Archaeologist, dental hygienist, lawyer — these are the dream jobs of students on the verge of adulthood. But without immigration papers that say they are in the country legally, their futures are more about how to navigate a system that doesn't acknowledge them than about what they want to be when they grow up.
Papers are very important in the life of someone who may be in the country illegally. Without papers to prove immigration status, a routine traffic stop can be life changing.
Without proper citizenship papers — a birth certificate, a Social Security card — students told by their parents and teachers to take advantage of the country's education system battle to get into college and pay for it, even with the best grades and test scores.
About 65,000 undocumented high school students graduate from U.S. schools every year. Their futures are uncertain.
As states pass tough laws meant to deter illegal immigration, a proposal called the Dream Act is working its way through Congress. It would allow people who have been in the country more than five years, arrived younger than 16 and have a U.S high school diploma or GED to begin the process of becoming a permanent resident.
Chris Brewster, principal at Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City, is used to encouraging students to study and think about their future. At the charter school on the south side of the city, students don't talk about their high school graduation year. They talk about the year they will graduate from college.
The conversation is different with undocumented students. With them, he talks about having faith.
"I just tell them, 'You keep doing the right thing anyway and hope something will work out,'" he said. "These are outstanding students who have done everything we've asked of them. But their options are limited when they graduate."
The debate over immigrant rights is often viewed through a lens of partisan politics and the assertion that people should not be rewarded for entering the country illegally. But as lawmakers and pundits hash this out, children are waiting to decide their future.
"I acknowledge what happened with the adults; they made a choice to enter the country illegally," Brewster said. "Let the adults duke it out. At some point we were all immigrants."
A dream deferred
The reality most undocumented teens realize about their sophomore or junior year is that without a Social Security number, financial aid to help pay for college is unattainable.
Some schools can offer private scholarships that don't require proof of legal status.
But even a 4.0 grade-point average and high ACT and SAT scores aren't enough to get some of the brightest students into universities unless they can afford it themselves.
Exceptional students end up working illegally after high school because they don't see the same promise of a future, Brewster said.
Affordable, open-admission community colleges are a common route for many undocumented students.
Many offer only two-year degrees.
Nearly 300 undocumented students each year are enrolled at state colleges and universities, according to a Legislative task force that looked at the advancement of Hispanic students in higher education.
The task force, which ended its work in June 2009, found that undocumented students paid more than $1 million in tuition and fees between 2005 and 2009.
But even with a college degree, with no proof of legal citizenship, a job is hard to come by. After graduation, the options are working illegally, marrying and getting U.S. citizenship or even returning to their native yet unfamiliar countries in hopes of finding a good job.
For three of Brewster's high school students, the United States is the only country they know. All three came to the United States before their second birthday.
The three girls are bilingual. They flow seamlessly between two worlds. Some are the primary conduit between the English-speaking world and their Spanish-speaking families.
They want to contribute to society and help their families. But as graduation day nears, they know their options are limited.
"What if one day they say yes I can stay here but ask for my grades to see if I deserve it?"
"I want to go to a university and be somebody," said the 16-year-old junior who has lived in Oklahoma City since she was nearly a year old. "It's hard to be somebody when the United States doesn't recognize you as somebody."
Like many of Brewster's students, she participates in class and takes part in her school's music program. She has a 3.8 grade-point average and is determined to be in the top of her class by the time she graduates.
Her sister, who was born in the United States and is a citizen, doesn't understand why she's working so hard.
"What if one day they say yes I can stay here but ask for my grades to see if I deserve it?" she said. "I have to do everything perfectly to have an opportunity."
The girl is currently enrolled at Oklahoma City Community College and receiving college credit. But she wants to go to the University of Oklahoma. It's been her dream since she was a child.
Without papers showing her legal immigration status, the freedom of being adult is eclipsed by the risks.
"I want to get a degree, get a job some place, get my papers and get my license. Now it doesn't mean anything if I'm 18. It only means I can get deported," she said. "When I graduate, I can't do anything."
"We've tried doing the right thing, and we don't get attention."
The family of another student at Brewster's school has been trying for lawful immigration status nearly all of their daughter's life. The wait for some types of visas is as long as 20 years, according to the U.S. State Department.
The parents of the bubbly 17-year-old came to the United States with visas and renewed them when they expired but didn't return to Mexico. They have an attorney and are working their way through the process. Because she's working toward legal residency, she is able to apply for some financial aid for college.
"We've tried doing the right thing, and we don't get attention," she said. "They don't care to hear our story; they just want to see the papers."
