The narratives may vary, but members of the Georgetown community from immigrant backgrounds have all found notes of uncertainty and unexpected limitations in their American experience.
“Despite your legal status you continue to be an alien in someone else’s land, and unfortunately few differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants. Your accomplishments continue to be seen in doubt, and it seems you are in a constant war trying to prove your position in society,” said Daniel Rico (GRD ’10), assistant outreach coordinator in the Center for Latin American Studies.
The path to permanent residency is complex, demanding application through a family member, employment, investment, the diversity lottery, asylum or some provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, according to Rico.
“Currently, the fees to become a resident or citizen are too high,” said Yasmin Serrato (SFS ’13), a first-generation American whose parents went through the process for legal residency. “Financial barriers should not cause individuals who desire to live in this country to live in fear.”
About 40 million foreign-born people live in the United States today. Of those, 11 million are unauthorized, according to B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were 1,130,818 legal permanent residents in the United States in 2009.
According to Rico, whether one is a permanent resident or an undocumented immigrant, perception can be a roadblock, a point he illustrated by offering the example of his own college acceptance.
“When I was accepted to Georgetown University I faced heavy criticisms from some community members back home. They did not believe that an immigrant, especially one coming from an uneducated family, could be accepted to a school like Georgetown,” Rico said. “It became such a big issue that there was actually an attempt to prove that I had somehow forged my application.”
Juan Gomez (MSB ’11) has been faced with a more precarious situation in proving his own standing since he first set foot on U.S. soil when he was a one-year-old.
Gomez considers himself an American, but his legal status is not as straightforward. His parents were deported to Colombia in an early-morning immigration raid in 2007 – a story that caught the attention of national news outlets such as The Washington Post – and though he and his brother are permitted to stay in the United States under an order of supervision, they are barred from exiting the country. His parents remain in Colombia.
While Gomez is enrolled at Georgetown as an international student, he is required to apply to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in order to return home to Miami for semester breaks; he isn’t sure where he would live if denied.
“There is always the fear of uncertainty,” Gomez said.
Gomez attended a local community college before transferring to Georgetown, as in-state four-year schools were not an option due to lacking financial resources, Gomez said. At community college, U.S. citizens pay $80 per credit. Gomez, who officially attended as an international student, paid $330. He said that when he applied to Georgetown as a transfer student, he received a generous financial aid package, making possible his matriculation in fall 2008.
Illegal immigrants are allowed to attend public school from kindergarten through high school, and 50,000 to 70,000 graduate from high schools each year. But many college applications ask for legal residence status. In addition, even if illegal immigrants apply as international students, they often do not have the same access to financial aid.
Lisa He (SFS ’11), president of the Asian American Student Association, said she believes that immigration reform directly affects the Asian community, in addition to other groups on campus.
“We take this issue greatly to our hearts because 40 percent of the immigration community composes of Asian Pacific Islanders,” she said. “And of that 40 percent, 1.8 million have used illegal ways to reach to America. This alarming statistic thus demonstrates that there is a large undocumented community of Asians in the U.S.”
The numbers are so steep because gaining entry to the U.S. legally can be a taxing process, according to many from immigrant backgrounds. Michael Appau (COL ’13) came to the United States after living in Ghana for 14 years. Appau, a permanent resident card holder, considers himself lucky to have had a less challenging time gaining citizenship than some of his relatives and friends back in Ghana.
“It was [easy] to some extent. My parents had to apply for me . and they had to do a lot of paperwork to acquire citizenship. On my end, it just involved me taking a DNA test, and a lot of other shots because I guess they thought I was a leper,” Appau added lightly. “I was really lucky because my parents had all the required documents already so I didn’t have it as hard as some people I knew who really struggled to get the documentation.”
Last month, over a hundred Georgetown students marched for immigration reform on the National Mall. Supporters hope that changes in U.S. immigration policies are imminent, since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act hit the floor of the House in December 2009. Among the proposals is a change in tuition fees for prospective college students who are undocumented.
Supporters of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which is embedded in the new legislation, cite the potential for states to offer in-state tuition fees to students who are illegal immigrants. The DREAM Act would also allow students who entered the United States before the age of 15 the opportunity to become citizens through a multi-step process, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The College Board, which is made up of 5,600 schools and colleges, has voiced its support of the DREAM Act, which had first appeared in the House in March 2009 before its inclusion in December’s legislation.
“The College Board is working to remove the barriers to a college education for all students. Undocumented students deserve the same chance to go to college and fully participate in our society as other students,” Gaston Caperton, the organization’s president, said in a news release in April 2009. “We must not turn our back on these deserving young people.”
The legislation first pitched in December would also offer assurance to undocumented families threatened by the prospect of separation.
Gomez voiced his strong support, saying he hopes for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow his parents to re-enter the country. Under the current system, they must wait until 2017 to reapply to enter the country legally. Gomez plans to stay in the States after finishing his college education, but he hopes to be reunited with his family, pending a sea-change in immigration policy.
With activists at the grassroots level taking a stand, Rico thinks the chances of passage could swell.
“Many organizations have demonstrated that they are able to mobilize not only illegal, but also legal immigrants and sympathizers. The most recent rallies demonstrate that this issue is of great importance and that by ignoring it, you are ignoring the needs and demands of millions of people,” Rico said. “Most importantly, the national rallies have demonstrated that this issue has the potential to unite people across states.”
Ana Cenaj (COL ’12), who grew up in Albania, expects to be receiving her U.S. citizenship this year. Cenaj said that as a minority student she has felt welcomed at Georgetown.
“I’m proud of my Albanian heritage and of my identity,” she said. “I find that when people focus so much on stereotypes they often lose sight in the beauty that surrounds them. Georgetown is a beautiful and open-minded community that provides its students with a sense of individuality and diversity that is truly admirable.”
– Hoya Staff Writer Nathalie Lawyer contributed to this report