Getting to college

This undocumented student is ready for college. But in Indiana, it might be out of reach

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar
Jessika Osborne, ESL coordinator and Title 3 Coordinator for Manual High School, left, talks with Lester at Emmerich Manual High School, Monday, July 31, 2018. Lester moved to Indianapolis when he was 15 years old and is set to graduate from Manual in 2019. Lester, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, dreams of going to college. He hopes that football will help him pay for that dream.

This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, as part of an ongoing series on the intersection between education and immigration.

In collaboration with WFYI, the Teacher Project will host a panel discussion on college access for undocumented students on Aug. 15. The event will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the Reuben Community Room at WFYI, 1630 N. Meridian. For more information, including RSVPs, click here.

On a campus tour of Ball State University last fall, 17-year-old Lester Gomez gawked at the 20,000-seat football stadium, the red-trimmed locker rooms and the gleaming engineering computer lab. It was the Honduran immigrant’s first trip to a university in the U.S.

Eagerly, he quizzed the tour guide about the central Indiana university’s minimum GPA, graduation rates and tuition costs.

Lester, who just started his senior year at Manual High School, is on track to graduate with an Indiana Honors Diploma for students who complete college-level work in high school.

His teachers speak glowingly of his work and potential.  His football coach said Lester, a talented recent convert to the sport who can kick a 40-yard field goal, has a shot at an athletic scholarship.

Yet the path to college remains arduous — and unlikely. Lester, whose immigration status is uncertain, arrived in the U.S. two and a half years ago after a long journey stuffed inside a tractor-trailer with 50 other migrants.

Officials have allowed him to remain in the U.S. until a court hearing can be scheduled to determine his long-term fate. So, at least for now, Lester is living here legally. That said, his status doesn’t allow him to qualify for state or federal financial aid because he doesn’t have a green card.

That means his parents, who make a combined $35,000 annually as a used furniture saleswoman and Buffalo Wild Wings cook, would likely be paying full freight.

Moreover, most high schools, including Manual, lack expertise — or even basic awareness — of how to guide students in Lester’s situation through the college application process. “High schools are doing very little,” said Monica Medina, an associate professor of education at Indiana University.

Medina said guidance counselors rarely “feel confident about what to do.” That can leave students like Lester largely on their own when it comes to complicated tasks such as figuring out how to take college entrance exams without a federal or state ID or locating private scholarships for immigrant students.

Approximately 1 million students whose legal status is unclear are enrolled in U.S. schools, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Every year, about 65,000 of them graduate American high schools, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Of those, an estimated 5 to 10 percent enroll in college; an even smaller percent graduates.

To be sure, how best to handle children who have entered the country illegally is a contentious issue. Some argue that children who have done well in school should be afforded the opportunity to be full contributors in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. Others feel just as strongly that students who are not U.S. citizens should not receive assistance such as financial aid or in-state tuition—benefits that should be reserved exclusively to students who are in the country legally.

But for Lester the issue is more simple. He is here. And he wants to make the most of it.

Pursuit of the best education possible has shaped many of his actions over the last 17 years, and he isn’t ready to abandon the quest now. With the threat of deportation always looming, the teen plans to apply to several colleges, including Ball State, this fall.

His story speaks to the financial, legal, and practical obstacles that put college out of reach for tens of thousands of students whose immigration status is unresolved. But it also speaks to an undying faith that, in America, anything is possible.

“There are a lot of opportunities, and if you don’t take them, it’s like you are sleeping,” Lester said.

“I really want to go to college. It’s like a dream.”

The Winding Path to Indianapolis

Fifteen and a half years ago, a 19-year-old seamstress with a sixth-grade education set off alone from El Progreso, Honduras, without telling her parents. The woman, named Johana, left behind her 2-year-old son, Lester, not knowing what dangers the journey to the United States had in store.

Lester’s father had disappeared before his son was born, but Johana felt confident that the toddler would be safe staying with his grandparents. The decision to leave, Johanna said, was excruciating. She hoped that in the U.S. she could find a job and send home enough money for Lester to attend a private school, since the city’s public schools were notoriously violent.

