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June 2nd, 2009
09:15 PM ET

College life for undocumented students

Editor's Note: Tune in to AC360º at 10pm to find out more about undergraduate students facing hurdles because of their immigrant status and what the DREAM Act could mean for them.

A group of undocumented students interviewed for the story.

A group of undocumented students interviewed for the story.

Traci Tamura
CNN Senior Producer

The issue of illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico is always a hot button topic. I have produced numerous stories on illegal immigration from all sides and from both sides of the border.

My most recent story that I produced for the Anderson Cooper 360 Show about undocumented students took me back to my college roots – UCLA.

When I came back to campus this go around it was to meet with a group of undocumented students who belong to IDEAS (Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success). We talked to them about how their illegal status affects their quest to get an education.

Just hearing about how they don't qualify for any financial aid, can't get drivers licenses and the impact it has on their lives made me think about my own college experiences.

Some travel for hours by bus just to make an 8am class. When I lived on campus it was still a "struggle" to make it to class on time and all I had to do was walk across campus.

Part-time job – not one that pays legally. Which means any research grant positions in their field of study is off the table. I have very fond memories of working at the local Ski & Sports shop to help pay my way through college.

Leasing an apartment, without a social security number – out of the question. I don't think anyone forgets their first apartment. I remember the excitement of renting a small one bedroom with a friend who I had been my roommate in the dorms.

As undocumented students, they aren't able to do some of the social things that are the fabric of college life. Go to an R-rated movie or frequent a college student’s survival staple – Happy Hour. I remember Taco Tuesday's at the local bar where you could buy one drink and eat dinner for free.

Hopping on a plane for a quick Spring Break trip – no way. These mostly straight A, high achieving students can't even think about doing that. They can't fly without identification and it's risky to even cross state lines by car.

After spending some time with these students, you realize they face daily challenges that most of their fellow students can't even imagine. The biggest among them is living with the daily fear of getting stopped and deported.

My biggest college worry – mid-terms and finals.

Their future outlook...

Nancy got accepted to UCLA and Harvard Master's in education programs.

Jacob and Christopher want to be top notch doctors.

Mario wants to be an economist.

Jacqueline and Nancy aspire to be lawyers.

All of them have the potential and passion to reach those goals but the reality is their future hinges on immigration reform.

My reality – I got to help tell their story.


Filed under: 360° Interview • Immigration
soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Joanne

    These people ARE Un-American!!!! Period.

    July 30, 2009 at 1:14 pm |
  2. kace

    The plight of an undocumented student is tragic and frustrating. However, undocumented students do not only originate from Mexico or any South American country. They can can come from Europe, Asia and Africa. Undocumented students come in all shapes and sizes; therefore it is very possible that som of the people sitting in class beside you or even eatin lunch with you may be enduring the frustration of not having financial aid, legal jobs or even the confidence to walk down the street without fear that one day they will be stopped by te police and deported back to a land they never knew. Some students do not come here illegally. Some pursue it the correct way and get stuck within the bueacratic system of the United States. i believe that the ones wo have been waiting in line 20-10 years should be granted some relief from their suffering. Just imagine living life veiled in the shaows of fear an doubt: it is an un-american dream.

    June 22, 2009 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Benjamin

    I beleive people who came here illegal should be deported. I pose a question to you what other countries such as africa, china, or russia. Those immgrants come here legally. I sick of illegals trying to get rights. Their illegal. Come on when is America going to say enough. Let do the right thing. Lets deport the illegals, clean the streets and our schools. If the students want to become legal the should enlist in the military and if they go to war they become citizens. I think if their bright and illegal then they need to contribute to U.S. Not ask for a had out. This country id founded off peoples sacrifce.Tell the girl who in UCLA to do something greater than herself and serve as officer in U.S. Military.

    June 12, 2009 at 4:19 pm |
  4. Joanne Bussell

    I saw your story on AC360 last night about the illegal who is "doing so well in school" and thinks she has the right to remain in this country and to take money out of taxes that I pay. She says that she makes money by working as a tutor and a babysitter. Let's settle this issue once and for all by asking her to show us her 1040 from 2008. Let's take a look at Mamacita's, too. If she pays, then help her. If not send her packing. This girl's squeaky sweet voice just made me sick and, with all the layoffs in this country, we need to take care of AMERICAN CITIZENS. Period.

