Undocumented valedictorian fights for law to ease college aid

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Alderman Manny Flores

photo by John Booz

Alderman Manny Flores

At a political rally in Little Village on a crisp October morning, a high school valedictorian nervously steps to a microphone. He is anxious to share his dream of getting a college education but not to share his full name. Fernando is an undocumented immigrant.

Fernando and some of the other students at this morning’s rally are members of the youth group, Hey-U (High Empowered Youth United). They are at Our Lady of Tepeyac school to fight for the DREAM Act, proposed federal legislation that could be a lifeline to college for low-income, undocumented students.

DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Despite an impressive academic record at a Chicago public high school, Fernando has had to turn down many opportunities—among them a summer program at Harvard University and a four-year scholarship to Benedictine University in suburban Chicago—because he is ineligible for a Social Security number. And while he didn’t need the number to enroll at Northeastern Illinois University, he will need one to obtain financial aid.

“This is a country of dreams, but at the same time it’s a country that stands in the way of your dreams—especially if you’re an immigrant,” says Fernando.

Crossing the border

Fernando was 12 years old when he and his mother jumped a fence at the Mexican border in 1996 and entered the United States illegally. Like many immigrants, they believed Fernando could get a better education here.

Fernando enrolled at Lozano Elementary in West Town and learned English by reading bilingual books from the school library. In high school he excelled, earning a 4.0 grade-point average and a place in the National Honor Society. He was named captain of the soccer, volleyball and academic decathlon teams, and editor of the school yearbook and newspaper.

When he graduated valedictorian of his class in 2001, he was recruited by several colleges. Fernando chose Northeastern because it is affordable and close to home. He pays his tuition—$2,000 a semester—by working at a janitorial job. A $1,000 scholarship from his employer helps offset tuition. Now a 20-year-old sophomore, he’s in the honors program.

Hey-U was organized a year ago by several organizations, including West Town Leadership United, Build Inc. and Latinos Progresando, to teach leadership and advocacy skills to area youth.

Referred by a high school counselor, Fernando became involved just as the group was forming. As it developed and its young members took charge, they decided to focus first on the DREAM Act and House Bill 60, a state measure to lower the tuition rate for undocumented Illinois students attending state universities. They saw success with HB 60, which has been signed into law.

And they are hopeful about the DREAM Act. Last summer, Fernando and other Hey-U members canvassed Latino neighborhoods, going to block parties, parades and parishes to collect more than 5,000 signatures to petition U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) to support the measure. While U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is a co-sponsor of the bill, Fitzgerald has taken no position on it.

Fernando says he enjoys the opportunity to fight for rights and is heartened to know that he’s not alone. “There are students like me who fight and struggle and don’t get tired of trying…even if you put a thousand hurdles in front of us,” he says.

Without the DREAM Act, which also provides a path to legal residency, Fernando has an uncertain future: Until his siblings, who were born in this country and are U.S. citizens, turn 21, he has no one to sponsor him for residency.

While Fernando understands the ever-present risk of being deported, he thinks he will live in the U.S. the rest of his life. He lights up when he shares his aspirations to pursue a medical or business career.

“He’s a great visionary who does not allow his status to be a barrier,” says Idida Perez, executive director of West Town Leadership United. “Instead, he uses his story as fuel by sharing it.”