of undocumented students each year with funding.
In Delaware, as in many other states, undocumented students are not able to benefit from in-state tuition rates at four-year institutions or the array of state scholarships that can make college affordable. In some states, undocumented students are even banned from enrolling in some public colleges and universities. The result of all these constraints: Only about 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students in the United States go to college.
TeenSHARP has had success in helping undocumented students access selective colleges, but the students and our staff had to move mountains with little margin for error. It doesn’t have to be this way.
We must urge Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We must also press state policymakers to follow the lead of states like California, New Jersey and New York and pass policies that make higher education accessible for undocumented students.
We need to call on those in philanthropy to create programs and supports such as TheDream.US, the nation’s largest college access and success program for DREAMers.
And we must ensure that district and school staff are aware of undocumented students’ rights and how to support them holistically in our schools.
It is through the sacrifices that my father made in coming to the United States that I had the opportunity to earn two Ivy League degrees, have a job I love and own a home. My story embodies what some consider the “American Dream.” But my American dream is a welcoming America that protects and supports the most vulnerable and acts consistently with its ideals.
This story about the guidance gap and undocumented students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Kim Lopez works for TeenSHARP as Director of the Delaware Goes to College Academy program. She previously worked as an associate director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.