After 'Graduating Latino,' Undocumented Student Still Encounters Education Hurdles

Aug 27, 2018

Miami Valley college students are returning to campus this fall, but for some area young people, going to college presents extra challenges because they are undocumented immigrants.

Three years ago WYSO met one such young person as part of our Graduating Latino series, a then-junior at Ponitz Career Technology Center that we called Javier who had hoped to attend college here in the Miami Valley. Today we catch up with Javier and his family. Community Voices producer Jonathan Platt visited with them and brings us this update.

It’s Saturday night and we are having dinner with Javier’s family.  They are serving Cuy, an Ecuadorian staple, barbecued guinea pig.  But Javier and his little sister, Maria, say that they would rather be munching on the IHOP pancakes she brought home from her job. 

Javier and Maria have lived in Dayton for eight years, nearly half of their lives. Their parents came to America first from Equcador and eventually decided to bring their children here using a series of smugglers, commonly called coyotes.   Five weeks and 3000 miles later, they were together as a family for the first time in years. Javier and Maria enrolled in Dayton Public Schools. When Javier was a senior at Ponitz, he made straight As and was offered a scholarship to attend Sinclair Community College, but as he began the enrollment process, there was a problem.

"I was shocked because of the amount I had to pay," says Javier. "And when I went out to eat with my friends and I told them that, they were like ‘but why, cuz I only had to pay one thousand and I didn’t have any scholarships’ and I was like, how did you do it? And she was like, ‘I just show him that I am a Montgomery County resident.’" 

Javier is not considered a Montgomery County resident because he does not have a Social Security number.  The IRS gave him a nine digit code for college applications, but that only verifies his tax status as a student. It doesn’t give him access to tuition pricing for local residents, and it means he can’t accept the scholarship money he was offered.

"It’s kind of ridiculous. He goes out and work and pay taxes, but he can’t get the benefits for the other things. That makes no sense to me at all," says auto-mechanic instructor Rick Seither, Javier’s former high school teacher, mentor and friend.

He’s now teaching Maria in his morning automotive class, but Maria says she doesn't share her brother's love for mechanics.

"I would say my brother was more into it because he has been into cars ever since he was a little boy," she says. "And I wasn’t.  Since I was little I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but I got into cars now. If I go to college, I’d probably get into [the veterinary field]. But if I don’t, no.  I might just stay working on cars helping my brother out."

Maria’s skill set as a mechanic is not as specific or as polished as her older brother’s, and she knows it. Javier has moved his way up in the auto mechanic world and is now at a garage that does advanced work such as rebuilding transmissions.  As part of his work, he gets to drive, but his undocumented status means he can’t get a driver’s license. 

If Javier drove a car outside the garage, he could be pulled over, detained and deported back to Ecuador. 

This almost happened to his father, Juan. In 2012 he was pulled over in a van with other undocumented workers.  A lawyer told him to file for asylum, but Juan didn’t tell the lawyer about his family because he did not want to put them in jeopardy.  He had no idea what would happen.

"[My father] said 'if I tell something about us they might come later and get all of us.'" says Javier. "And my dad didn’t care for that. He said, 'If I want asylum, I just want it for myself. If I don’t get it, I’m just going to get kicked out of the country, just me not my family.'"

Javier and Maria have no legal status in the United States.  They wouldn’t have qualified for DACA because they arrived in the US after the 2007 cut-off set by the Obama administration.  Javier still has dreams beyond the garage.  He’s saving his money and still plans to go to Sinclair, but he’ll have to pay the full out-of-state tuition every term.  With books, that’s about $8 thousand a year. 

As Maria watches her brother plan, she is not sure if higher education is for her.

"I’m not really quite sure I’m going to go to college. He has that problem so I’m going to have that problem too.  He has a good job.  He’s working on it to go to college.  I work at IHOP three days a week. I don’t make that much money so I don’t know if I’ll go to college," she says.

Immigration lawyers say that the family does not have a clear path to American citizenship so for now both Maria and her brother will continue to navigate their education and future as undocumented workers.