Undocumented students and higher education: Raymond’s Story

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Roberto Gutierrez

Roberto Gutierrez

Raymond Partolan grew up in Macon, Ga.

But until recently, he didn’t feel welcome in Macon or the United States.

Not all undocumented immigrants cross the border illegally of their own volition. Some come with their parents, who may or may not come into the country legally.

Partolan’s family moved here legally.

When Partolan was 15 months old, his family left the Philippines for the U.S. His father had an H1-B visa, which allowed him to work in the U.S. for a specific amount of time. Partolan and his mother had H-4 visas, which are given to family members of H1-B visa holders.

Partolan’s father was going to work as a physical therapist, and Partolan’s parents thought the move was a good decision.

“The two of them brought me to the United States in search of a better education for me,” said Partolan. “And also just better quality of life in general.”

For nine years, Partolan grew up in the U.S. under his father’s visa. Like most of his classmates in the fifth grade, the U.S. was the only country he knew. All of his memories, his childhood, took place in the U.S.

Even now, the Philippines is, “a country that I have no recollection of, a country that I’m not familiar with, a country whose culture I’m not familiar with at all,” said Partolan.

The test

In order to legally practice physical therapy in the U.S., Partolan’s father had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to prove his English proficiency.

Passing the test would have given Partolan’s father a VisaScreen certificate, which would have lead to a Green Card—permanent residency in the U.S.

Partolan’s father needed a lawful presence in the U.S. in order to renew his physical therapy license.

The test came in three parts: The Test of Written English (TWE), the TOEFL and the Test of Spoken English (TSE, which has since been replaced by the spoken portion of the TOEFL).

Partolan’s father passed the TWE and the TOEFL. But because of his thick accent, he failed the TSE by small margins.

He took the test over and over, but could not pass.

Since Partolan’s father could not pass the TSE, The Immigration and Naturalization Service, what is now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), denied his application for a Green Card.

The Partolans’ visas expired, and all of a sudden, at 10 years old, Partolan was an undocumented immigrant.

His parents had a hard decision to make: move back to a country Partolan had no recollection of, or stay in the country that was Partolan’s home. Home or not, the latter decision would mean becoming undocumented.

“My parents opted to keep me here, our entire family,” said Partolan. “We had already established ourselves here and for all intents and purposes, we were American just like everyone else.”

Life as an undocumented immigrant

Partolan’s parents told their 10-year-old son never to tell anyone about his immigration status, because if he did, his family could be deported.

“I didn’t understand what they meant at that point,” said Partolan. “So, I went against what my parents told me, and I told someone in the fifth grade about my immigration status.”

Partolan told his friend Matthew that he was an illegal alien.

“And he told me there was no way I could be an illegal alien because aliens are from outer space, and I’m from right here on earth.”

After that, Partolan said he didn’t share his immigration status with anyone until he was in high school because he didn’t think it was important. “I didn’t realize how much it could possibly affect me until I got older and into high school,” he said.

“It was absolutely miserable to know that at any moment I could be deported from the country that I know and love,” said Partolan. “The only country that I know and love.”

As an undocumented immigrant, Partolan could not get a driver’s license. In high school, he had to ride the city bus from school to the bus stop closest to his home. He then had to walk home from the bus stop—which was over mile from his house.

If he were to drive to or from school, something as small as a broken tail light could have gotten him deported if a police officer happened to pull him over, ask for his license and suspect that Partolan was undocumented.

Fear of deportation isn’t the only feeling Partolan had to live with.

Although Partolan spent his whole life in the U.S., he felt like he didn’t belong here.

“The government didn’t want me here, the right wing conservatives who are completely against immigration reform didn’t want me here,” said Partolan. “Yet this is my home, and I also don’t belong in the Philippines because I moved from there when I was so young. So it seemed like I didn’t have a place to belong, and that’s how I grew up from the fifth grade all the way up until now. That’s how I felt.”

Undocumented students and higher education

Undocumented students, though many of them grew up in the U.S. and graduated from public high schools, cannot receive any federal financial aid or loans. In Georgia, undocumented students also cannot receive state financial aid.

For example, even if undocumented students grew up in the state, attended the state’s public schools and earned a high enough GPA to be eligible for the HOPE Scholarship, they could not receive that scholarship.

Those same students would also have to pay out-of-state tuition even though they grew up in Georgia.

