Pursuing the rocky path to college | News | Palo Alto Online |


Pursuing the rocky path to college

Undocumented students speak of overcoming the odds


In 1993, at age 4, East Palo Alto resident Sarahi came to the U.S. with her family because of a medical emergency. The family stayed after that, without permission, rendering their presence "unauthorized" under immigration laws and subject to deportation.

In 2006, when Sarahi was 16, her mother returned voluntarily to Mexico in order to submit an application for legal residency in the U.S. She had been advised that if she did this, she would be able to return to the U.S., legally, within six months. That turned out to not to be true, and her mother was unable to return.

Sarahi's father already was living in Mexico at that time, having returned separately a few years earlier.

Sarahi and her siblings continued to live in the U.S., at her mother's urging.

"It would have been easy for us to come back, but she didn't want us to ... because she knows how difficult it is to live in Mexico," Sarahi said, in reference to the poor economy and lack of jobs.

Despite her mother's immigration problems, like many undocumented youth, Sarahi didn't realize the full meaning of her own undocumented status and what problems it could cause for her own future in the U.S.

"You don't know what it means that you're not from here," she said. "I had strived, done well (in school). My vision was to go to college and help my family."

Sarahi assumed she was in the same position as her classmates to set college goals; she had been encouraged in that direction and no one had told her otherwise.

But when Sarahi applied for federal student aid, her application was rejected for lack of a Social Security number. At that point her dreams of going to UCLA, or any four-year college, went up in smoke; without the aid, she couldn't afford it.

"It was just horrible," she said. "It hits you like nothing else. I didn't want to hear my friends say the word 'college' again. It was stabbing me every time I heard that word."

She was afraid to tell her friends, who kept asking about her college plans, and as a result, she withdrew socially.

"I had to hide everything once I found out," she said.

That summer she worked cash-only jobs, and in the fall, she decided to attend Foothill College, paying fees and expenses with her summer earnings.

Not long after she began Foothill, in 2009, her father became ill with cancer, and Sarahi needed to work full-time to help with her parents' expenses, so she stopped out from college for two years.

She then returned to school, at Canada this time and was able to benefit, as a low-income undocumented student, from California's Board of Governor's fee-waiver program to cover her enrollment costs. She also received support from Canada's Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), another state-funded program for which she was eligible, which helped her with books and other miscellaneous college expenses.

Through President Barack Obama's 2012 executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA for short), Sarahi was finally eligible to obtain a Social Security number, work authorization and protection from deportation. In 2014, as one of 10 DACA recipients nationwide, Sarahi was honored by the White House as a "Champion of Change" for her academic achievements and her work in advocating for undocumented youth who want to go to college.

More recently last May Sarahi won the "Voto Latino Innovators Challenge," a national competition for Latino tech innovators, with her concept for an app to help undocumented students locate and track college scholarships, called "Dreamers Roadmap." She plans to launch this new mobile app in the next few months.

Also in 2015, Sarahi's long-held dream of permanent legal residency came true, unexpectedly, as a result of her husband having received a U-Visa, relief available only to eligible undocumented victims of violent crime who cooperate with police and prosecutors. With the U-Visa, he was able to apply for legal status for himself, Sarahi, his parents and siblings.

Sarahi now has a United States Permanent Resident Card (or "green card") allowing her to live and work in the United States on a permanent, lawful basis. It also provides her with a path to citizenship, something she had never dreamed was possible.

Despite its life-altering benefits, "being a U-Visa holder comes with a big price unfortunately," Sarahi said, referring to the circumstances of criminal violence that led to its issuance. Her husband's receipt of the U-Visa for this reason "is a bitter-sweet moment that will forever be with us," Sarahi said.

With her green card, Sarahi had the legal right, for the first time in her life, to travel to Mexico to visit her mother and then return to America. Sarahi wasted no time in making this trip, as she was 8 months pregnant with her first child, and filmed the moment of reunion with her mother in a video made in collaboration with nonprofit Define American.

Sarahi's narration of the film describes how alone her mother feels in Mexico without being able to see her children who still live in the U.S.

"The only way (my mother) has to show love and take care of her kids is by calling," Sarahi said in the film.

Even DACA did not provide enough documentation for Sarahi to be able to leave the U.S. to see her mother, Sarahi said, and still be assured she could return to the U.S. afterwards. (See "Federal and state laws expand opportunities")

In receiving permanent legal resident status, Sarahi said she appreciates her good fortune compared to many other undocumented youth separated from their parents. At the same time, she feels the system that holds these youth back is unjust.

"There are young people who go their whole lives without seeing their parents because they never had a solution to their immigration status," she said. "I can go visit my mom whenever I want now, but so many people -- good people -- who might be doing the same, can't."


Magali grew up undocumented from age 9, attended Sequoia High School and recently graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Her mother is a janitor and her father a handy man.