    June 12, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  5. Illegal in style

    How readily we forget that we are a country our immigrants. Our very own forefathers came to this country as immigrants looking to take control of their own destiny. Not only was this country founded by immigrants, but it depended on continues to depend on the exploitation of labor, and this is even more the case in hard financial times. So why don't we stop hating and come to term with our reality, we are a country of immigrants. In denying those who are here to stay quality education to the demise of our human capital, we are only hurting ourselves as a nation.

    June 4, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  6. Tammy

    Illegal immigrants have no place within the U.S., let alone in our public state schools. These students are lucky that they are afforded such a great education in the first place and deserve to "suffer" without the regular college perks of traveling across state borders for vacation, receiving grant money, and living on or near campus. For every illegal immigrant that attends UCLA–or any college, for that matter–there is one deserving, tax-paying U.S. citizen (or, at least one U.S. citizen whose parents are tax payers) who was shut out of their dream college.

    June 4, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  7. latinitasoyme

    What I don't understand is how it is possible for it to be illegal to be a human being and exist on a chunk of land different than the one one was born on?

    Education, as it is the topic at hand, is and should remain a basic human right. The reason that many of these students are on this particular chunk of land called the U.S.A. is due to survival and most are here through no choice of their own. Education is also nowhere near as being as readily available in other countries as it is in the U.S. If they are in this country already and have the academic and personal ability why take that away from them? They are already limited in so many ways. There are already many undocumented people who have law, medical and other professional and academic degrees but cannot practice their profession in this country because they simply don't have a piece of paper that states that they are here legally.

    Also, I noticed that a common comment on this post was one stating that they should go about obtaining residency legally, but the thing is that many of the students in piece and at universities across the U.S. already are in the process toward legalization. Perhaps, I am biased because I am a UCLA student and personally know (and have known many of the students in this piece for years) but I know that their intent is not malicious. Rather they truly have the kind of knowledge and skills that many in who are living in this country "legally" are lacking. These individuals have something truly valuable to offer our society. In order to come to a clear opinion one must look beyond the status of "il/legality" but rather toward the context of the experience.

    P.S. Undocumented immigrants are not ruining the educational system, the U.S. government did a dandy job of doing that.

    June 4, 2009 at 12:30 pm |
  8. Dan, CO

    Why is there illegal immigration? Because foreign governments don't do enought for their own citizens? USA is what it is because of the sacrifices of our forefathers, our legal citizens!

    In these hard times of unemployment, why is everyone talking about law breaking citizens and not bringing to light the plight of hardworking, tax paying, law abiding US Citizens and LEGAL immigrants?

    June 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  9. lucy

    We were immigrants too but obtained our citizenship legally after 9 years. We were temporary residents in this country because of a job so we have to abide by the rules of this country. You can compare an illegal to an uninivited guest to your home who forces himself through the back door and starts imposing on you just because she has no place to live or means to live. You show a little kindness and now dictates on how to run your home or maybe want to use your master bedroom like as if she now has the right to do so. We didn't see ourselves this way but rather respected the owner of the house- the people of this country and eventually earned their respect as well. There are those who mistakenly tolerate and enable this uninvited behavior for whatever reason so the problem will remain.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:28 pm |
  10. Anna

    sorry typo on the bottom of my comment I meant LEGAL then the US will give you the same right as us. that would defeat the whole purpose of my argument with that one little typo.

    June 3, 2009 at 12:11 pm |
  11. Anna

    I can't believe this. I know so many people that can't get fincial aid that are US citizens. My brother and I are one of them we can't get finacial aid due to the fact that our parents seem to make a lot, but really they have tons of bills they can barely pay there mortgage. Having part time job can pay for some books maybe but it never seems to be enough, finishing and getting a AA degree almost seems sad since I won't even be able to transfer. I have a mom who is a filipina and went to college in philippines and came here the legal way. She is a US citizen now and can get the PRIVILEGE that all US citizens get. When I would go to see all the people becoming US citizens it makes me happy you can tell it was a long and hard process. They didn't drive over and use over peoples social secruity. Which by they way someone did to my mother and we got screwed because she did so much with my mom's name and social. I'm not against anyones race my dad is american and so is he's parents but they are mexican descent. Mexican Americans are different then mexican illegals and some people think just cause your mexican your illegal no one is hertiage is mexican but is american born and raised and the other need to get out of here and stop runinig are education system and come back when your illegal then the US will give you the same rights as us.

