Yolanda is a 10th-grader at a Milwaukee public high school who hopes to major in criminology in college en route to a career in which she helps “solve crimes and keep the bad people off the streets.” However, for her and 65,000 other undocumented high school students in the U.S., higher education might not be an option.
In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a state budget that requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition at Wisconsin public universities. Nationally, these students cannot get financial aid because they don’t have Social Security numbers, let alone citizenship.
But Yolanda is not without hope. For two months, she has been involved with Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES!), one of two Milwaukee-based organizations advocating for undocumented students to have equal access to higher education. She said YES! has taught her to stand up for herself and be more open about her immigration status.
“(Before) I was embarrassed about where I came from,” she said, adding that no one is likely to know unless she tells them. “Most people don’t know I’m an immigrant.”
Yolanda attends weekly YES! meetings at the offices of Voces de la Frontera, 1027 S. 5th St., which offers a legal clinic that guides undocumented students through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application process as part of a federal immigration policy passed in 2012. The Obama administration created DACA to give undocumented children who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 immunity from deportation and a renewable work permit for two years.
“I know my parents thought to bring us here because they wanted us to have a better future, a better job and better everything,” said Yolanda, whose parents brought her to Milwaukee when she was 3. Her stepfather is a mechanic and her mother works at a food packaging company.
But while DACA may offer her security for the time being, it doesn’t ensure a college education. And during this presidential campaign season, in which candidates and the nation are again confronting the volatile issue of immigration, the stakes remain high for families at risk of deportation. A change in leadership at the White House could jeopardize DACA.
“Sometimes we don’t decide our own future,” said Leo Serrato, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has DACA protection.
Like Yolanda, Serrato came to the U.S. because his parents wanted better opportunities for him.
“If I don’t go to college, I’m washing away their dreams,” he said. Otherwise, he added, “What was their purpose … of risking my life on the border?”
Because of DACA, Serrato has a broader selection of scholarships to apply for and can participate in national programs that provide networking opportunities.
Marilyn Vazquez, an admissions representative at UW-Milwaukee, said that there are far too few university-based scholarships for which undocumented students are eligible. “A lot of the funding for these students is going to be through working,” she said. “I have met families where (parents) have sold cars to make sure that at least one year is paid for their child.”
The Roberto Hernandez Center at UW-Milwaukee provides an endowed scholarship fund to Latino students who might otherwise drop out of school. The fund has about $140,000, but the center’s director, Enrique Figueroa, said each student can get no more than $500.
The center was established in 1970 to advocate for Latino students, and offer services such as cultural events, academic advising and community outreach. “There’s no other center like this in the whole UW system,” Figueroa said. “There’s no other UW campus that has as many Latino (and undocumented) students as we do.”
The center also is a safe space on campus for students afraid to talk about their immigrant status. Full-time and student support staff members take pride in the fact that they are all bilingual.
“The student knows that I am aware and I understand what their background may be and what their experiences have been,” said Gabriela Dorantes, one of the center’s two academic advisors.
Serrato also works in the center and said the advisors have become like his family. “They’re willing to go the extra mile,” he said. ”They’re just always updating and looking around for scholarship opportunities for undocumented students.”
With more undocumented students compared to other Wisconsin public universities, UW-Milwaukee is using strategies from universities such as Northeastern Illinois and Loyola University Chicago, including creating a task force, Vazquez said.
As Yolanda and other undocumented students graduate high school in the next two years, they will rely on the support of organizations such as Voces de la Frontera, YES! and the Hernandez Center to help them succeed and afford higher education.
“I feel like people really understand me here,” Yolanda said, referring to Voces and YES! “We fight for the rights that we need.”