Johana eventually settled in Indianapolis, where an aunt lived, and began selling used furniture out of her garage. When Lester turned five, she started sending $300 a month to pay for his tuition at a private, Catholic school in Honduras.

Johana married a Guatemalan man with a green card, and they had three children of their own, all U.S. citizens. But she talked to Lester on Skype every day of his childhood.

“It’s very ugly,” she said in Spanish, “to have a piece of yourself in another place.”

In El Progreso, Lester attended school daily, went to chapel at school every Monday and Friday, and played pickup soccer with his friends many afternoons. He excelled in computer science and math, joining an after-school program to fix old computers three days a week. There, he started thinking about how college would allow him to “get deep into computer science.”

One fall afternoon three years ago, two older teenagers approached Lester as he walked home from school. Their arms were covered with tattoos, and they wore decorative bandannas over their faces; one wore black, the other green. They told Lester, then 14, that they knew all about him: when he got out of school, which bus he took, where his grandparents lived.

The teens were members of the notorious MS-13 gang, and Lester realized that he had been targeted for recruitment. “I was like, ‘What did I do?’”

Gang members even threatened Lester’s 54-year-old grandmother as she walked home one day, telling her they would kill her if Lester didn’t join them. The family’s fear deepened when his mother missed some private school tuition payments, so Lester briefly had to transfer to a public school — one where some of his classmates were members of MS-13.

During Lester’s adolescence, the murder rate soared in Honduras, reaching 130 per 100,000 residents in Lester’s city of El Progreso in 2012, according to a report from the World Bank. MS-13 was responsible for much of the violence as the gang expanded its territory and battled with rival groups.

After the threats, Lester and his grandmother knew the family was no longer safe. He had to leave Honduras. “It wasn’t a choice,” Lester said. He had just two days to pack his belongings and say his farewells. “I could only put him in God’s hands,” his grandmother said, speaking in Spanish, during a phone interview.

On Feb. 21, 2016, Lester checked into a hotel near his grandparents’ home; a car picked him up at 3 a.m. the next day and set off for the Guatemalan border.

A Legal Scramble

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant children are, like Lester, stuck in a legal limbo.

According to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse, a data organization based at Syracuse University, about half of the more than 200,000 young immigrants who’ve arrived at the U.S. border since 2004, most of them fleeing gang violence and civil unrest in Central America, are in the same position as Lester: They can stay until a court date, when a judge will decide whether to expel them.

Those court dates are typically long in coming: The average wait for an immigration hearing in Chicago court is over 1,000 days.

In a two-year span from 2014-2016, asylum officers approved only 37 percent of the almost 6,000 unaccompanied minor asylum claims they reviewed across the country, according to an Associated Press investigation. The regional office in Chicago that would hear Lester’s case had OK’d only 15 percent of applications — the lowest rate in the country, the investigation found.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that fear of gang violence does not qualify a migrant for asylum.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. Shortly after Lester arrived in 2016, his mother easily enrolled him at Manual High without delving into her citizenship status. She chose the school because the bus route passed their home and she had heard it offered English classes for new immigrants.

But unlike K-12, college access in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. Students such as Lester do not qualify for federal financial aid like the Pell Grants that help millions of low-income students attend college; and they can’t receive federally subsidized loans, which require the co-signature of a U.S. citizen.

And in at least six states, including Indiana, they also can’t access the heavily discounted in-state tuition rates at public universities. (Young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” who, unlike Lester, arrived in the country before 2007, are protected by President Barack Obama’s 2012 DACA order and can sometimes qualify for in-state tuition rates in Indiana.)

Without an athletic scholarship, Lester would be paying $24,000 in tuition each year at Ball State — two-thirds of his parents’ income. Most Indiana residents pay $8,000.

In 2011, the Indiana state legislature passed a law restricting in-state tuition rates to students “lawfully present” in the country.

Republican State Sen. Mike Karickhoff of Kokomo, who authored the bill, said the rationale is simple: Students who “have not contributed … to the tax base that helps operate these colleges” should not get the benefit of the discounted rate.