    June 3, 2009 at 12:05 pm |
  12. Ivette

    if we don't want to make illegals legal in this country, I think illegal immigrants should somehow be mandated to pay taxes.... like issue illegals a tax id number. If they contribute to the pool of money where all of this assistance is being taken from, I believe there will be less opposition from americans. furthmore, illegal immigrants will learn to sow in order to reap.

    June 3, 2009 at 11:02 am |
  13. Teresa, OH

    Ummm, I'm confused.... re : "The issue of illegal immigration to the United States from Mexico is always a hot button topic" What part of the word ILLEGAL dont the illegals understand? I dont care about their passion for learning or what they are challenged with.
    I dont care that they cant get a drivers license or financial aid. My sons couldnt get financial aid and now they cant get jobs.

    Call me a B****, but I dont get where illegals even get admitted to colleges in this country. I really dont.

    Yes, we need reform. And illegals need to understand that they are breaking the law simply by being here. America has become a country of wussies.

    June 3, 2009 at 10:59 am |
  14. Mayte

    i didnt get any financial aid but that didnt stop me.... it will take me forever to get my degree at a community college but i will get there. I will be a US citizen in 2 years ( its when i qualify) despite the fact that ive been here since i was 9 months.

    My sister was fortunate to be a natural born citizen.... she graduated 4 days ago with honors and numerous scholarships. She will be attending Texas A&M.

    June 3, 2009 at 10:23 am |
  15. Fed Up

    I support anyone who wants to come to this country legally as long as they can support themselves and be part of the system. I do not support people who come here illegally and then expect us to pay for them and all their families. The illegals are bankrupting California and all our taxes have skyrocketed to pay for them.

    June 3, 2009 at 10:13 am |
  16. Joanne Pacicca, Solvay, NY

    May I suggest, going through the process of obtaining a student visa? When I was in college, exchange students made up a large percentage of the population of our university.

    It is true that several years ago, my university had 8 terrorist removed by government agents....they all had student visas!

    June 3, 2009 at 9:53 am |
  17. henock ahmed

    you coverd a very important part of collage student with no paper . i have meate a lot of them and trust me, i want to help but when i know that i cant it heaurt me. so i just keep on wating for innigration reform to happen for those who have a very posetive deam.

    June 3, 2009 at 9:41 am |
  18. Michelle, CA

    I was born in Mexico, my family came here legally, and I got the full college experience. There's something somewhat unfair about saying, if you come to this country illegally, your children can get this when they grow up, when other families sacrifice so much to come to this country legally so that their children can get those same things. But, on the flip side, if they qualify for this act, they would have had to be minors who had no choice in the matter, and they shouldn't have to pay for their parent's mistakes. Goodness knows we need good doctors, economists, etc. My only concern is, wil this be a one time deal, and if so, how will we get that message across so that we don't keep inviting more illegal immigration into this country? That's something we can't keep doing.

    June 3, 2009 at 7:44 am |
  19. Ray Singleton

    Dear 360
    I don't think they should be able to go to college they're taking space away from one each American citizen. If i break the the law i don't get rewarded. If a American citizen especially now is caught stealing food for his or her family they're put in jail not rewarded. Also giving them p-riority over our military people coming back from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is deplorable. By that i mean if a military person from another state comes to California for college they're charged out of state tuition a Illegal is treated as a resident citizen this is grossly unfair.

    June 3, 2009 at 6:35 am |
  20. Wanda

    I'm sorry but I cannot feel any sympathy for these students. Not when I know personally of children graduating high school and not being able to go to college since their parents have lost their jobs because these students parents have taken the jobs away from them. It's a terrible tragedy when our government places "illegal alien" rights ahead of the rights of U.S. citizens, and that is what the U.S. does today. I say "Take care of our own first"!

    June 3, 2009 at 6:33 am |
  21. Rick

    Boo Hoo...Life is ruff all over..Illegals have cost tax payers billions in this country.They have broke the law. Deport them,Illegal means illegal. I dont feel one bit sorry for them.