John Millsaps, a spokesman for the University System of Georgia (USG) Board of Regents, said that in-state tuition is subsidized by the state—by taxpayers—meaning that in-state tuition is a public benefit. A federal law, which Georgia follows, states that public benefits cannot be given to undocumented immigrants.

Even if undocumented students had access to in-state tuition and federal or state aid, it would still be difficult for them to be accepted at a public university in Georgia.

Melissa Cruz, Ph.D., is the director of Administrative Services at Mercer University, and wrote her dissertation on “Undocumented Students and Higher Education in the State of Georgia: The ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Policy of Illegal Immigrant Children.”

Cruz said in an interview that Georgia, unlike states such as Texas, California and New York, falls into a “restrictive category” when it comes to undocumented students’ access to public universities.

“[The University System of Georgia] specifically ban[s] undocumented students from the top-tiered public schools,” said Cruz.

Specifically, the USG policy Cruz referred to states that “any person not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible for admission to any USG institution which, for the two most recent academic years, did not admit all academically qualified applicants,” according to their website, usg.edu.

Millsaps explained the policy, saying that public universities in Georgia cannot turn away other academically qualified students before accepting undocumented students. If a university has accepted every academically qualified applicant, only then can it accept an undocumented student.

“But there’s this subsidiary law as well that was passed that essentially bans them from any university in the state of Georgia that’s public,” said Cruz. “[The USG Board of Regents] have a clause that states [students] must be legally present in Georgia to attend school. This makes it almost impossible for them to attend due to the cost.”

Asked if efforts were being made to change undocumented students’ access to public universities in Georgia, Millsaps said, “The current policy stands as it is.”

Partolan wanted to go to college, but it looked like the odds were against him.

Private schools were his only option, because private schools like Mercer can accept whomever they choose—regardless of immigration status.

But Partolan’s parents, like many undocumented immigrant families, couldn’t afford tuition.

“Theoretically, I couldn’t go to college unless I had the means to pay for it, because the government wasn’t going to help me out in any way,” said Partolan. “So, from elementary school, I’ve always tried my best to do my best in school.”

Patolan applied to 14 private colleges and universities his senior year of high school.

His dream school was Yale University, and because he had spent his whole life in Macon, Mercer was his last choice.

“I wanted to get away from my family for a little bit, see new things, see new places,” he said.

Partolan did not get accepted to Yale.

Undocumented students and Mercer University

Mercer does not take official stances on political issues, nor does it have an official policy regarding undocumented students.

However, Alejandra Sosa, director of freshman admissions at Mercer, said that as long as applicants are academically qualified, their immigration status does not matter to Mercer. They are treated just like other applicants.

“When we’re making an admissions decision, we do not take a look at a student’s citizenship or anything else other than their application, transcripts, test scores,” said Sosa. “That’s also how we then make students eligible for scholarships.”

Prospective Mercer students are eligible for three types of financial aid: merit-based aid, which is based on GPA and test scores; need-based aid, which is based on the FAFSA; and talend-based aid for athletes and musicians.

Sosa said that undocumented students cannot fill out the FAFSA and therefore cannot receive need-based aid. However, those students are still eligible for merit- or talent-based scholarships from Mercer.

Merit-based scholarships, especially Mercer’s full-tuition Presidential Scholarship, make a college education possible for undocumented students.

As long as students submit an application along with their transcripts and test scores, Sosa said that Mercer uses the same standards for all applicants.

Partolan’s GPA and test scores made him eligible for an academic scholarship from Mercer, which he received.

“I was fortunate enough to get a Presidential Scholarship at Mercer, which I’m incredibly thankful for,” said Partolan. “Mercer’s given me the opportunity to get a college education, and I want to do everything I can to help give back to Mercer, which is why I’m so passionate about everything I do on campus.”

Turning to activism and involvement

In 10th grade, Partolan lobbied for the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act would provide people like Partolan, who came to the U.S. as children and who enroll in college or enlist in the military, a pathway to citizenship.

“I started writing legislators, making phone calls and organizing at the local level at my high school. And I garnered a great amount of support at my high school for that,” said Partolan. “That’s really when my activism started.”

The DREAM Act was introduced in 2001. It still has not passed.

In June 2012, the secretary of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA grants legal presence to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and who meet certain criteria.