In January, State Representative Earl Harris Jr. of East Chicago introduced a bill that would allow anyone who has lived in the state for three years and graduated high school to qualify for in-state tuition. “We have a shortage of skilled, trained people in Indiana,” he said, adding that many state universities are under-enrolled.

Lester’s family is desperate to find a way for him to stay for the long term. Before the teen decided to flee Honduras, Johana had for years been on a crusade to bring her son to Indianapolis legally.

Twice, Johana and her husband have been the victims of real-estate fraud, targeted by criminals who prey mostly on Latino immigrants. The first time, in 2012, the couple bought a $23,000 ranch-style house in East Indianapolis from a woman who gave them a fake deed.

The city actually owned the property. The man in charge of the city agency that resold abandoned properties, Reginald Walton, agreed to sell the house back to the family for a discounted rate.

But shortly after that second transaction went through, in early 2013, Johana received a call from the FBI. They told her Walton — who was later convicted of accepted bribes and kickbacks in the land bank fraud scheme — had defrauded her again, overcharging the family by several thousand dollars. She was wary of cooperating with the FBI, concerned that Walton might seek revenge. But they made an offer that changed her calculus, she said.

The agents promised to help her apply for an ‘S’ Visa — known colloquially as the “Snitch Visa.” It is a little-known law enforcement tool that officers can offer as an enticement to testify in criminal investigations.

Only 200 such visas are handed out each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the agents didn’t make any guarantees. But they submitted an application on Johana’s behalf and set her up with a pro-bono lawyer.

An S Visa would mean a path to permanent residence for Johana, and, most temptingly, a legal way to bring Lester from Honduras. “In my mind, Lester was going to come,” she said.

Johana testified and helped secure the conviction of Walton, and his accomplice David Johnson. The trial took about a year, and while the S Visa application was pending, she obtained a temporary work permit and social security number. She bought a vacant property across from their house and opened her own used furniture business. Things were looking up.

But a couple of months after her testimony wrapped up in late 2015, Johana learned that Lester was bound for the U.S. on his own, a decision that both angered and scared her. It also complicated her plan to bring him to Indianapolis legally.

Then, in the fall of 2016, Johana learned that officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had decided her case did not merit an S Visa. The decision came without explanation, but it was not unusual: Immigration advocates have criticized the FBI for dangling S Visas as an incentive for witnesses to cooperate without actually following through. A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment, referring questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

A Legal Aid Society lawyer representing Johana pro bono agreed to help her apply for a green card through her husband, Edgar (already a permanent resident), but the lawyer said she couldn’t take on Lester’s case.

Johana decided the family’s limited resources would better be spent on legal fees for her husband’s citizenship application. Edgar passed the citizenship test in July. The family now plans to apply for a green card for Lester as the stepson of a citizen.

But they haven’t been able to afford a lawyer for Lester, and have missed key deadlines as a result. Since Lester turned 18 in early August, it will be harder for him to obtain a green card through his parents. He could be called to court any day.

An Uncertain Educational Future

From his first day at Manual, Lester was determined to excel.

“He put himself out there,” said Manual’s English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instructor, Jessika Osborne. “He didn’t let the language barrier keep him from doing that.”

Lester’s athletic abilities — he’s now a part of the school’s soccer, football and wrestling teams — have helped him acclimate socially. So has his playful sense of humor: He has a personal nickname for most of his classmates and even some of his teachers — Jessika is “the famous Osborne.”

Lester still loves math and takes an honors-level class in the subject. He’s progressed rapidly in English, thanks in part to the time he spends around English-speaking peers. Lester’s English was strong enough for him to test out of the ESL program last spring, although he elected to take another class with Osborne this year.

Manual has become a destination for immigrant and refugee students since it was taken over by the state and, in 2011, turned over to a charter operator. Seven years ago, the ESL program enrolled three students. Now it serves more than 80.

Yet the school — like most — still has little expertise in how to help even the most successful students who are facing immigration issues navigate their way to college.

