Nebraska Observer Weblog

Nebraska’s Illegal Immigration News

060808 Graduates become more vulnerable to deportation

Published Sunday June 8, 2008

It’s date night and Mayte, dolled up in American Eagle jeans and a senior class T-shirt, walks with her boyfriend toward the movie theater.

Because recent high school graduate Mayte is an illegal immigrant, she said she doesn’t go out much. When she and her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, do go to a movie, she can’t produce an ID that proves she is 18 and old enough to see fare that’s rated R or NC-17.The two glance at the marquee, confer, then opt for the action flick “Rambo.” To a bystander, it seems another easygoing outing for a young couple.

Yet as she draws nearer to the ticket counter, anxiousness envelops the girl, whose baby face belies her 18 years. She avoids eye contact.

Moments like this – ordinary and routine for most teenagers – pack drama and the risk of humiliation for youths such as Mayte.

She is an illegal immigrant, brought to Omaha at age 7. Without identification to prove her age, she is often rejected from R-rated movies – and it doesn’t stop there.

Opening a bank account requires identification, and so does cashing a check. Mayte is ineligible for a driver’s license. A job, legally, is out of the question.

Post-high school plans?

Now that she has graduated, Mayte is more vulnerable than ever to legal entanglements and deportation.

For all the undocumented members of the Class of 2008, navigating life just got harder.

* * *

Across the nation, roughly 65,000 undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States five years or longer graduate from high school each year, says the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group. That includes a few hundred in Nebraska and more in Iowa.

U.S. law, based on a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, guarantees those kids an education regardless of their immigration status – but that guarantee ends after 12th grade.

Mayte – who asked that her full name not be used, for fear she or her parents could be arrested – and other young immigrants leave high school and are expected to take on adult responsibilities.

Yet they remain without legal status and face weighty decisions. Buy fake documents to get a job? Return to a homeland many barely remember?

An estimated 5 percent to 10 percent go on to a U.S. college, mostly with family funds or private scholarships, because they are ineligible for federal financial aid. Classified as nonresidents, many face higher tuition rates charged to international students.

Some are helped by in-state tuition laws existing in 10 states, including Nebraska. The laws don’t grant legal status, but they generally do extend the same public university tuition rates as those charged to U.S.-born classmates.

Public discussion on in-state tuition laws has been heated, reflecting the broader immigration debate.

Opponents argue that it’s unfair and expensive to reward foreigners who flout immigration rules. Proponents counter that most immigrants – especially those who are raised here – won’t go back, and that the United States would benefit economically by providing a path to citizenship.

At the center of the controversy are the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, as many as 140,000 of them living in Nebraska and Iowa. Nationally, about 1.8 million are children.

Undecided about how to deal with that population, Congress has stalled on proposals to change immigration laws.

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam continues to send mixed signals on illegal immigration beyond turning a blind eye on the residency of school-age kids.

For instance, the federal government offers a way for undocumented workers to file income tax returns. And although one agency knows when a worker’s Social Security number is invalid, U.S. privacy laws prohibit an alert to immigration enforcers.

When it comes to youths raised here, Jeanne Batalova of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute think tank cites a growing demand for highly skilled workers and said further education of immigrant teens makes economic sense.

Without a path to a lawful job, many will join the underground economy and their U.S. education thus far would be “wasted,” Batalova said.

On the other side, Bryan Griffith of the research organization Center for Immigration Studies said that benefits for illegal immigrants of any age entice more unlawful entries and add public cost.

Undocumented families would return to their homeland on their own accord, Griffith said, if the help stopped. Besides, Griffith pointed out: 18-year-olds are adults.

Mayte said she might have insisted she remain in Mexico with an aunt if she had realized the challenges she would face. “But who’s going to listen to a 7-year-old?”

Since attending a college fair earlier this year, she has dreamed of studying psychology or journalism. Even if she did get a degree, she would be illegal here and likely would have to pursue her profession in another country.