Immediately after DACA went live in August 2012, Partolan began the application process, and in November, he was accepted.

“I’m not a legal immigrant yet in the U.S., but now I have lawful presence. I can’t be deported anymore,” said Partolan.

Through DACA, Partolan applied for work authorization, and was able to get a driver’s license, social security card and work permit.

He also doesn’t have to live in fear of being deported.

However, DACA isn’t permanent. Partolan must renew his DACA status every two years.

Also, according to Cruz, DACA does not affect undocumented students’ ability to go to college in Georgia. The USG policy still applies, and undocumented students must still pay out-of-state tuition.

The only thing DACA affects is funding, meaning that with a job, it might be easier for an undocumented student to pay tuition.

“So this is just a placeholder for what needs to happen. And what needs to happen is actually a pathway to citizenship for people like me, who came to the United States when they were really young,” said Partolan.

Undocumented immigrants “have the potential to fulfil their civic duties as citizens of the U.S.,” said Partolan. “I just think they have enormous potential for the U.S. from so many different perspectives, and something just needs to happen on this. And this is why I fight for it as an activist.”

This summer, Partolan became involved in a youth-led organization called Dream Activist Georgia.

In July, Partolan and other students in the organization went to Washington D.C. to rally for immigration reform. The yearly event is called Dream Graduation.

The students marched to Congress and the Supreme Court chanting phrases like, “Undocumented, unafraid,” and “Up, up with education; down, down with deportation.”

“We held signs and we lobbied legislators, and that was just a genuinely great experience for me, because it showed me the potential activism has in making changes for the better,” said Partolan.

Partolan came back home inspired, and he began to organize rallies and marches in Georgia.

At the end of July, Partolan protested in front of the Georgia State Capitol and announced that he and other students were suing the USG Board of Regents, calling on them to grant in-state tuition to DACA students.

Because of the pending litigation, Millsaps could only comment generally on the USG’s immigrant student policy.

In October, Partolan helped organize another rally at the Capitol Building with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. Partolan spoke in front of about 2,000 people at the rally.

“I’ve discovered that this is something I’m incredibly passionate about.”

Raymond is also passionate about Mercer.

“I just feel like Mercer’s given me so much. If it weren’t for Mercer, I would not be in college right now,” he said. “Because of that I want to give back to [Mercer] in any way that I can.”

Partolan became involved in SGA as a senator during his freshman year, and now, in his junior year, he is the President of SGA.

“I feel that by being in this role, I’m helping to give back to Mercer. And that’s something  that I live and breathe every day, that I’m a Mercer student,” said Partolan.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Mercer, Partolan wants to attend Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law and specialize in immigration law.

“Every day I’m at Mercer I continue to fall in love with Mercer. There’s just something nice, like a bell that rings really sweetly in my head, when I think about the possibility of me being a double Bear graduate,” said Partolan.

“I’ve seen our immigration system first hand, and I want to help people manoeuvre through the system as easily as possible. Because it’s been incredibly difficult for me, so I want to make it easier for someone else.”

 

Through Mercer, Partolan was given an opportunity that a lot of undocumented students don’t have. Cruz said that, when it comes to getting into college, undocumented students have a lot to overcome. Many undocumented students are the first in their families to graduate high school, let alone go to college.

According to Cruz, the majority of undocumented students do not take college prep courses, or are stuck on the English as a Second Language track and don’t get off.

Cruz said it’s more difficult for undocumented students to be academically prepared for college than it is for U.S. citizens.

Even if students like Partolan are academically qualified, it’s still difficult for them to go to college in Georgia.

Undocumented students in states like Texas, California and New York can be accepted to those states’ public universities if they went through school in the state. They also have access to in-state tuition, and in Texas, undocumented students are eligible to receive state financial aid.

Cruz said the difference between Georgia and states like Texas is that undocumented immigrants are relatively new to Georgia, and haven’t been in the state long enough to effect change.

For example, the Hispanic population in Georgia, said Cruz, is the fastest growing portion of the population, but it still only makes up about 10 percent of the population.

“There’s only one Hispanic person that sits down in the capitol. So issues that pertain to Hispanic people aren’t really brought up, and they don’t have the voting base either,” said Cruz. “Whereas Texas, California and New York, they have had enough of the legal population voting to change these laws.”

Cruz said that until enough people vote on legislation pertaining to undocumented immigrants, nothing will change.

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