Fermin was born at the height of El Salvador's civil war 17 years ago. When he was 11, his mother finally saved enough money to bring him to Los Angeles, where she had lived since he was 4 years old.
"She wanted me to have more educational opportunities," Fermin says. "It's the only way out of being low-income."
Fermin has taken advantage of those opportunities. He will graduate from high school this spring at the top of his class. After that, things get more complicated. Along with 65,000 other new graduates nationwide, Fermin will leave high school with a diploma, but without citizenship papers.
For Fermin, it means taking four city buses each day to get to school and back -- as an undocumented immigrant, he can't get a driver's license. When Fermin entered the American public school system six years ago, he did not know a word of English. Today, he is preparing for the California Academic Decathlon. He hopes his team will do well -- but even if they do, he won't be joining them at the state competition in Sacramento. Fermin fears that if he travels without papers he could be detained or deported.
While the majority of undocumented students will give up on school, Fermin is determined to go to college. But his immigration status complicates that prospect.
First, Fermin must come up with application fees as high as $250 per school. His family income is low enough to qualify him for a waiver, but his immigration status makes him ineligible. He's also ineligible for state or federal financial aid.
"Everyone tells them, 'Go to school, get good grades,'" says Jessica Quintana, director of Centro Community Hispanic Association in Long Beach. "Then the reality hits. It's so easy just to give up at that point."
Jessica, 18, received a standing ovation at her high school graduation in honor of 13 years of perfect attendance. But the applause couldn't make up for the letter she'd received earlier that year from the design school she dreamed of attending. It told her not to bother applying unless she could produce proof of citizenship.
"I had everything -- the grades, the desire to learn," says Jessica, 18. "It put a stop to all my hope when I realized I was limited."
The infuriating part of this is that these are exactly the kids we'd be salivating over putting in the American workforce--if they were White Europeans (or potentially East Asians). America's immigration policy is heavily slanted in favor of highly educated foreign nationals (most of whom come from those two regions), and stacked against the mostly brown and black "huddled masses" fleeing third world poverty and anarchy. One can make the argument that this is the way it should be--but there is no excuse for denying opportunities to kids who have worked hard facing hurdles we could never dream of to reach the pinnacles of academic excellence. And reading a story like this makes me what to slap all the smug conservative pundits who have destroyed entire forests with self-assured paeans to the power of "hard work," "good grades," and "staying out of trouble."
Far from "rewarding illegal immigration" as some allege (I'm looking at you, Mitt Romney), putting these children on a level playing field is the embodiment of the American dream. These children had no control over the decision to come to America. There isn't some conspiracy amongst Nicaraguan 12 year olds to overwhelm the American work-force with cheap labor. And for the kids we're talking about, it's amazing that "taking American jobs" even comes up as an argument. This is literally the only debate in American politics where some of the world's brightest and most hardworking youth are assumed to be a future drag on the national economy. Give me a break.
There is legislation in congress right now (I believe it's called the DREAM Act?) that would be the first step toward rectifying this injustice. I urge everyone to pressure their representatives to pass the bill and restore the dormant American dream.