New York, NY —
Baruch College's commencement is next week and the sweet air of completion has swept through campus. But members of one of its newest clubs are dreading turning in their student ids.
REPORTER: Isabel, June, and Carlos are City University of New York poster children. Among its top students, they overcame tremendous difficulties just to attend college. Now, they will be the first in their families to receive a degree.
ISABEL: It's very, kind of depressing, because what do I need it for I can't even get a job with it.
JUNE: I just want my diploma, and a job. So I don’t even have to go to the ceremony. I couldn’t really care less.
CARLOS: It's getting closer to that moment when I'm just going to have to be like 'I have nothing to do today, I have to go look for a job at a restaurant or something'.
REPORTER: Despite their accomplishments, these students’ only professional options will be to disappear into the city's thriving underground economy. As children they moved with their families to the US. Now adults, they are illegal immigrants who think of New York as home.
An estimated 65,000 undocumented students will graduate from America’s high schools this year. While even the nation's most elite colleges have the rare illegal immigrant, in New York, most of them, about 3,000, attend CUNY schools where they are offered instate tuition. Hundreds are at Baruch, the business school in Manhattan where Isabel, June and Carlos studied.
ISABEL: I was very pragmatic about it, I mean I thought eventually, you know what, by the time I graduate it will be fine. Now it's a sense of panic. Now it's like here we are. Oh my God, I have nothing.
REPORTER: And for Isabel, who loaded her schedule with finance internships, it's not for lack of offers.
ISABEL: UBS Financial Services, UBS Taxable fix income desk, at Meryl Lynch, at World Financial Services, First Investors. So that was fun, turning them all down. Saying no, I couldn't for no good reason really.
REPORTER: Masking her immigration status is a skill Isabel has mastered, along with economics. During her years at CUNY she has only told a few of her closest friends and one professor. Like other students she has asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
ISABEL: It's just lies that you spin off and you don't even know what lies you tell anymore. It's forced to be living in lies. You know, I’m not getting a job yet because I might get my masters. I don't drive because I don't like to. I can't be on the books because I'm in school and I'm on financial aid so if I'm on the books it means they'll to take away my financial aid. I've become a great liar that way.
REPORTER:Perfectly composed, with a biography of Schumann poking out of her purse, 22-year-old Isabel is, by all appearances, the embodiment of the CUNY success story.
ISABEL: If you look at me you wouldn't go, oh there goes an illegal alien she just jumped the border.
REPORTER:But that is exactly what she did. At 2 years old.
ISABEL: I suppose I remember one thing which is my mom telling me to be quiet. And just her picking me up and holding me and telling me to not cry.
REPORTER:Because Isabel never had a visa to enter the country there is no option for her to stay here legally, and she could be deported. If she goes back to Mexico, which she hasn't visited since she was 2, she faces a 10-year bar before she can apply for reentry. Her three younger siblings are spared her problems. They were born in New York.
Until recently Isabel had never met another undocumented student other than her older sister. Then, last February, posters appeared around campus advertising a new Immigrant Affairs Committee.
CARLOS: I knew there were a lot of them here and I thought, you know, maybe I should just have like a meeting
REPORTER:Carlos, an officer in the CUNY student senate was the organizer. While he kept his own illegal status a secret, he knew there were hundreds of others like him also in hiding.
He discovered them as a freshman when he submitted a special form CUNY requires from its undocumented students.
CARLOS: I remember going to that office and handing in my application and thinking, oh my God these people are not going to know what this is about. I am probably the only person who is doing this. And it was a green form, and when I handed it in, the person pulled out a file, it was an entire drawer full of green slips just like mine.
REPORTER:They were affidavits from other undocumented students affirming they will make every effort to become legal residents if they have the opportunity.
CARLOS: I remember wanting to read the names and find out who these people were so I could talk to them and say you know we're going through the same thing, let's do something about this.
REPORTER: Getting the other members of the CUNY Student Senate to approve his Immigrant Affairs committee was easy. Finding the students was another matter.
CARLOS: It's not like any other e-mail that you can just forward to a friend and say, “oh this is a book reading I thought you’d be interested in.”
REPORTER: A laidback leader, Carlos' parents brought him on a tourist visa from Guatemala when he was 11. At the meetings he does not ask others their status, and students do not often tell. But he says he knows.
CARLOS: I can see it in their eyes. There is a way that they look.
REPORTER: The agenda has been clear and urgent: making Washington give undocumented students legal status. One bill that would do this has been pending in Congress since before Carlos started college. It is the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation first was introduced in 2001.
REPORTER:Robert Smith is an associate professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at CUNY.
SMITH: In terms of the long-term security and health of our society, creating a structurally excluded underclass of young people with ambitions but no way to fulfill them is a very dangerous recipe. If anything comes out of this bill, and all these political maneuverings, if they pass the Dream act it would be the single greates contribution they could make in terms of the immigration debate.
REPORTER: The Dream Act, currently being considered as part of a larger Senate bill, would give legal status to students who pursue higher education and arrived when they were younger than 16. New York’s Senators and Representatives have been key backers of the bill and CUNY’s Chancellor testified before Congress advocating for it.
REPORTER:Michael Cutler is a former special agent with the INS in New York and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for reducing immigration. He thinks the state is taking the wrong tack. Echoing the voice of some Republicans in Albany, he says illegal students are draining valuable resources and should not be given the same advantages as those who are here legally.
CUTLER: It provides an incentive for people to violate our laws and then also means we wind up depriving our own citizens of things they really need.
REPORTER: But the undocumented Baruch students feel they are being deprived of an opportunity they’ve earned.
ISABEL: Just because my parents didn’t file the right forms doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve a chance to be like every other college graduate and to try and get a job and to try and make a life for myself.
REPORTER: Carlos, June, and Isabel will join the 2006 class of Baruch college at commencement ceremonies, 11 am on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. For WNYC I’m Daniela Gerson.