    June 3, 2009 at 3:24 am |
  22. jaime

    thanks for blogging on this issue there are so many of us in this situation, its great to see someone with influence doing something for us. thanks again.

    June 3, 2009 at 1:21 am |
  23. El Random Hero

    Thanks. It's amazing how many people still don't know what's going on under their noses.

    June 3, 2009 at 12:14 am |
  24. Sergio Jimenez

    As a Mexican student at the University of Texas, I have to say my experience has been similar to the ones you describe in this entry. The major difference is that I went through the process of obtaining an F1 visa, through the effort of maintaining my status every term, and through the sacrifice of being away from my family for long periods of time in order to minimize expenses.

    And yet the limitations have been very much the same, quite possibly worse.

    The effects these social differences have on students are outrageous. I have yet to graduate, and I carry these effects with me. It would seem as international students we do not need to work during our studies, as all international applicants are required to prove their family has an income which will cover living expenses for the duration of their college career. It would also seem that we do not require scholarships or loans. But it is quite the opposite: we have more expenses than do local students, due in part to increased tuition and living away from our home countries.

    Then there are the regular occurrences in our family lives, and fluctuations in our economies which lead us to often require an additional income, a situation to which we are not able to provide due to our immigrant status. The result is, we have to further minimize our expenses. The effects of this are, once again, extreme, in all aspects of our lives.

    Some of the effects are as follows:
    First, there is a sense of alienation coming first from being an international student, and speaking English as a second language. This is an academic challenge, as we don't become as involved in discussions as do local students. The end result is reduced academic performance, despite our abilities.

    Second, our social interaction becomes limited due to our position of having limited resources to socialize. Only those who understand the sacrifice we are making and the hardships of our international student status are able to relate and accompany us through the experience. The effect is limited amount of friends, and of networking during our careers.

    Third, the labor restrictions affect not only our resources, but also our careers. I am about to graduate, and was not granted any of the limited number of positions available on campus. As a result, in six months, I will have a BA and no experience.

    Fourth, there is insurmountable stress coming from living away from home, having limited resources, communication, and opportunities, all while our focus is to make the best of our academic experience.

    Finally, there is limited health coverage due again to our limited resources. Although we are required to prove that we have health insurance, we do not have regular access to medical attention, save for the nurses on campus. I have gone through two surgeries during my four years in college, and am recovering from one in Mexico at the moment. Stress takes its toll on the body and mind.

    I recognize a disparity between my experience and that of other students, both local and from other cities in the United States. I am very glad the DREAM Act is being introduced. I am interested to see how it will enrich the lives of students with similar situations to mine, but who were brought to the United States as undocumented.

    The experience of studying in the United States has been fulfilling. I have great academic achievements as a result of my efforts. I had great aspirations going into my career, and dreamed of graduating, and working an international businessman, the same way my father did. However, given my situation, I am considering staying in Mexico, both to work and to recover from the effects of living abroad.

    I hope that the Obama administration, which is aiming to improve education in the country, with reforms such as the DREAM Act, considers revising the restrictions imposed by the past administration on international students. The same way we F1 holders benefit from studying in the United States, we benefit the country, as we export not only our local funds, but also our knowledge and expertise. Perhaps I will return to the United States for a Master's degree, if such revisions take place.

    June 2, 2009 at 11:47 pm |
  25. susan eros

    The woman that chose to have the deformed baby was so into
    herself like oh look at me what a hero I am having this poor baby.
    At the same time, she wants to force that decision on other women.

    June 2, 2009 at 11:45 pm |
  26. Baimaro Kamara

    Hi Anderson, I appreciate that you brought up this very important issue up on your program to night. I am a senior at Columbus State Community College in Ohio. I know a lot of my colleague students that have been under the shadows for the past three years just to get a college degree under hard struggle.I hope Obama will look for ways to help these disgruntled students.

    June 2, 2009 at 11:38 pm |
  27. Dan, CO

    Wow! I have no sympathy for these undocumented students, period. I would much rather focus on parents who are unable to send their kids to college because they dont have a job!

    You are trying to focus on kids whose parents have come to the USA illegally – broken state and govt laws and are relying on the government to subsidize their living and education?

    Apologies, I just dont get it!