High schools seldom know how to counsel such students through the college admissions and financial aid process, said Guadalupe Pimentel Solano, a 26-year-old activist with the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance. Counselors lack basic knowledge about private scholarships that might be available to students such as Lester and don’t how to talk about sensitive legal issues, she said.

Solano wishes high schools would do more, such as making information so accessible that students don’t need to disclose their status to access it.

Carmen Lynch, one of Manual’s two guidance counselors, said no student in her six years at the school has confided to her that they may be in the country illegally. That makes it hard to know how to help them. “I don’t know how to overcome that challenge in getting kids to feel safe telling us, so we can find the universities that will still enroll them,” she said.

Lester met once with Lynch to talk about Ball State, but he didn’t mention his immigration status. He said he might bring it up this school year.

Those conversations take time and trust, Osborne said. Lester first told her his story after more than a year in her class. “You can’t push these relationships,” she said.

Because Osborne knows Manual’s immigrant students better than most of the other teachers, she has found herself stepping into a new role: college advisor. That includes developing relationships with colleges and searching for scholarships.

It’s not easy. Osborne recently signed up a batch of students to take the SAT — only to realize that few had the legal ID card (driver’s license, passport or social security card) required to take the exam.

“My stress is that that’s all on me,” Osborne said. “And that’s not my job.”

So far, none of Osborne’s estimated 50 students who face immigration issues have made it to college (at least among those who aren’t protected under Obama’s 2012 DACA order). Many of them, especially the Hispanic male students, drop out to work full time. Others become overwhelmed by the bureaucratic nature of the financial aid forms. Or they decide they don’t have a reliable way to attend college classes without a driver’s license. “It’s too much,” Osborne said.

This fall, Lester will take the SAT for the first time, as well as some college-level courses.

For his family, the priority has always been education. Three of his closest friends dropped out of high school last year to work full time and support their families.

But Johana is dead set against Lester following a similar path. “At four years old, I told them all, ‘Your job is to study. And we’ll do the rest,’” she said. Lester wants to help his family financially. So by way of compromise, he has a weekend job as a roofer and chips in for the family’s internet bill.

But he knows little about the practicalities of the college admissions process. And even the local community college, the cheapest option, would cost Lester $8,000 a year in tuition, compared to $4,000 for in-state residents.

His options for finding a job to defray the costs are limited: Without a change in his legal status, he can’t obtain a work permit or a driver’s license.

Lester said he felt a twinge of resentment when a classmate recently mentioned that he overslept a driving exam. “I was like, ‘wow bro,’” Lester said. “You know how hard it is for us to get a driver’s license?”

But he doesn’t let that resentment linger. “I wouldn’t judge someone,” he said. “Everybody has his opportunity someday.”

It’s still tough for Lester to open up about the hardest parts of his journey, even with his mother. “We barely talk about it,” she said.

Osborne said it would be tough for the casual observer to recognize how much hardship Lester has already endured.

“I think every day,” she said, “‘How did he have that story?’ You would’ve never guessed. He’s definitely the light of my classroom.”

Lester knows the future might bring more setbacks. It makes him even more determined to make the best use of the time he has — even if he never makes it back to Ball State for a longer stay.

“I would still be glad (that I came to the U.S.) because I finally met my family,” he said. “I studied. I didn’t waste my time.”

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation.



College Dreaming

A new law is helping undocumented students in New Jersey attend college, but challenges remain

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
Gloria, Nestor, and Sergio at Gloria’s graduation from Essex County College in Newark in 2018


This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, in partnership with Chalkbeat and WNYC. Ashley Okwuosa is a reporting fellow with the Teacher Project.

When New Jersey’s governor signed a law in May giving undocumented immigrant students access to state financial aid for college, Gloria Rodriguez was prepared. The 22-year-old Orange resident had been working toward this moment for nearly a decade — about the same time it had taken the law’s supporters to get the bill passed.

Years of motivated, diligent schoolwork had enabled her to graduate as the valedictorian of her class at West Caldwell Tech High School in 2016. But without access to state or federal aid at the time, Gloria could only afford community college.

“That was my only plan,” she said.

