From in-crowd to out

Illegal immigrants often find the road to college blocked

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / May 17, 2009
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Until his final year of high school, Filipe fit right in.

A strong student at one of Boston's best schools, he excelled in sports and won a scholarship to state colleges because of his high test scores. He liked rock 'n' roll, video games, and the Red Sox. He spoke English like an American, with barely a hint of an accent.

Then he graduated, and all the doors closed. He couldn't claim his scholarship, a state college charged him the pricey nonresident tuition, and financial aid was unavailable to him.

The reason: Filipe is an illegal immigrant.

Across America, Filipe and students like him are welcomed into the public school system by a narrow 1982 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees them a basic education, regardless of their immigration status. After graduation, for those who want to attend college, the rules dramatically change.

The story that is rarely told is what happens to them next.

Filipe got a loan, enrolled in college, and sank $46,000 into debt. He took this semester off to work at a gym and pay down the debt. When he couldn't provide a Social Security number, he lost his job.

Now, he is broke, unemployed, and subject to deportation to Brazil, after spending nearly half his life in the United States.

"I never thought I'd be here," the 20-year-old said recently, speaking on the condition that his last name not be used. "It's a hard place to be."

Every year as many as 65,000 undocumented students like him graduate from high school nationwide, including hundreds in Massachusetts, according to the National Immigration Law Center in Washington. Ten states, including California and Texas, allow students to pay resident tuition and continue their studies, while several states actively prohibit it, including South Carolina. Private colleges set their own rules; some grant students private scholarships, and others do not.

Massachusetts rejected legislation that would have allowed students to pay resident rates in 2006. The nonresident costs here are double the resident rate, as high as $21,729 a year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Advocates of stricter immigration controls say the students should not take spaces away from US citizens or legal residents. They say resident tuition is a privilege that should be for US citizens or legal residents only.

"The fault here lies with parents," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "I have a real moral problem with these parents claiming that we have a responsibility to fix their mistakes."

Advocates for immigrants say that children should not be punished for their parents' actions and that states could benefit by enrolling students who could not otherwise afford college. Massachusetts advocates say state revenues would increase $2.5 million a year if students could pay resident tuition.

"It wouldn't cost the state a thing and the state would gain from those who are not going to school now," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

At the national level, pending legislation called the Dream Act, first filed in 2001, would allow students to pay resident tuition at public colleges and apply for legal residency.

The Obama administration and the College Board support it, but congressional aides said it is unlikely to pass the House and Senate without an overhaul for all illegal immigrants in the United States.

Stéphania Lavalas, a 31-year-old from Haiti, discovered that she was an illegal immigrant three months before she was to graduate from Dorchester High School in 1996.

Until then, she had racked up an impressive résumé: She was a top-ranked student, a volleyball player, a perfect attendance award-winner, and a tutor. She took college classes while she was still in high school. She wanted to be a teacher.

One day in March 1996, she won a college scholarship and rushed home to tell her father.

"He started to cry and I thought it was happiness," she said. "That's how I found out how I came into the country and that I could not have that dream."

She had arrived when she was 15, and did not know that her family had never obtained legal residency.

Her graduation ceremony was "like a funeral." A month later, in anguish, she tore down the awards that had blanketed her bedroom walls. She contemplated suicide.

"One day I just cracked and felt like I did all this for nothing," she said. "The purpose was for me to go into college and to help my father, who was working in a nursing home that was killing him. My mother was in a kitchen . . . The hardest part for me was running into classmates. Everybody knew that I was going to be huge."

Her classmates went to college, and she stayed behind. She volunteered at local nonprofits, married, applied for legal residency, and was rejected. The stress broke up her marriage.

Last year she moved to Canada to apply to be a refugee and is waiting for her papers. If she is approved, college applications are next.

"I'm a survivor," she said in a telephone interview from Montreal. "And I don't quit."

W.G., a Haitian immigrant who also attended Boston schools, said he was saved by a scholarship to a private college in New York. They call him an "international student" and charge him only room and board.

"It's a blessing," said W.G., who spoke only on the condition that his name not be used.

Ironically, his parents send him $1,000 a year from Haiti to cover his minimal expenses, even though he fled that country because of its widespread poverty. His father is a lawyer, but violence and unemployment are widespread. At age 15, W.G. came to America on his own hoping to study medicine, and overstayed his visa.

In New York, W.G. spends almost all his time in the library. His budget is $25 a month, mostly for laundry. He eats only in the dining commons, loading up on extra food.

Nobody knows his immigration status, and he tries not to think about it.

"It can hold you back," he said.

That same attitude propels Filipe.

In Brazil, his family had a middle-class life, until his parents split up and his father moved 200 miles away. His mother followed a boyfriend to Massachusetts, and Filipe came after her when he was 12.

They lived in a small apartment in East Boston, sleeping on mattresses propped up on milk crates. She took a job cleaning houses.

Sometimes, she tells him she wants to go back to Brazil. It infuriates him.

"Don't even talk to me about it," he says.

Filipe has spent the past nine years transforming himself into an American, though not on paper. He does not send money home and he rarely speaks Portuguese. Most of his friends are Americans.

"I got sick of people saying you don't want to become Americans," he said. "I decided to do my part to show that immigrants aren't some species of aliens, that we can be just like them."

In 2006, he lobbied state lawmakers to pass a bill to let him pay resident tuition and fees. The House voted it down.

Everyone tells him to wait until next year, and maybe something will change.

"I've been hearing 'next year' for years now," he said. "I had all the opportunities that every other kid had . . . but I can't use them."

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at