Outside Javier’s house in Twin Towers, we’re looking under the hood of my car, a ‘98 Camry. He teaches me the difference between a line-4 and a V-4 engine—I’m just concerned about whether my car is okay at this point.
“It looks pretty nice, yeah,” says Javier. Maybe he’s just being polite.
Javier is a straight-A student specializing in auto repair at David H. Ponitz Career Academy. His trip from Ecuador five years ago involved pretending to be part of a Mexican family in order to get smuggled across the border (click here for part I of his story on WYSO). His parents spent thousands of dollars to get him and his sister here. Now, he’s a senior in high school, and he desperately wants to go on to Sinclair Community College.
None of his family has legal status, so we’re only using his middle name because we don’t want this story to put him in jeopardy.
Javier's been watching his fellow classmates, who have lower GPAs, get scholarships to community colleges. But Javier hasn’t even applied.
“It's frustrating,” he says. “My counselor she been telling about colleges and all that and I been telling her I don't have a social security number. It was the first thing they ask when I fill out the application. It's been frustrating to me.”
Every time Javier fills out an application, he is asked for his social security number—and he doesn’t have one. He’s not sure what to do, and neither are his school counselors or teachers.
A lot of people don’t know what to do. According to the Immigration Policy Center, less than one in ten undocumented students that graduate from American high schools go on to college. And one of the main reasons for why 90 percent of these students don't go to college: lack of information.
So, can undocumented students apply to college? Dayton Immigration lawyer, Bahjat Abdallah, says the answer is generally yes.
“If you apply and they say no, then they say no,” he says. “You're not committing fraud or perjury. You’re not making stuff up and you are not using fake information.”
Abdallah says a lot of people don’t know the process—in most places, including Ohio, you are free to apply, it’s just scholarships and financial aid that can be difficult without legal status. A handful of states, such as Georgia, don’t allow undocumented students to attend state schools.
The first time we meet, Abdallah offers to give free advice to Javier. I set up the meeting—it’s worth noting that this meeting probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t set it up. Abdallah tells Javier anyone can go on-line, register to pay their taxes, and receive a nine-digit tax ID number. Turns out, Javier already has one—his mother gave him one but he doesn’t know how she got it.
Abdallah says that’s a common situation, and a lot of people just use that number to pay taxes, or to fill out applications. Abdallah advises Javier to apply, and just be forthcoming. “Here I am, here are my grades, here is my name, here is my number. If I am in, I am in. If I am out, I am out.”
It's ultimately up to the colleges how they deal with students like Javier—many end up paying international tuition.
Javier just never realized this was possible, and nobody knew to tell him.
Financial aid is a different question: without a social security number, you can’t get federal or state aid. In some states, people who have registered for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are at least eligible for in-state tuition. Javier doesn’t qualify for the original DACA, and the more recent expansion of that policy has been placed on hold by the courts.
Now Javier plans to apply to college, and just try to find the money.
Back at Ponitz high school, I ask Javier's favorite teacher, Rick Seither, automotive mechanics instructor, what Javier's future looks like.
“I would hope that a shop would pick him up, because if I had my own shop I would hire him,” Seither says.
I tell Seither that Javier doesn’t have a social security number so he can’t work legally.
“That would be a problem,” Seither says. As a student, however, Seither says, “He’s ‘A’ all the way. I wish I had a classroom full of him.”
Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latinos in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.