She attended Newark’s Essex Community College and applied last spring, as she was wrapping up her associate’s degree, to four-year universities to continue her education. But while accepted to several, she had little hope of attending any of them. Money in her family, which includes her parents and four siblings, was too tight. Her father, who migrated from Puebla, Mexico 18 years ago, worked as a landscaper, earning roughly $30,000 a year.

The new law suddenly gave Gloria hope. She immediately gathered her parents’ tax returns, proof of residency, and high school verification — all required for the application — and submitted them online in June. Then began a nervous wait.

New Jersey is the tenth state in the country to provide both in-state tuition discounts and state financial aid for college for undocumented students. As of 2016, New Jersey had about 60,000 undocumented residents between the ages of 18 and 24, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, who are potentially eligible for this new assistance.

Just shy of a third of these residents are already enrolled in college — either two or four-year institutions. Another subset of students — no one knows exactly how many — are not high school graduates or haven’t attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, a requirement to receive aid under the law.

And then there are students like Gloria, one of 1,365 undocumented New Jerseyans who applied for the aid by the first deadline of September 15. The number is small owing partly to a bumpy rollout and to less-than-ideal timing, an experience that holds lessons for other states looking to expand access to higher education.

Among the biggest challenges have been simply spreading the word and gaining the buy-in of students and families that often have little familiarity with an already labyrinthe process of college admissions and financial aid. This is especially true at a political moment when distrust of the government is running high, due to high-profile roundups of undocumented workers across the country by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.

“I think today’s national climate makes things a little bit trickier,” said Nicholas Ramjattan, assistant manager of financial aid at Rutgers University-Newark. “There are a lot more folks who are more fearful today than they were two years ago.”

Teachers and administrators say they have also received little to no information about the specifics of the new law, a task that has largely fallen to already besieged local immigrant groups and overworked college representatives.

“There’s no mandatory training for [high school] counselors to have to know this stuff,” said Nedia Morsy, lead organizer at Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy organization. And although educators and immigrant advocates say New Jersey should be applauded for how quickly it has tried to implement the program, more needs to be done if access to higher education is to expand in the ways the law’s backers imagined.

A decade-long fight

The battle to provide this aid is partly a Newark story, beginning with Teresa Ruiz, a former pre-kindergarten teacher who grew up in Newark’s North Ward and who in 2008 became New Jersey’s first Hispanic woman elected to the state senate. In the years since, she has become a political powerbroker and a leading voice in state education policy. (Ruiz reportedly played a critical role, for example, ensuring that Roger León, a lifelong Newarker and the son of Cuban immigrants, would become Newark’s first Hispanic schools superintendent and the first to oversee the district after decades of state oversight.)

Three weeks after Ruiz was sworn into office, she and Democratic colleagues in the senate introduced a bill that would grant undocumented students access to in-state tuition rates. It also outlawed community colleges from barring undocumented students from enrolling.

The bill fell short of the necessary votes. Five years later, Ruiz tried again after Chris Christie, the state’s former Republican governor, took office. Christie, however, was eyeing a Presidential run at the time and was leery of the proposal, worrying in 2013 to one radio station that he didn’t want New Jersey becoming “a magnet state” for undocumented immigrants.

But citing the economic benefits to the state, Christie did eventually back Ruiz’s original bill, giving it the support it needed to pass. He called it an opportunity for New Jersey to maximize its investment in undocumented students whom the state had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars educating in grades K through 12. Starting in 2014, undocumented students became eligible in many cases for in-state tuition levels, which lowered the cost of higher education for their families. Actual aid, however, remained off the table.

“It definitely helped a lot more people be able to go to college, and it made it affordable — but not affordable enough,” said Giancarlo Tello, co-founder of UndocuJersey, which provides educational resources for the state’s undocumented students. A 2015 report from the College Board listed New Jersey as the fourth most expensive state for college in a state where undocumented families make just under  $35,000 annually on average.

After Christie left office, Ruiz found a new ally in newly-elected Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned on a promise to support New Jersey’s undocumented population. Legislation to provide state aid for college for undocumented students advanced quickly after Murphy was sworn in last January. The bill passed both the senate and assembly by April, and moved off Murphy’s desk the next month as law.

