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Gaining hope then losing it: The developmental limbo faced by undocumented youth

Dayana Dominguez, 23, is undocumented and graduated from a school in South Side Chicago. In August, she went to Navy Pier to apply for a two-year work permit.

David Blancas of Aurora says he first felt the barriers and isolation that come with being undocumented when he was unable to apply for a driver’s license or financial aid for college.

“I knew I was undocumented by the age of 13, but I did not know what it meant,” Blancas said. “It wasn’t until I was 16 and 17 when I realized what undocumented meant, by so many restrictions and limitations.”

Blancas is just one of the more than 2.1 million undocumented young people in the United States who have been here since childhood, according to a study by the American Sociological Association. 

The ASA study, authored by University of Chicago professor Roberto Gonzales, drew analysis from 150 interviews with undocumented young adult Latinos. Half of the young adults he interviewed attended college and half did not go to college or dropped out of high school. 

Gonzales said those who did not go to college – the “early exiters” -- did not attend because they either could not afford it, had heavy family responsibilities, got in trouble with the law or were pregnant. Many took on factory jobs, cleaned offices or homes, washed dishes, did landscaping or worked in a restaurant.

The other half Gonzales studied were young people who were high-achieving students, who went on to college and continued to excel in school. The University of Chicago professor, however, found that after college and graduate school many of these high-achieving students ended up taking on the same jobs as the “early-exiters,” because people who are undocumented do not have a Social Security number and are unable to work legally. 

“A lot of them begin to lose hope,” Gonzales said. “More about their lives become about their status.”

Blancas, now 25, started losing hope in the last two months of his senior year of high school. He had been a straight-A student. In his senior year, after he couldn’t apply for federal financial aid and didn’t receive one college acceptance letter, his grades went from As to Cs and Fs.

“My friend who was a C-average student was getting into colleges and I wasn’t,” Blancas said. “My mentality was ‘why even try?’”

Gonzales said that many undocumented youth in their senior year of high school move from “protected to unprotected status, from inclusion to exclusion, and from de facto legal to illegal.” 

A U.S. high school is a protected space for undocumented students, as their status has little or no negative effect. In Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court gave undocumented youth the legal right to a K-12 education. Schools are not allowed to release student information to immigration authorities under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

However, as students get older and are unable to go through normal young adult stages like getting a driver’s license, applying for federal financial aid and even seeing R-rated movies, Gonzales said, their illegal status places them in a “developmental limbo.”

There is, however, still hope for undocumented youth to go to college, especially those living in Illinois. In 2003, the state of Illinois passed the bill HB60 that made in-state tuition available for undocumented youth at public universities and public colleges.

 With the help of his teachers, Gonzales was able to get financial aid from the private institution Aurora University.

In 2011, the state passed the Illinois DREAM Act, making it the first state in the country to create a private scholarship fund for undocumented youth, according to a report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and two other immigrant organizations. The DREAM Fund is overseen by nine unpaid people appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn that provide scholarships funded entirely by private donors and contributions. 

The Illinois DREAM Act also allows an undocumented student with a taxpayer number to participate in the State Treasurer’s College Savings Pool and the Illinois Prepaid Tuition Plan, which are programs that help families plan and save for their children’s college education.

Nationally, in August, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA, that allowed undocumented young people to apply for a two-year work permit and get a Social Security number and driver’s license.

To be eligible,, they must meet the following criteria: be under 31; were under 16 when they came to the U.S.; have no criminal record; and are in or have graduated from a U.S. high school or have a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the armed services or Coast Guard.

Illinois has 48,590 DACA-eligible people and is the state with the fifth-largest number, according to demographer Rob Paral & Associates. Chicago, itself, has 45,960 DACA-eligible students. 

Maria Sanchez, a senior at West Glenbard High School, received a two-year work permit in October because of DACA. She got her driver’s license for the first time is now able to drive legally without fear of being arrested and possibly deported. 

“It’s a huge relief,” Sanchez said. 

Blancas also got his two-year work permit and is adjusting to feeling at ease behind the wheel. 

“My stomach used to turn when I saw a cop and I would have to pull over at a gas station to let him pass, “ Blancas said. “Now, I can keep driving.”

On Tuesday, Illinois Senate passed the Senate Bill 957, requiring that all Illinois motorists, including undocumented drivers, get licensed, tested and insured. The bill will be moving to the House for a vote. Unlicensed and uninsured immigrant drivers are involved in an estimated 79,600 accidents each year, which costs $660 million in damage claims that other policy holders must cover, according to the Highway Safety Coalition.

Gonzales said more people are aware now of the problems that the undocumented population is going through. 

The developmental limbo still exists for many undocumented youth, but for some, the two-year work permit allows them to focus on their aspirations and less on their status for the time being.

“I can finally accomplish everything that I wanted. I don’t have to live a lie anymore,“ Blancas said. “Finally I am able to be who I am.”

Keywords: DACA, DREAM Act, Education, Undocumented, undocumented youth

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