With a 3.9 grade-point average and a thirst for math and history, she's attractive to schools that are willing to work with her. Knowledge of history stings, knowing immigrants were once welcomed into the United States and only had to prove they were not sick to gain entrance.
"We took history classes about the way it was when people came through Ellis Island," she said. "A lot of people were just coming here to escape. Nothing has changed. Some people just want something better."
Like many students at Santa Fe South High School, her family is from Ciudad Juarez, the city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua where 6,500 people have been killed since 2008, according to local news reports.
"I want to be something bigger ..."
Athletics sometimes open doors for students who want to attend college but don't have legal immigration status, Brewster said.
Private schools might be able to find scholarship money for students who make the grade and excel in sports. That's what a 17-year-old cross country athlete at Santa Fe South High School was hoping. But a torn meniscus on her left knee could end those ambitions.
For this quiet, slender girl, it's something she's pondered before. The realization that being an undocumented immigrant limited her future hit her a year ago when she was a sophomore.
"I thought, 'Why even try anymore?'" she said. "Now, I figure I'll get educated here and go back to Mexico and work."
Begrudgingly, she thinks the only way forward is to return to the country her parents left to give her a better life.
"I want papers because I want to go to college," she said. "I want to be something bigger."
"I don't have status here — all I have is a student ID card."
The immigration debate is commonly about the number of Hispanics illegally entering the country from the southern border. But the son of an Oklahoma City business owner emigrated from South Asia, has lived in Oklahoma most of his life and is not a legal resident.
At some point, he knows his dream of higher education could end. He doesn't drive because he could be pulled over and deported.
"I don't have status here — all I have is a student ID card," he said.
The OU student wants to honor the sacrifice his parents made when they brought him here from South Asia as infant. His father was able to obtain a visa but could not get immigration papers for his son or wife.
The 19-year-old went to elementary school in Oklahoma City before going to an Edmond high school.
In eighth grade, he scored a 28 on his ACT. While in high school, he earned a 34, two points shy of a perfect score. He graduated early at the top of his class and corresponded with schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke and Yale.
The results came back the same — without papers to prove he is a legal U.S. resident, he couldn't receive financial aid or scholarships. The price tag for the prestigious schools was too high.
His parents pay every dime of his education at OU.
"It's like you have these chains. When you get to college, you're supposed to be freed a little bit. It was the opposite for me," he said.
"Kids aren't their parents, and they shouldn't be pushed aside because of something their parents did. Mine just did what they had to do because they loved me enough to do it."
The names of the students interviewed for this story are not used because the students fear they or someone in their family could be deported if their identities are revealed.
Undocumented students in Oklahoma colleges
In the 2008-2009 school year, there were 272 undocumented students at 17 colleges across the state, according to a report put out by the Advancement of Hispanic Students in Higher Education Task Force. Undocumented students make up less than one percent of the total number of students in Oklahoma's college system. The task force finished their work in the summer of 2009.
The number of undocumented students in Oklahoma's colleges is not being formally tracked, said Armando Pena, assistant vice chancellor for GEAR-UP, a program that assists students with college preparation. Pena said students self report their immigration status to university officials.
Students must have legal immigration status in the United States to apply for financial aid. Some are able to secure private scholarships for college. Others must pay the total amount out of pocket. During the 2008-2009 school year, undocumented students paid $252,091 in tuition and fees, according to the task force's study.
By the numbers
Number of undocumented students enrolled in the 2008-2009 school year:
• Tulsa Community College: 56
• Oklahoma State-Oklahoma City: 44
• University of Oklahoma: 12
• Oklahoma State University (in the 2010-2011 school year): 7
State laws that govern undocumented students
The Dream Act
Some Oklahoma students are pinning their futures on the passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would provide a legal path for high school graduates to work, attend college and achieve lawful status. The dream was briefly shuttered when the defense bill it was attached to failed to make it to a vote in the Senate. However, a comprehensive immigration reform bill recently introduced in the Senate includes the entirety of the act. The Dream Act would give undocumented high school graduates and GED recipients a path to lawful permanent status and the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. Students who have been in the country for at least five years and entered the country when they were younger than 16 would be eligible for relief. They would also be required to complete two years of college or serve in the military for two years. Federal education grants would not be available to them, but states could offer financial aid.
In Oklahoma, however, House Bill 1804 which passed in 2007 ended the practice of allowing in-state tuition for students who could not prove they were in the United States legally. Students already enrolled in a degree program in the 2006-2007 were allowed to continue at the same rate. HB 1804 also allows students enrolling in college to get in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria and either provide a copy of an application or petition filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or sign an affidavit stating their intention to become legal U.S. residents.