It had an immediate impact on Gloria Rodriguez.

A journey from Mexico — and a father’s “biggest blessing”

Unlike some other states, under New Jersey’s new law, students can use its financial aid at both public and private universities within the state. As a result, Gloria was able to accept admission to Bloomfield College, a private university not far from her family’s home. She liked this proximity and how the campus’ verdant lawn was surrounded by small bungalows. Most important, the college’s education program was well-ranked. As early as elementary school, Gloria had dreamed of becoming a special education teacher.

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
The Rodriguez family at dinner

“It’s something that I know that I have the patience for,” she said. “I would do anything to help someone who needs my help.”

For years, Gloria’s family had been on a personal mission to get at least one of the family’s five children — all undocumented — into a four-year college. Her father, Constantino, a farm worker, emigrated from Mexico on his own in 2000, hoping for better treatment for his severe asthma attacks. He quickly found work as a landscaper. His wife, Valentina, and oldest son, Sergio, joined him two years later.

In 2004, Gloria, her two older sisters, and younger brother, Nestor, followed. They traveled by car from Mexico. Gloria remembers very little about the trip other than it was long and uncomfortable. But the promise of being reunited with her family kept her spirits up.

“We couldn’t think of anything else other than the fact that we were going to see my dad and Sergio,” she recalled.

Her father, a devout Catholic, described having his family together in New Jersey as his “biggest blessing.”

Sergio, the oldest Rodriguez son, had dreamed of attending university and studying to become an engineer or architect. But when he graduated from East Orange High School in 2012 near the top of his class, undocumented students were not yet eligible even for in-state tuition rates. Sergio, 25, says he did not get a welcoming reception from most of the community colleges and vocational programs he approached. They all asked if he had a green card or social security number.

“I used to say no,” Sergio said. “And they were like, ‘Oh, well, you have no chance to study.’”

Sergio decided to save for college by painting houses and doing other small jobs. But he quickly realized that paying tuition out-of-pocket wouldn’t be feasible for years, if ever. “I gave up trying,” he said. His two sisters, Rosa and Rufina, decided to go straight to work after high school to contribute to the family’s income.

“An Ivy League School — or Essex County College”

After graduating high school in 2016, Gloria picked up the baton, applying to half a dozen schools in the state, including Rutgers, Montclair State University, and Fairleigh Dickinson. But she only received one scholarship offer, from Fairleigh Dickinson; at $10,000, it barely made a dent in the more than $30,000 sticker-price for tuition.

So Gloria decided to scale back her ambitions and enrolled at Essex, where she could receive a small scholarship from an organization called The Dream.US that helps recipients of the Obama-era DACA program attend college.

Jose Mercado, a guidance counselor at Newark’s Science Park High School, says that Gloria’s case is far from unique, even at a top public magnet school like Science Park, which has selective admissions. Before the new law, undocumented students with strong academic records in New Jersey typically had only two options: Get into an elite private school that could afford to offer a large scholarship — or community college.

Such students “either went to an Ivy League school — or Essex County College,” he said. “There was no middle ground.”

So when the new law was approved late in the spring, immigrant families and advocates were elated. But the timing left little time for recent graduates to change course or benefit in time for the fall semester.

“At this point, students are already wrapped up,” said Brian Donovan, vice principal of the bilingual program at Newark’s East Side High School.  “For someone who’s a senior, and they’re finding out this information at the end of the school year, it’s kind of hectic.”

The confusion was evident at a June event at the school, where about 100 undocumented students and parents gathered to learn about the change from school staff, recalled Donovan. They lobbed question after question about who was eligible for the aid, how to apply, and the status of DACA, given President Trump’s stated desire to rescind the program.

Donovan said that he struggled to enumerate the eligibility requirements and necessary documents — much less whether it was safe to apply at all. “It was like when a teacher needs to teach something, and they’re not prepared,” he said.

