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Higher ed a problem for undocumented teens
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Candi Lopez (left) and Karla Portugal spoke recently at an immigration reform informational session at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Martinsville. (Bulletin photo)

Monday, February 10, 2014

By VICKY MORRISON - Bulletin Staff Writer

(Editor’s note: This is the second story in a package on undocumented students and the obstacles they face. Sunday’s article dealt with the issue from the schools’ perspectives.)

Study hard, do what’s right, and everything will work out.

That may be true for some young people, but for about 65,000 undocumented youth nationwide, “everything working out” is just a dream.

It’s a dream for two local high school seniors, who, like many in this country, were brought here by their families when they were children because their parents wanted to give them opportunities to go to school, they said. They now are unable to continue their educations after graduating from high school.

Colleges may have policies that require applicants to submit proof of citizenship or legal residency and refuse admission to students without documentation, but there is no state or federal law to that effect, the College Board’s website states.

However, “undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships or work-study money,” according to the College Board, which helps students with college opportunities. “In most states, they are not eligible for state financial aid.”

The girls talked about their situations at an immigration reform informational session held recently at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

These undocumented teens live without Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. They told the crowd of about 45 people that they call the U.S. their home and view the countries where they were born as foreign.

Seventeen-year-old Bassett High School student Karla Portugal wants to go to college and open an organization for sexually and physically abused women. Her ultimate dream, she said, is to work for the federal government.

However, she has been denied acceptance to most colleges due to her immigration status. Karla explained that colleges that accepted her application will require her to pay as an international student. That tuition rate is sometimes three times as much as in-state students pay.

Karla has lived here for 14 years. She was brought here by family members who wanted her to have the chance to attend school, she said. She said that her hardworking parents did everything they could to support their children.

“I want a life here,” Karla said, stifling tears, “to continue studying.”

Karla’s story is similar to the challenges experienced by BHS student Candi Lopez, 17.

Candi’s older brother, Ivan, graduated from Bassett High School two years ago at the top of his class. He was offered a scholarship but it ultimately was denied due to his undocumented status.

Candi’s mother sent Ivan back to Mexico where he can earn a degree in architecture. Candi hasn’t seen her brother, who was a father figure for her, in two years, and she fears for his safety.

Now “it’s my senior year, and it’s my turn,” Candi said. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen” with her education. She has applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that began in 2012 that enables qualified students to stay in this country for two years.

Candi wants to be a neuropsychologist. “For me, I just really want to go to school and give back,” she said.

All her life, Candi, like the other speakers, was encouraged to pursue education and earn her dream job. “It’s really hard because I know I can’t follow that dream anymore,” she said. “Even though this isn’t my country, and I wasn’t born here, this is all I know.”

U.S.-born BHS student Jenette Maya was among the students who spoke at the event.

The local chapter of Virginia Organizing collaborated with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to present the girls’ stories and show the documentary “The Dream Is Now” documentary on immigration reform. It can be seen online.

Father Mark White of the church said St. Joseph’s hosted the event in order “to raise awareness to help the people in our community understand each other better because there are people in our community who are suffering because of the lack of immigration reform.”

St. Joseph’s offers both English and Spanish language services. According to White, the Spanish language congregation has about 400 members and includes many undocumented residents, and the English congregation has about 250 families.

The church does not endorse a political party, but White said the Catholic church does endorse the cause “to pass a law that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”

Shekila Yralux is a BHS counselor and has worked extensively with many undocumented students, including some of the speakers. She spoke about the need for adults to help these young people because “every child deserves the opportunity to go to school or join the military.”

Yralux said it is her calling to help these students go to college. Many of the undocumented students have “3.7 GPAs (grade point averages), 4.0s, AP (Advanced Placement) classes ... standing beside kids who don’t try half as hard as they do,” she said.


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