Still, she applied at a few schools.

“I had a plan,” Mayte said. “I didn’t realize until recently how difficult it can be to carry it out.”

* * *

The petite, dark-eyed Mayte recalled a more carefree time. She was about 5 years old, sprawled across a bed and chatting with her mom and dad in Mexico.

The sun was out. So was school. Life for this only child was good.

Then her parents broke the news that her father would be leaving. Mayte‘s heart sank.

He’d head north, where his brother lived; where wages and opportunities were better.

Several months later, he summoned his wife and child. Mayte remembers bits and pieces.

Mom packing hard-boiled eggs and drinking water. A lady traveler eating a red apple. Mayte running through the desert in a sweat suit, freezing like a rock when the guide yelled out that la migra was near.

Border agents. A jail. Another try.

At last, a successful night border-crossing.

Mayte fell asleep at her mom’s feet, inside a car that had been waiting on the other side. Then came cold. Snow.


Mayte later realized that her 7th birthday had passed on the journey from Mexico through Texas to Omaha.

That winter, she started first grade in a midtown public school. Mayte recalled only one other girl who spoke Spanish, and she depended on her for schoolwork and camaraderie.

Sometimes the girl would ignore Mayte. It was the start of a struggle with self-esteem.

She always knew she was not supposed to be here. But she felt “more illegal” as she grew older and routine teenage privileges didn’t apply to her.

Driving a car.

Traveling by plane.

Joining the military.

Hanging out at places that required proof of age.

(Although she had a school-issued ID, it didn’t include a birth date. She could have gotten a Mexican consular ID, but felt out of place applying at the Consulate. Now she’ll have to get one.)

Mayte said she doesn’t go out much anyway, preferring to read books and spend time with her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen she met in high school.

“It stinks,” he said. “You’d think because America was built by immigrants, we’d be more pro-immigrant.”

He understands Mayte‘s predicament, and they adapt. The two seek out theaters that don’t ask for ID, for example.

Her dad tells her she should associate more with Latinos, but she says she “thinks in English” and is more comfortable in that world.

“Even with my family, I’m nervous to speak Spanish,” Mayte said. ” I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.”

Nonetheless, the U.S. views her as an outsider. It became more obvious as college applications poured in.

* * *

Much of the paperwork regarding higher education asked about citizenship and required a Social Security number. Mayte had neither.

“I had to ask my counselor a lot of questions. She was lost, too.”

Also around that time, Mayte was told that she’d lose the free hearing aid that had been provided during high school classes.

She would have to make payments on one.

The uncertainty of what is ahead sparked various emotions, including envy and resentment toward students who took their birthright for granted.

“I get kind of mad at my boyfriend,” Mayte said. “He has the money and the opportunity, and he’s probably not going to college.”

If her mother had her way, Mayte would follow a traditional route – perhaps take classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, because it’s close to home and on a bus line.

“She wants me to settle for something safe.”

Her parents offered to line up Mayte with a cleaning job.

That would require fake ID, though, and Mayte said she wants a clean record in case a shot comes for citizenship.

She could marry a U.S. citizen, but that alone wouldn’t give her legal status.

Returning to Mexico City is always an option. Her parents plan to once they’ve saved enough from their cooking and cleaning jobs to open a small business.

Mayte prefers a career in Nebraska.

“The problem is not going back to Mexico – I’d be free,” said Mayte. “The problem is that it’s like being an alien there. It’s different, everything there is different.”

* * *

Just recently, Mayte learned she had won a scholarship from a local private college she thought was out of her reach. Authorities there know she’s undocumented, and a donor offered to cover four years of tuition and room and board.

Mayte is thrilled. And hopeful.

Maybe while she’s buried in campus life, Mayte said, Congress will open a door that leads to her citizenship.

“I see myself as a person they might accept,” she said. “I’ve never done anything wrong.”

• Contact the writer: 444- 1224, cindy.gonzalez@

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