    June 2, 2009 at 11:29 pm |
  28. Angie

    I am all for immigration but our tax dollars should not be used to fund the education of illegal aliens! We need to focus on educating the kids whose family has paid into the system first! It would not be fair to our own children because it eventually takes resources away from them. Put America's children 1st!

    June 2, 2009 at 11:22 pm |
  29. Enough

    Oh pass me a tissue!! This is a pathetic attempt to gain sympathy for a law breaking illegal alien. Come here illegally and want financial aid! Come here legally when you can pay your own way. The hard working tax payers of this country cannot afford to pay for everyone that breaks our laws and comes running across the border. California is bankrupt because of all the bleeding hearts that want to provide for everyone and everything, except the tax payers themselves.

    June 2, 2009 at 11:18 pm |
  30. Denison, William

    I am not an illegal but I did attend UCL:A. I worked to earn money and exzperianced being jusy anothe student. I labored long hours to suopport my self and get my degree. I unde stand what they face as illegals BUT I don't agreee that we should help illegals to get their degrees without any legal documents. We can't afford to pay for their getting their degrees in our system of education.

    June 2, 2009 at 11:11 pm |
  31. Anthony

    Some women that work for me who came from Mexico and had children born in America only live for their kids to go to college here are struggling with them not wanting to even finish high school. That really makes me mad. So it makes me want to tell them to go back to Mexico but it isnt the parents fault, but the kids who dont care.

    June 2, 2009 at 10:50 pm |
  32. Tyler Ahn

    Thank you for a lovely piece, UCLA, also my alma mater, was home to many great memories. I thought I had it hard when I had to work full time to get through college but this puts it all into perspectives. I cannot wait for our government to catch up to the reality that hard working contributors to American society live on the fringes and we as a people cannot hinder them this way. They come to the states as children, I too had little to no say to my parents' immigration to the US, how can we allow their parents' violation to hinder their progress throughout their lives? I was lucky enough to have family members who were citizens to allow my parents to come to the states legally, but what say would I have had if this wasn't the case?

    June 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm |
  33. Janette Builes

    Please help students who are here illegally or have found a way to enter as international students. It is so sad to see such hard working people who deserve a chance at the opportunity this country can offer have to go back to a difficult life...especially when they have been met with so much difficult in this country just to try and get an education.

    June 2, 2009 at 10:42 pm |
  34. AnnieBeGood, Durham, NC

    OK, undocumented = illegal. Each of them is deceitful and using that as a basis of a value system, makes these men and women aliens to our countries principles. Regardless of talent, they are illegal and should return to their country of origin.

    June 2, 2009 at 10:35 pm |
  35. LESLIE

    First of all, these are undocumented students who should not be here in the first place, correct? Second, what I remember about my colleges days, was getting very little financial aid and having to work 3 part-time jobs to help my parents pay for my education. Third, what I also remember is a girl in my political science class being able to sit through 3 of the same classes and not having to pay for any of them because she was not a U.S. citizen and was there on a free ride because she was "going to take her education back to her country and help her people." All I have to say, is we need to start helping the people in our own yard before we extend a hand to the rest of the neighborhood!!!! It was hard for me, and now I can't imagine what some these U.S. students are facing just trying to further their educations.

    June 2, 2009 at 10:28 pm |
  36. Carol

    I cannot feel any sympathy for illegal immigrant holding a place in a college that should by rights be taken by a legal immigrant or a person born in the USA. They should go home to their country of origin and work to return legally.

    June 2, 2009 at 9:36 pm |
  37. Marlene Schonnop Ontario Canada

    The Quebec government found problems with five Taser X26 stun guns, sparking a province wide recall of the weapons.

    These things are too lethal when just a stun is wanted.

    June 2, 2009 at 9:31 pm |
  38. Dee

    God, this story touches my heart because I am living the same life. My future lies in the hands of an immigration reform. When will our turn come to show this nation we are here to improve our communities and contribute? This is the land I have always known, this is my HOME.

    June 2, 2009 at 9:30 pm |
  39. Michelle - St Augustine, FL

    why dont you talk about all the children that were born in this country to illegal immigrants that are entitled to all that being a citizen of this country has to offer and just get the door slammed in their face. Immigration needs reform but Naplitano is not the person that should be doing it with her record

    June 2, 2009 at 9:21 pm |

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