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Cinthia Gutierrez is well on her way to becoming a New York City police detective. The 18-year-old aspiring investigator just completed her first year of studies in the honors program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and she already has undercover experience — though not exactly the kind favored by the NYPD. When she was 12, smugglers bringing her family into the United States from Mexico gave her a fake ID and a cover story to get past the border guards.
"They told me, 'If someone asks you what you're going to do, say you need to go to the mall to buy new clothes,'" Gutierrez recalls. "I didn't even know what the mall was."
Gutierrez spoke no English when she arrived in New York in 2007 with her mother and younger brother. Six years later, she graduated near the top of her class at Staten Island's Susan E. Wagner High School. Under normal circumstances, she would have had her pick of colleges, but as an undocumented immigrant, her options were limited. She is barred from receiving state or federal financial aid and is ineligible for student loans. And when Gutierrez graduates, she will be unable to work legally for most employers — including those in law enforcement, the career she desires.
"I still have to find a way to fix my status," Gutierrez says. "I don't know what's going to happen. There hasn't been any legislation passed that will help me."
With comprehensive federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, promising students like Gutierrez are stuck, waiting for states to enact their own measures that expand access to higher education. In the meantime, undocu–mented students are forced to rely on scholarships and a cobbled-together support network of family, teachers, mentors, and other allies.
"My parents don't earn that much, I didn't have a job at the time," Gutierrez says, recalling her high school experience. "All I could think was that I wanted to go college. I just didn't know how to do it."
Gutierrez eventually found a way, obtaining a scholarship and stipend from John Jay and becoming one of the first recipients of a new, private scholarship specifically reserved for undocumented immigrants and first-generation citizens graduating from New York City schools. But she is more the exception than the rule.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, roughly 65,000 undocumented people graduate from U.S. high schools each year, including an estimated 3,600 students annually in New York. Nationally, only 49 percent of undocumented high school graduates move on to college, versus 76 percent of immigrants with lawful status and 71 percent for native citizens.
"A lot of students end up feeling hopeless," says Jessica Rofe, a former New York City public school teacher and recent graduate of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. Rofe cites the case of one gifted former pupil who "basically stopped going to school" after being discouraged from applying to college. "They end up leaving school because they're told by guidance counselors — or by their parents, even — that college probably isn't an option because of their immigration status."
Nearly 5,500 undocumented students are currently enrolled at colleges in New York, which is one of 17 states that allow undocumented students who meet certain residency requirements to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. (Other states either expressly ban undocumented students or charge international tuition, which can cost more than triple the in-state rate.) But the state still denies undocumented students the financial aid that makes college attainable for many middle-class and low-income families.
States that have opted to help fund higher education for the undocumented have shown that even modest investments can pay significant, long-term dividends. A 2012 Fiscal Policy Institute study found states that granted in-state tuition to undocumented students experienced a 14 percent decrease in college dropout rates and a 31 percent increase in college enrollment. College graduates earn an estimated $25,000 more per year than their high school-graduate counterparts in New York state and pay about $3,900 more per year in state and local taxes. (New York's undocumented residents currently pay nearly $700 million annually in taxes.)
"The more educated they are, the better it is for our workforce," says State Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens. "It's better for the city's economy, it's better for the state economy. It's better for everyone."
Peralta was a prime sponsor of the New York DREAM Act, voted down 30 — 29 by the state Senate earlier this year. Peralta blames two moderate GOP legislators — Sen. Phil Boyle and Sen. Kemp Hannon — for failing to appear at the Capitol when the votes were cast.
"They mysteriously disappeared," Peralta says. "I'm pretty sure [Republican Party] leadership asked them to take a walk. "
Hannon did not respond to messages requesting comment for this story. Boyle says he was attending his uncle's wake at the time and would have voted no, regardless.
"I'm very sympathetic to the plight of the dreamers," Boyle, who represents a swath of Long Island's South Shore, says. "I know they're in this situation through no fault of their own. But I have concerns about the use of taxpayer money in this regard."