The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I told Harvard I was an undocumented immigrant. They gave me a full scholarship.

When I discovered my status in high school, I was worried I wouldn't be able to attend college at all.

Harvard University allows undocumented immigrants to apply. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)

After I arrived home from soccer practice, the phone rang. “El Camino,” my mother said as she handed it to me, referring to a nearby community college. I was taking engineering courses there, offered in conjunction with my high school, but the woman from the registrar’s office had a problem: The Social Security number I had provided to receive college credit did not match my name, and if I couldn’t provide a valid number, I’d have to pay almost $2,000 for the classes I’d taken.

Why, I asked my parents, had my Social Security number been rejected? They told me they had given me my little brother’s number. It was a simple explanation, taking no more than 10 seconds in Spanish:

“Son, we overstayed our visa when you were three. You don’t have a social security number.”

I hadn’t known until then I was undocumented. I was 16, a high school junior, with big ambitions. Was I going to have to give them all up?

*       *       *

My friend Oscar, too, learned he was undocumented at the beginning of high school. He liked to remind all of us in between soccer games. When I found out about my own status, I told him he was no longer alone. “You should probably do some research,” he replied.

So much of what had happened to me finally made sense. I’d never really needed a Social Security number before El Camino, and whenever I asked if I could visit family in Mexico, my parents told me I had to wait for my “papers” to sort themselves out with the government. The few times I asked if I could get a job, my father took me with him to sweep the floors on his construction sites.

None of these, obviously, were long-term solutions.

We spent the summer between junior and senior year educating ourselves about what it means to be an undocumented Mexican living in America. We knew that we couldn’t legally be employed, we couldn’t re-enter the country if we left, and we couldn’t apply for a driver’s license in California. Gradually, we also learned that getting to college was going to be a much more difficult endeavor than our guidance counselors had explained.

It was possible, we learned, to be admitted to most public and private colleges regardless of our legal status. But paying for them was a different matter. At the time, there was no way to receive financial aid to state schools unless you had a Social Security number. A few private institutions offered varying amounts of money to admitted students, from small stipends to a full ride. Oscar and I decided that no school was worth bankrupting our families, so we set our sights on the narrow band of “need-blind” private schools — ones that dispensed as much money as students needed could prove they needed — including all of the Ivy League universities.

A few private institutions would also pay to fly in poor high school seniors trying to decide if their school was right for him or her. I qualified. These were mostly small liberal arts colleges, but they gave us a chance to leave Los Angeles and discover what college would be like. I visited five schools — MIT, College of the Atlantic, Williams College, Wesleyan University, and Washington and Lee University — each time waiting until I could tell a financial aid officer in person about my immigration status. All but two schools, MIT and Williams (which worried about losing federal grants), told me to apply anyway.

This broke my heart, because walking around MIT convinced me to become an engineer. I knew immediately that it was the place for me. It was massive and overwhelming, and I wanted nothing more than to conquer it. But the financial aid officer told me on the last day of my visitors’ program that I could not legally be admitted. He was sorry, he said. (Over the previous year, I had spent hours on hold with every school on the US News and World Report’s 50 best universities asking about my conundrum. If there’s one thing I’d learned by then, it’s that everybody was always sorry.) Here is the e-mail he later sent me:

For [undocumented] students, the only way we can admit them at this time is as an international student. They would then need to leave the US and return through an international border. In my time at MIT, though, no one in your situation has enrolled at MIT. I’m afraid that our option endangers students, as it requires them to leave the US and then attempt to return. Note that, upon leaving the US, there is no guarantee that these students could then return. Thus, Dario, I cannot personally recommend that one in a similar situation apply to MIT.

My dream crushed, I left the office in a daze and started walking down Massachusetts Avenue. Without really planning it, I found myself in the middle of Harvard. Since I was there, I found the Admissions and Financial Aid office and walked in to tell them the truth, too. An officer agreed to see me. My meeting was brief, but it suddenly reversed all the self-doubt: “If you are admitted to Harvard College,” she said, “we will meet your full financial need without regard to your legal status.” Not only would they follow the too-good-to-be-true need-blind policy I’d read about, but they didn’t care about immigration status.

*       *       *

A few weeks later, Oscar and I sat down, college applications in hand, to share what we had learned on our travels. We created a Web site for other undocumented students with everything we had learned by e-mail, phone, and in person. We got to work on our applications. Although we were undocumented applicants, most schools still asked to see some proof of income so they could determine our financial-aid award. Thankfully, my parents had filed taxes since the year we arrived; I sent our latest returns.

I applied to every Ivy League school, the University of Chicago, Georgetown, Wesleyan, Washington and Lee, and College of the Atlantic. On Jan. 11, as I sat in the library doing research for a government class project, I got a call from a Massachusetts area code. The Harvard Admissions Committee had voted to send me a likely letter of admission. (Oscar later got a call from Cornell.) And they gave me a full ride. This meant I wouldn’t have to worry about student loans or quarterly tuition payments; that I always had a place to stay away from home; that I could travel every semester, on Harvard’s dime, back to California; that my parents would never have to worry whether I’d finish school. Those are luxuries few people, documented or not, ever have.

I used to think that being undocumented was a disadvantage to me. I used to mourn the fact that I was different. But ultimately I realize that it was because of, not in spite of, my identity — as an undocumented Chicano — that I was been able to do what I did. Being something different in the socioeconomic fabric of the United States gave me the perspective I have.

Still, I realize that my privileges and challenges are rare in the undocumented community. There are students whose parents have never filed a tax return and so cannot provide proof of income to qualify for scholarships. There are students who are here without their parents. There are students who do have to hold down a job if they want to go to college or even high school. (Harvard’s slogan at the big Harvard-Yale football game during my freshman year was “We are the 6.2 percent” — the admit rate.) Most undocumented immigrants are not nearly as lucky as I’ve been. And with the immigration stalemate in Washington, it’s unlikely that life for those in the shadows will become easier anytime soon.

Something I do share with them is clarity on one point: The opportunity to one day join the 6.2 percent (or the 1 percent, or even just the 100 percent of legal residents who live without fear of deportation) is worth crossing the border for.