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.”
The State Education Department estimated that the annual cost of expanding the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to cover undocumented immigrants would be $627,428 per year. (The Fiscal Policy Institute, anticipating higher enrollment, predicted the figure would be closer to $17 million annually.) By comparison, the California Department of Finance estimates that approximately 2,500 undocumented students qualify each year for $14.5 million worth of state education grants.
Without access to financial aid, Cinthia Gutierrez works three days a week at a Mexican restaurant near her family’s modest home in Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood. Her father earns decent money working construction, and her mother works as a housekeeper. All members of the family are undocumented.
Gutierrez’s father, José Manuel, explains in Spanish that he brought his family to the United States to provide a better future for Cinthia and her brother, a high school junior who wants to become a computer engineer. “The people who came here illegally, the majority work in construction, in restaurants with a minimum salary,” he says. “We can’t pay for college with the cost that high. If you have three kids, that’s a lot of bills.”
Easing the burden on the Gutierrez family is a $5,000 scholarship Cinthia received from the Ascend Educational Fund (AEF). Co-founded in 2012 by Julissa Arce, a former undocumented immigrant who gained legal status and ultimately landed jobs at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, the crowdfunded program distributed $63,000 among eight graduating high school seniors this year.
That was out of 350 applicants, and Arce laments the fact that dozens of qualified candidates who didn’t make the cut are left with little recourse when it comes to financing their education.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” Arce says. “I wish we knew of other [resources] we could send them to, but frankly we don’t know too many other scholarships where undocumented kids can apply. Other kids have more options, from financial aid to loans or a million other scholarships they can apply to.”
Arce dreams of eventually expanding AEF to cover all of New York state or perhaps other major cities with large immigrant populations, but for now, only residents of the city’s five boroughs qualify for the scholarships. Arce says the scholarship committee focuses on awarding money to students who might otherwise not be able to attend college.
“That’s something we’re very mindful of,” Arce says. “A lot of kids might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go part-time or take a year off and work and then go.’ Then life happens, and those things don’t end up happening.”
Though invaluable for some, private scholarships such as the AEF cover just a small percentage of the undocumented high school graduates who could potentially afford college if not for their immigration status. The only real remedy, Arce says, is federal immigration reform, and the DREAM Act has been stalled in Congress since 2010, when it was filibustered by Senate Republicans. The measure has the support of President Obama, multiple national education groups, and most top universities.
Gutierrez and other young, undocumented immigrants say that though they are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, they consider themselves American and share a common desire to make the most of life in their adopted homeland.
“Being American is not about where you are born and not even what papers you have,” says Jin Park, an 18-year-old undocumented student from South Korea, who was raised in Queens and will attend Harvard next year. “Being American is the desire to make something better of yourself and willing to be accepting of a lot of views and values and beliefs.”
For Gutierrez, who arrived in the United States a few months too late to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — President Obama’s 2012 executive order granting a temporary work authorization and reprieve from deportation for people who immigrated illegally as children — the risk is very real that she or her parents could be deported back to Mexico. Her parents say they abide by the laws and diligently pay taxes “to be right with the country” if a path to citizenship ever becomes available. Her father says half-jokingly that if Gutierrez does eventually become a police officer, he will be less fearful about receiving a traffic ticket that could set him on the path to deportation and leave the family without their main breadwinner.
“I guess if I put myself in the shoes of the people who are against immigration reform, I can see some of their points of view,” Gutierrez says. “But at the same time, a lot of the people here as undocu–mented people, we can do so much for the country if we are given the opportunity.”