Like other teachers, Donovan noted that the school had never received guidance from the state — or anyone else — about how to communicate with students, a problem that has arisen in other states with similar programs. Instead, the process is often left entirely to individual educators to research if they wish to share their states’ laws regarding undocumented students and college access. (One undocumented student from Plainfield, for instance, said that her high school counselor suggested she attend college in Canada, because the counselor was unsure what options were available to the student in New Jersey.)

Even for those who did apply over the summer, uncertainty reigned. Nicole Romero, a 22-year-old undocumented student from Peru who lives in Paterson, said that although she applied in May as soon as the application appeared online, she didn’t hear back until after the new school year had started in August.

“I spent the whole summer stressing about whether or not I would get aid,” she said.   

A coveted scholarship declined

Gloria Rodriguez was luckier. Because she had already applied to four universities and been accepted that spring, she was in a position to take advantage of the potential aid. She heard in August that she would receive an estimated $12,000 from the state’s Tuition Aid Grant program in addition to a private scholarship from Bloomfield College.  She was one of 665 students statewide who were approved for such assistance. As of November, 350 other applications were still pending, and 350 had been denied.

College “was one of my biggest dreams, and now it’s actually happening!” she said.

But Gloria’s brother, Nestor, the baby of the family, wasn’t so fortunate. He was a high school senior at West Caldwell Tech High School last school year and a soccer star on the school’s team. Not knowing that he was undocumented, the soccer coach at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township last winter offered Nestor an athletic scholarship. But it still wasn’t enough, by itself, to make the college’s tuition affordable.

Given the uncertainty about whether additional aid would be available, Gloria encouraged Nestor to focus his sights on community college — as she had done.

“I told him go to Essex County College, make sure you do well in all your classes. And once you graduate, you might be able to transfer,” she said.

By the time Nestor learned he might qualify for state aid under the new law in addition to the sports scholarship, Nestor, who loved nothing more than playing soccer, had declined the coach’s offer.

“Are they going to take my parents away?”

The timing of the law has presented other challenges as well. Morsy, the lead organizer at Make the Road, says that with DACA in flux and a barrage of immigration-related dispatches from the federal government, it’s been hard for schools to stay on top of laws and policies affecting their immigrant students — much less win their trust in deeply uncertain times.

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order stating that anyone living in the country illegally would be subject to arrest, detention, and possible deportation. This, coupled with increased cooperation between law enforcement officials and ICE in New Jersey reignited a fear among undocumented families who had lived in the state for years.

Yari Pares, a guidance counselor at Newark’s East Side High School, said some of his immigrant students feared applying for the new aid might lead to deportation. “They asked, ‘If I sign up for this, are they going to take my parents away? Are they going to come and get me?’”

Other states with similar programs have seen the numbers of undocumented applicants shrink since Trump’s election. In California undocumented students have qualified for state aid since 2013 but the number of applicants plummeted last winter.

“The headlines about immigration make people feel like they’re really in the spotlight,” Jane Slater, a teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif., told the Los Angeles Times. “Kids are more afraid for their families than they are for themselves.”

Even for undocumented students in New Jersey who have the courage to apply, the specifics of the process can still prove daunting, said Natalia Morisseau, director of financial aid at Rutgers University-Newark. The Higher Education Assistance Authority, or HESAA, which administers the aid, often asks students to verify information, including tax forms, proof of income, or New Jersey residency. This can be difficult for students whose parents get paid under the table or live with relatives and don’t have their names on apartment leases.

“It’s a population of people who’ve lived under the radar for many, many years,” she said. “When you live undocumented it’s just that, undocumented.”

“A pain in the butt”

New Jersey adopted an ambitious timeline for rolling out the aid: making the application available online immediately after Murphy signed the bill on May 9. In other states with similar laws, the legislation did not go into effect within the same academic year. David Socolow, executive director of HESAA, said his team began preparing months in advance out of a desire to serve as many students as possible as quickly as possible.

“Their motives were good,” said John Gunkel, vice chancellor for academic programs and strategic partnerships at Rutgers-Newark. “But it was a very short timeline,” which he suspected “made it difficult to think through and communicate through the issues.”

