“I had graduated top of my class,” said Arroyo, 25. “I was voted outstanding senior in my department. But I thought, I can’t do anything with my diploma now. I can either sit and hide at home and mope around or go into a low-paying job or go back to school. Those were my options.” Arroyo opted to go on to graduate school and recently – finally – received her green card, that golden key that opened the door to a journalism career. Yet each year, thousands of undocumented college students pin their hopes on some form of immigration reform that will allow them to use their skills within the formal economy. Until that day comes, some say, they wait in limbo, often spending more money on schooling and working less in their field of study. “It’s like, `Congratulations, you graduated,’ but there is no bridge connecting your degree with a job,” said Maria Rodriguez, youth organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA. Rodriguez has been working with colleges and universities since the passage of AB 540, a 2001 law that allows undocumented students who graduate from a California high school to pay in-state tuition at a state college or university. “A lot of college students say it’s hard to find a job after college, but I say imagine if you’re undocumented,” Rodriguez said. “There’s hope in those four or five years when they are in college. But at the point of graduation, it’s an abrupt reality.” Reason for optimism? Late last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators reached agreement on comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would include establishing a merit system based on the skills and attributes immigrants bring to the United States. Under the measure, future immigrants applying for permanent residency in the U.S. will be assigned points for skills and education. While Senate members seem optimistic, others foresee limits. “I think historically, the Senate has always been the first one to support this but because of the political climate and the anti-immigration mood, it always hits a snag when it hits the House,” said William Perez, assistant professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. “I don’t see a reason to be that much more optimistic.” Perez recently concluded research on what happens to undocumented students after college is completed. Few students speak openly about the dilemma because of fear they will be deported, which is why there are few studies, Perez said. Among the nearly 200 students he surveyed, Perez found that despite the emotional roller coaster young people feel, they still have hope their education skills will give them a preference to change their legal status. Student groups such as the newly formed HEARD at CSUN, or IDEAS at the University of California, Los Angeles, are popping up statewide and across the nation to help inform educators and high school students about their right to attend college. “A good portion of them continue with their studies by enrolling into grad school,” Perez said. “To our surprise, they were amazingly optimistic. “They truly believe that legislation will pass and the situation will change. But they also clearly feel a sense of rejection. Public opinion is so negative on immigration, and they very much are attuned to those messages.” Organizations such as the 25-year-old Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors comprehensive immigration reform by cutting the number of illegal entries and legalizing 300,000 citizens a year, say that if the students feel disenfranchised it’s because they have bought into lies. “I would place blame on groups such as MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) who are doing illegal aliens a disservice by suggesting they will receive amnesty,” said Bob Dane, spokesman for FAIR. “The bottom line is there are millions of people who are educated and who have been waiting to legally become citizens. Our position is, let’s utilize them,” Dane said. “For someone who is graduating college, who is illegal, I would say their education can be better applied in their home country, which is desperately needed because that’s why they come here.” Student population While the University of California and the California State University systems cannot provide hard numbers as to how many of their students are undocumented, Perez estimates that there are 1.3 million undocumented children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grades. He estimates 65,000 are graduating seniors and, of those, 13,000 are currently enrolled in colleges. Most go to community colleges. The California Community Colleges system estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 of their students statewide qualify under AB 540, said spokesman Ron Owens. Of those, an estimated 90 percent are undocumented, based on a survey conducted last year, Owens said. But there also are those who cannot go on to graduate school, Perez said, opting instead for low-paying jobs as housekeepers, migrant workers, or whatever other jobs they can find that keep them in the shadows. Some find ways to use their knowledge by working as private tutors. “The students that go back into the informal economy after their degree tend to have a high level of depression and pessimism, because they are earning minimum wage,” Perez said. “And for some of those, in order to maintain a positive outlook, they become involved in other activities that give them hope such as activism. It provides them a sense of working toward the future.” Perez said individuals who agree with organizations such as FAIR are not seeing the big picture. “There’s a whole domino effect with those who go to college,” Perez said. “People who are more college-educated are healthier, less likely to draw on medical funds. We’re coming to an era where the bulk of the population are ready to retire, and we’re going to be in critical need of workers. I think the American public doesn’t see that connection.” A study to be released on Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California is expected to show the implications of California’s projected skilled-labor shortage. California dreaming In the meantime, student groups whose members qualify under AB 540 gathered recently at California State University, Los Angeles, to support legislation introduced by state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, that would help students qualify for scholarships and financial aid. Cedillo’s California Dream Act was introduced last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has reintroduced the bill and believes it has a better chance of passing this year. “We know that immigration reform will happen and happen soon,” Cedillo said. “We know the debate now is focused on when and how.” In addition, student groups also plan to petition Congress to pass the Federal Dream Act, which would provide undocumented students the opportunity to gain conditional permanent resident status if they have lived in the United States for at least five years and were under the age of 16 at the time of entry, graduated from high school or have been accepted to a college or institution of higher education, and have no criminal records. The bill also would allow undocumented students to convert their conditional status to that of a lawful permanent resident if they obtain a diploma from a junior college or trade school or complete at least two years of a bachelor’s or graduate program, or join the military. “I think there’s a misunderstanding of what an undocumented immigrant is,” said Rodriguez of CHIRLA. “People think undocumented immigrants are only those who are recently arrived, don’t understand the culture or speak the language. “But our argument is we have lived here most of our lives, we know the language, we’re educated, and we want to contribute to society. Our slogan is: Education for a better nation.” [email protected] (818) 713-3664 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! NORTHRIDGE – Growing up in Sun Valley, Joselyn Arroyo saw firsthand the heartbreak of trading a bright career for sweat and sacrifice. It happened to her parents – both professional engineers from Mexico, who were reduced to backbreaking jobs as bakers and housecleaners after they crossed illegally into the United States with her when she was just 3. And it almost happened to her. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Northridge, the diploma was as good as blank without a Social Security number or U.S. citizenship to go with it.