Undocumented students struggle toward degrees

By the time she'd graduated from Toledo's Early College High School in 2011, Lucy Mendoza had already earned nearly half the credits she needed toward a bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo. The university even rewarded her with a $10,000 President's Award to continue her studies.

"When I received the award, I thought, 'Wow, someone actually believes in me, someone believes in my potential,' " said Mendoza, who dreams of becoming a journalist.

Mendoza is among a growing number of young undocumented immigrants - in Toledo and elsewhere - pursuing college educations and careers despite their illegal residency status.

Some have found welcoming arms from schools such as the University of Toledo, where staff and administrators help them enroll. At least two illegal immigrants reported their enrollment applications were denied by Bowling Green State University.

"There's nothing that would prevent them from enrolling," said Bowling Green spokesman Dave Kielmeyer said of illegal immigrants. "But they would not be eligible for state or federal aid."

Inconsistencies in school policies can be confusing for students and school officials, said Mark Heller, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality's migrant farmworker and immigration program in Toledo. For example: Should illegal immigrants be charged in-state, or international tuition rates? Those decisions are usually decided on a case-by-case basis, Heller and other immigrant advocates say.

Former UT trustee Baldemar Velasquez said he often encouraged school officials while he was a member of the board to help undocumented immigrants enroll. The success of students like Mendoza strongly argues for citizenship, he said.

"We're always trying to bring educated people from other countries here to do skilled jobs, but we already have those people here," said Velasquez, president of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a farm workers' union. "Let's allow them to serve their country."

Even when undocumented students are allowed to enroll, their path isn't easy. Without Social Security numbers, they can't obtain federal grants or loans, scholarships or other forms of financial assistance.

Some immigrant youths' families scrimp and save to afford tuition, and private donors sometimes step forward to help. Others students, like Mendoza, enroll in early college preparatory programs and receive awards that don't have residency requirements.

Mendoza's college dream derailed last spring. Charged the international tuition rate, she ran out of money and now works part time at a clothing store, hoping to save enough money to complete her degree. She needs about 50 more credits.

The Blade recently contacted 10 undocumented current or former UT students. All but Mendoza declined interviews.

Some feared deportation. One student worried about how his fraternity brothers would react if they learned of his illegal status. Another hadn't told her boyfriend she is undocumented.

All were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were young children. They've grown up thinking and acting like Americans.

Two recent students received bachelor's degrees in December, but they can't legally work in the United States. Both hope to eventually be allowed to become U.S. citizens.

Mendoza already has applied for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives those who came into the country illegally with their parents before age 16 a chance to stay for two years. Those who qualify pay taxes and can obtain Social Security cards, allowing legal employment.

But it is not a direct path to citizenship.

Mendoza's parents both illegally work as housekeepers in the United States. Her father had been a chemical engineer in Peru, her mother a kindergarten teacher. They'd come on visas, now expired, and have tried a few times to gain documented status.

"I don't know how things are going to happen," Mendoza said. But education remains "a dream I'm going to follow, no matter how long it takes."

(Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)