Head of the Class

With his grades and high school activities, Pablo is an ideal candidate for college, except for one hitch: He's illegal.

Of course, some of the things that parents pass down to their children do not make their significance clear right away. Back when they'd driven across the border with the wrong kind of visas, Pablo's parents hadn't anticipated how the manner of their crossing would affect the children. The impact of that act was only now being felt.

One Saturday afternoon, Pablo and Blanca and Sergio were over at Pablo's house, slumped in various armchairs. Spring break was one week away, and Blanca couldn't stop talking about the school-sponsored trip she was taking to three European countries.

"Hey, what do you guys want from Europe?" Blanca asked.

 
James Glader
 
All in la familia: Pablo works on the computer he 
shares with his two brothers.
James Glader
All in la familia: Pablo works on the computer he shares with his two brothers.

"I don't want anything," said Pablo.

"I want a new car," said Sergio.

Blanca nattered on about her trip to China the year before; Sergio said that he wanted to go to Japan. Pablo didn't say anything. He just stared silently at the TV, where a man on the Discovery Channel was demonstrating how to fix a leaky roof. Realizing that his friends were looking at him, Pablo flashed a halfhearted grin. Blanca kicked his foot.

"I can't go," said Pablo.

"I know," said Blanca. "Honestly, what do you want from Europe?"

"Nothing," Pablo said again, and he pulled his T-shirt up over his nose.

From various Internet cafes across Europe, Blanca wrote Pablo long e-mails saying that Paris was filthy, Rome divine. He read them at home on the computer he shared with his two younger brothers. West had a scholarship fund that would have paid his way on the same trip, but he was marooned in the tiny brick house for lack of a passport. He couldn't travel to Europe or Asia -- or even back to Mexico -- without forfeiting his right to come home to Denver.

When he was younger, Pablo had been oblivious to the consequences of his immigration status, because federal law guaranteed his right to attend public school. He was taught as if he was fully American; along with his peers, he learned about the rights and privileges that accompany citizenship, as if someday those rights would be his. Now, in a series of painful revelations, he was discovering that this wasn't really the case. He couldn't travel. Everybody in his posse got their driver's licenses as soon as they turned sixteen, but Pablo still rode the bus. He didn't have any sort of official identification.

Nothing was more painful than the looming question of what was going to happen after Pablo completed four years at West. He knew that a bachelor's degree was the best means of avoiding his father's lifetime of working as a landscape laborer out in the fierce Colorado sun, the best way to fulfill the motto carved on a slab of granite outside of his school, where it said that West was "CREATING THE AMERICAN DREAM." Pablo had those kinds of dreams now: He wanted to become a doctor, and planned on going to medical school after he completed his bachelor's degree.

In one-on-one conversations with trusted teachers, however, Pablo had learned that he did not qualify for federal aid programs such as Pell grants, which were available to Blanca and Sergio and Andrew. Nor was he eligible for in-state tuition at any public university or college in the state of Colorado. One day, while we were walking to a class at West, Pablo pointed out a fellow student. "Elena applied for the Boettcher, and she won," he said in an admiring tone. Pablo wasn't eligible for a Boettcher, or a Daniels Fund scholarship, or a Gates Millennium scholarship.

Before 9/11, undocumented kids used to slip into state schools relatively easily if they had graduated from a local high school. After 9/11, all that changed. Now every public institution of higher education kept extensive files, with copies of multiple forms of identification. Students who couldn't produce an American birth certificate or a green card were classified as "international students," even if they lived just down the road. This status meant that the University of Colorado had to charge them five times more than it charged a legal resident of Colorado. As a result, the flow of undocumented students into the more expensive state schools had slowed to a trickle. In Denver, about the only affordable options left for a student like Pablo were Metropolitan State College and the Community College of Denver. But CCD only offered an associate's degree, and Pablo had hoped to go to a college that had a medical school, unlike Metro.

Nobody could tell Pablo how he could pay for the kind of education he wanted, unless he was willing to break the law. As one well-meaning mentor pointed out, Pablo could use a fake Social Security number to apply for federal aid -- commit a felony, in other words -- or he could lie about his status to request in-state tuition. Some undocumented students did this, but Pablo was not looking for lessons in subterfuge; he liked to follow the rules. "The thing I hate is that if you want to do anything, you have to break the law," he said once. "If you want to work, you have to break the law. If you want to drive, you have to break the law." He opted instead to hope for a miracle: Maybe the federal government would pass an immigration reform bill known as the DREAM Act; maybe Colorado would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students; maybe he could attract the attention of one of the few private benefactors who were giving scholarships to students who lacked Social Security numbers.

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