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High-achieving undocumented immigrant students work hard with hopes of future citizenship

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Carlos Rubio, born in Mexico and raised in Tulsa, began his studies at the University of Oklahoma last month. | Photo Laura Eastes
  • Carlos Rubio, born in Mexico and raised in Tulsa, began his studies at the University of Oklahoma last month. | Photo Laura Eastes

From an early age, Carlos Rubio wanted to fly. His aviation interest only intensified at age 12 when he sat copilot flying above Bartlesville on a ride with his mother’s employer, a former combat pilot who flew during the Vietnam War. Before that afternoon ride, Rubio had only boarded a plane once, and the commercial jet brought the Mexico-born Rubio to the United States.

“It has always been my passion,” Rubio said as he explained his decision to pursue aerospace engineering, a field dedicated to the development of aircraft and spacecraft.

“If not to work on planes,” he said, “I wanted to be able to fly them.”

For the past six years, Rubio’s feet have been firmly planted on the ground and his sights set on academics for entering the aviation field. After excelling in middle school, he transferred and earned admission into the nationally recognized Booker T. Washington High School, a Tulsa Public Schools magnet school.

Following the advice of counselors, he enrolled and passed international baccalaureate (IB) courses, which offer high school students advanced, college-level studies. With high grades and a resume that included senior class president, Rubio seemed en route to attend almost any college or university; however, Rubio’s path to higher education was uncertain.

Rubio and his family arrived in the United States on a tourist visa that later expired. 

“When I was in high school, I started seeing roadblocks, like it would be difficult to go to summer camp because I was undocumented,” Rubio said. 

Annually, an estimated 65,000 students without legal status graduate from high school and 6,500 move on to higher education, according to the American Immigration Council. Faced with unique challenges, Rubio followed his mother’s suggestion and contacted Aspiring Americans, a statewide organization that helps students without legal status access a college education.

Last month, Rubio began his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. 

Removing barriers

Inside her office at Oklahoma City’s Plaza Mayor, Tracey Medina points to a brightly colored poster with a monarch butterfly. The butterfly was the symbol of DREAM, the proposed federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

Calling for a pathway to citizenship for youths whose parents brought them here illegally, the DREAM Act failed to pass the U.S. Congress after a big push in 2010. While the legislation has yet to resurface in federal chambers, the butterfly remains a symbol of undocumented immigrants.

These days, students look for the small poster, often placed near a counselor’s desk or inside the lobby of a college’s admission office. A student knows they can speak freely about their status or explain they are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) approved with temporary resident status. In return, high school staff or college admission officers share resources for college enrollment and financial aid opportunities.

As the program director for Aspiring Americans, Medina has conducted 118 professional developments, reaching 2,000 school and college staff members in the past nine months. Thousands of butterfly posters were distributed along with the knowledge of resources for undocumented students.

Aspiring Americans, a nonprofit of Scissortail Community Development Corporation, was created in response to the two major barriers — a lack of information and assistance — preventing undocumented youths from continuing their education after high school. The organization’s work includes professional development, but also reaches high school students. A routine task such as completing a college application or applying for a scholarship can require monumental effort when one lacks American citizenship.

“Our focus is helping undocumented students find financial assistance and to dispel myths that undocumented students can’t pursue higher education,” Medina said. “A lot of people think you can’t go on to college without a social security number. That’s just not true.”

In Oklahoma, students without legal status have options, including state laws that allow some noncitizens to attend and receive in-state tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

While undocumented immigrants cannot access federal financial aid, various private scholarships are open to those without legal status. Further, DACA, an executive order by President Barack Obama, allows young immigrants temporary resident status, provides a social security number, the opportunity to work and attend school legally and obtain a driver’s license.

Personal connection

Aspiring Americans is the brainchild of London-born Akash Patel. Days before his 18th birthday, his family became green card holders with permanent resident status without formal citizenship. Last year, Patel became an American citizen, just 22 years after he legally immigrated to the U.S.

Patel’s personal connection with immigration and his desire to see reform sparked his eagerness to investigate why high school graduates without legal status failed to seek higher education. In 2013, as an OU senior, Patel conducted surveys with high school seniors at south Oklahoma City high schools. The results illuminated the need for a group like Aspiring Americans.

Patel discovered that undocumented students who spoke to their counselors were told there were no opportunities.

“I realized the reason why students were struggling to attend college was simply a knowledge gap,” said Patel, who now attends law school in Michigan. “I could attribute to that without waiting for immigration reform. … Students didn’t know what their potential was because they were not told.”

A DREAMers organization

Since 2014, Aspiring Americans assisted 80 students, 59 who were “DACA-mented” and 21 who had no legal status. Often, Medina begins working with students during the fall of their senior year.

Mixed with the dreams of attending college are the doubts of acceptance based on their legal status and paying tuition. Medina instructs students on how to complete applications and where to apply for scholarships. Additionally, Aspiring Americans raises funds for scholarships.   

“These are amazing students, who are so dedicated to their studies,” Medina said. “They are crying for help while getting good grades and performing well on their college entrance exams. Their parents tell them, if you do well in school, you will get into a university and earn scholarships. That’s what the students strive to do. I work hardest for these students.”

Many barriers remain for immigrant college students like Rubio. He has temporary residence under DACA, but that doesn’t offer a path to permanent legal status. Rubio plans to complete his four-year degree and apply to graduate school. After, there is no guarantee he will be allowed to stay or work in this country.

Rubio wants to stay in Oklahoma, his home. Rubio said he wants to work for a government agency or a defense contractor, both of which could deny his application because of his current status.

The teenager remains optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform is coming. Thousands of teenagers and young adults like Rubio await reform.

“I knew I could attend a university and be successful,” Rubio said. “The possibility is out there.” 

Print Headline: Brighter futures, High-achieving undocumented immigrant students work hard and hope to earn American citizenship.

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