Like California’s, New Jersey’s first iteration of the application form was an online PDF. Even officials from HESAA admit that this was inconvenient for both students and the agency, because students could not easily save partially completed applications. As a result, the agency often received multiple versions of the same application when students resubmitted it if they made an error.

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Chalkbeat
Nestor and Gloria at his high school graduation in 2018

“It would be easier if it were a computer system where people could do ten questions, take a break, and come back a day later, but we couldn’t get that up and running in time,” said Socolow.

Romero, the student who spent the whole summer anxiously awaiting word about her application, said the process would have been “overwhelming and scary” without support from Make the Road. When she heard from the state in August, she learned she’d been approved for $6,000 in aid, which she is now using to attend Montclair State University.

Another student who attends New Jersey City University said that he was told the state had three applications under his name, which delayed his receipt of funds. “That was my first experience with the application,” said the student, who asked that his name not be used given his immigration status. “I said if it’s going to be like this, that’s going to be a pain in the butt.”

Delays are normal for any student receiving state aid, not just those who are undocumented students, said Jennifer Azzarano, a spokesperson from HESAA. Students are often asked to submit additional tax and income forms, and colleges have to certify that students are attending or registered to attend.

“That’s for anyone,” she said. But the process is usually simpler, Azzarano added, for aid renewals.

On October 1, HESAA launched a new online application for the 2019 spring semester and the 2019-20 academic year. So far, students and advocates say it’s much more user-friendly. “It’s way easier and more understandable,” said the New Jersey City University student.

A role model: “I see her study every day”

In the meantime, in the absence of better guidance and support from schools, students have looked to immigrant organizations like Make the Road, which held weekly workshops over the summer when school was not in session for students to work on their applications. But no matter how user-friendly the process becomes, increasing undocumented students’ access in New Jersey could benefit from broader changes.  

For example, undocumented students could be encouraged to apply for state aid as a matter of course, in the same way other students routinely fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, (which is so ubiquitous that over 18,000,000 students applied in 2016-2017).

“We need to normalize it the way we’ve normalized FAFSA,” said Jennifer Ayala, director of the Center for Undocumented Students at St. Peter’s University.

The process went more smoothly for Gloria partly because she had practiced filling out the FAFSA forms as a high schooler. But even a sister’s coaching and concern did not prove strong enough to propel her younger brother Nestor to college, at least not this school year. Four days before the start of the semester, Nestor decided not to enroll in community college because he wouldn’t be able to play soccer. During the day, he now works as a cashier at a pharmacy not far from his family’s home in Orange; in the evenings, he practices the game. The entire family was devastated — especially Gloria.  

“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “There are other students who wish they could go to college and don’t have the opportunities that he has right now.”

Even a brief detour from an academic trajectory can be costly. Research shows that those who don’t immediately go to college right after high school can lose “academic momentum” and are less likely to attend or earn a college diploma in the future. Rates of college attendance in Newark, for example, have risen in recent years. But many students, especially those from low-income households, have still struggled to complete college within six years or don’t end up at more rigorous, four-year institutions. The prohibitive cost of tuition and the difficulty juggling necessary jobs and college coursework are among the potential barriers to completion.

With the help of state aid, Gloria has quickly acclimated to life at Bloomfield, where she’s already a member of the honors college; her favorite class is Western literature. Ever prepared, she has already begun practicing to take a teaching certification exam called the Praxis and plans to spend as much of her winter break as possible studying.

At family dinners, she regales her siblings with tales of college life and what she’s reading; she works on homework late in the night in a small home office littered with building plans from her brother Sergio’s construction work.

“I see her study every day,” said Sergio.

As students see their siblings, classmates, and peers pursuing college degrees, this model may provide additional assistance to undocumented families. In Gloria’s household, this is already proving to be the case. Inspired by his big sister’s example, Nestor said recently that he plans to apply to college for next year.

Gloria’s drive has reignited his passion and motivation (not to mention a small competitive streak). “I’m trying to be like her —  if not better,” he said.

WNYC’s audio version of this story can be accessed on the player below or directly on the WNYC website