When Magali graduated from Sequoia in 2010, she didn't know if she would be going to UCSC, her first choice, or community college, which was her fallback option. It all depended on whether enough private scholarships came through. She had applied to more than a dozen, with help from East Palo Alto nonprofit College Track and Sequoia teacher Jane Slater, but hadn't heard back even mid-summer. Just before college started in August, Magali finally received word that she would indeed have enough money, through seven different scholarships, to pay UCSC tuition and a portion of her living expenses.

"I was so stressed out about this," she said. "And then it happened. One after another came in 'yes' for me."

She described the scholarship process, especially the interviews and essays, as nerve-wracking.

"My whole future was riding on it," she said.

To economize, Magali needed to live off-campus and find a place quickly. She called College Track, which connected her with other UCSC students from College Track's Oakland program; they had an extra room to rent, and that solved that.

Still Magali struggled with social isolation living off-campus as a freshman, commuting to school by public transportation. Also she was homesick.

"As the youngest in my family, I never thought I'd be the first one to move out from our home. It was very very tough," she said. "I went home every weekend my freshman year (taking the bus to San Jose and then Caltrain to Redwood City). I missed my family."

Magali's first two college summers, she did "Dream Summer" internships through a UCLA program that places undocumented students with social-justice organizations nationwide and grants $5,000 scholarships in return for students' work on immigration issues.

For Magali's junior year, she was selected for a paid internship with UCSC's Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), which provided support with both finances and a social community.

"I made a lot of friends and learned a lot of skills through EOP," she said, including the importance of self-advocating for needed resources. She mentored younger undocumented students and eventually was promoted to an EOP leadership position.

That summer, Magali helped run UCSC's week-long orientation for incoming undocumented students; about 60 students came to stay in the dorms and receive tours and individualized academic counseling.

She continued her EOP job again last year; she worked 150 hours per quarter and received tuition scholarships as compensation.

"I loved my work there," she said. "EOP was my home base."

Still she said, at college "the pressure is on, and every year is a struggle to get good grades, be the best, not fail our families."

Magali graduated in June as a Legal Studies major and is now working for as an immigration advocate for Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.


Javier headed for San Jose State University (SJSU) after Sequoia High School in 2012, just after DACA was announced. SJSU was his first choice. He liked the campus: It was close to home and had a well-regarded criminal justice program, his chosen field.

Through his Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) class, which provides college-prep support for underrepresented minorities nationwide, Javier received a lot of help with his college and scholarship applications. When he couldn't afford the college-application fees, and couldn't get fee waivers because he was undocumented, one of his teachers paid his fees.

Through Sequoia's student-run Dream Club (See "A safe haven to dream"), he learned about Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) and the list of scholarships open to undocumented students maintained on E4FC's website. He applied for a number of scholarships and was awarded six that together partially paid for college, including four-year scholarships from Peninsula College Fund (PCF) and Pursuit of Excellence (POE). (See "Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth")

Javier started freshman year still needing to work full-time, using false identification and commuting to work each day without a license, while taking a full academic load.

"It was super hard," he said. "I never slept and wanted to quit school."

At the end of 2012, Javier received his U-Visa, a form of legal residency for undocumented victims of violent crime who cooperate with law enforcement -- in his case the result of being beat up multiple times by local gang members attending Sequoia with him, which Javier finally reported to the police, despite fear of retaliation, and which led to prosecutions.

With the U-Visa, he could legally work for the first time and found a new, higher-paying job with a tutoring program through POE; he then could work fewer hours with the higher pay, allowing for more study and sleep.

The summer after his sophomore year PCF helped him find a paid internship at a local nonprofit.

Sophomore year, the California Dream Act took effect so that he could receive state aid to supplement his income from tutoring and odd jobs. The next two summers brought paid internships through PCF connections with the nonprofit Freshman Lifelines for Youth (FLY).

Throughout college, Javier said Peninsula College Fund has been a key source of support and resources, including mentoring, training, financial aid and help with finding paid internships. He also credits AVID, the Dream Club, POE and E4FC for helping him find initial funding sources and ongoing support.

His family also inspires him.

"I want the sacrifices my parents made to be worth it. I want my brothers to know that if I can go to college, they can too," he said.


Read more:

Growing up undocumented

College adviser to Dreamers: Leverage strengths, get creative

Undocumented immigrants: key statistics

Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth

Undocumented youth describe migration to U.S.

Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers

The Dreamer social movement

Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience

A safe haven to dream


Also find these and other stories on our Storify page

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Like this comment
Posted by Kira
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2016 at 11:08 am

"She then returned to school, at Canada this time and was able to benefit, as a low-income undocumented student, from California's Board of Governor's fee-waiver program to cover her enrollment costs. She also received support from Canada's Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), another state-funded program for which she was eligible, which helped her with books and other miscellaneous college expenses."

California or Canada?

3 people like this
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 22, 2016 at 11:17 am

Canada College - not Canada the county

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