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Filling the Void After High School

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

Marcelino Benitez said his best academic year was 12th grade. He got all A's and B's, learned to install heating and air-conditioning systems in a vocational training program and won a college scholarship. But unlike many of his classmates, he dreaded graduation. After that ceremony, the Mexican immigrant had a diploma from Virginia but still lacked the other documents he needed to make his way in the United States.

"I was thinking, 'After high school, I am done. This is the end of me,' " recalled the 2006 graduate of Dominion High School in Sterling. "Without my Social Security card, I thought I was never going to be anybody."

For illegal immigrants, public school is a rare refuge. There's no requirement to prove legal immigration status to enroll in school. But the transition into the adult world can be abrupt. About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year, unable to work legally and often unable to afford college without access to in-state tuition or government-backed financial aid, according to the Urban Institute.

These students pose special challenges for guidance counselors and other educators. Some have scouted out ways to help undocumented graduates pay for college. A few have sought to open more doors for promising students, delving into the maze of immigration law and attempting to help them legalize their status.

Benitez, now 21, found help from two parent liaisons and a guidance counselor who run a homework club at Dominion High for English language learners. They contacted their congressman and hired an immigration specialist to speed up his stalled resident visa application.

Nearly two years later, after spending about $10,000 and more than a year back in Mexico, Benitez has a fresh visa pasted into his passport. Now he is back in Northern Virginia, ready to pursue more skilled jobs in construction and eager to earn a degree in psychology or theology.

"I can finally do what I want to do," he said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that undocumented students have a right to public education. Although some officials in Northern Virginia have pushed to limit access to services for illegal immigrants over the past year, many schools in the region have instead worked harder to make all students feel welcome.

"This is a safe haven for kids," said Taryn Simms, one of the liaisons who helped Benitez. "Whether they are documented or undocumented, they didn't have a choice to come here, and they have to come to school."

The main hallway at Dominion High is lined with flags representing the more than 70 countries in which its students were born. The largest immigrant group is from El Salvador. Others come from elsewhere in Latin America, and many recent immigrants have settled into the townhouses and apartments of eastern Loudoun.

Like other schools in the area serving immigrant communities, Dominion High is a hub for social services. Many schools offer computer training or English classes to parents. They also connect families to food banks or medical care.

In the classroom, teachers hold all students to the same standards and encourage everyone to pursue higher education. They say they are technically not allowed to ask students about their residency status, but the subject tends to come up in conversations about the future.


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