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.
Educators often don't know what students' residency situation is "until they end up in your office crying," said Kevin Terry, a guidance director at Dominion High.
Among those facing barriers are some of the highest achievers. A recent graduate from Osbourne Park High School in Manassas finished her senior year among the top students in her class and received a prestigious award from the faculty.
Her college applications would have shown that she was a member of the National Honor Society, the French Honor Society and student government, but she delayed her college plans because she lacks a current visa.
Teachers at the school are trying to help the 18-year-old Salvadoran get into college by contacting people at local universities and researching scholarships. "We have even investigated getting her name attached to some sort of bill in Congress," said Anita Al-Haj, director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. "We are trying everything in our power to help her."
ESOL teachers in Prince William County are developing a standard curriculum for their 13,000 students to explain clearly the path to graduation and the options afterward for documented and undocumented students. They plan to include a unit on immigration law.
Such systemwide programs targeting undocumented students are unusual, however. Most efforts come from individual teachers or counselors hard-wired to help students succeed, as they encounter individual children in need.
At Annandale High School in Fairfax County, history teacher Eleanor Shumaker, now retired, became the legal guardian of a Somalian student in the late 1990s who came to the United States illegally and alone and had become homeless. More recently, a counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington County, who declined to give her name, sheltered an immigrant student in a spare bedroom so she could graduate from high school.
Benitez came to the United States with a friend when he was 15, hoping to join his mother in Loudoun. After walking across the desert for a day and a night, he was picked up in a small truck packed with other border-crossers and driven to Phoenix. "They just lay you down like cigarettes, one after another one," he recalled. From there, he made his way to Northern Virginia.
He started ninth grade a few weeks later. He recalled long days trying to comprehend rapid-fire lessons and late nights working at Wendy's, where he earned money to send to younger siblings in Mexico and to help his mother pay medical bills. He applied for a resident visa early on as a relative of his stepfather, a U.S. citizen.
At Dominion High, in 10th grade, he joined the homework club and got to know Simms and Terry, along with Duke Butkovich, another liaison hired by the school system to work with parents or families to help students succeed. They reviewed his assignments slowly with him to help him understand.
They saw how hard he was working and tried to help him in other ways. They invited his mother and stepfather to visit the school, offered him free school supplies and encouraged him to enroll in the vocational program.
At first he was wary of their attention. When one of them would sit down at the lunch table next to him, Butkovich recalled, he would say, "Why do you always pick on the Hispanic table? Why don't you pick on the white people?"
They didn't relent. They started following him. He often saw them cheering at his soccer games or waving to him in the hallway.
Over time, he trusted them more and was grateful for their offers of help. His mother and stepfather moved to Manassas in his junior year, and he rented a room in Sterling so he could finish the vocational training. Simms and Butkovich helped him move, and the school's vice principals and some teachers chipped in to furnish his rented room, buying him a bed and sheets and towels.
Butkovich and Simms met with U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and asked him to look into the student's immigration case. Wolf's staff discovered that his visa application had been filed improperly, causing a long delay. The Dominion staff hired an immigration specialist who helped him refile the forms and added a letter detailing his accomplishments.
A month after graduation, Benitez had an interview at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Butkovich raised money from church friends, relatives, even a neighborhood bunco group to pay for a round-trip plane ticket and expenses while Benitez was in Mexico. What they thought would be a one-week visit took 14 months.
Benitez stayed with his younger siblings and grandparents south of Mexico City, working on a family farm and on odd construction jobs. Throughout the year, Butkovich or her friends or relatives sent care packages and money.
In November, Benitez received word that his application had been approved and he could return to the United States as a legal resident.
"We're all so excited we can't stand it," Butkovich said when she heard the news.
Shortly before Christmas, Benitez flew to Dulles International Airport.
When he stepped off the plane, he was greeted by his Dominion High friends, who were holding signs saying "Welcome Home" and "This Way" and carrying a winter coat for him. They marveled at how tall he had grown. He smiled and flashed his new visa, with an inky stamp that read "Admitted."