Skip to content

Undocumented, Unapologetic – but still Afraid

December 16, 2013

Interactive map over which states allow in-state tuition for undocumented and which states don’t.

By Annette Birch

The article was published in the Capital Post on Dec. 21, 2013;

Francisco Cartagena still remembers the moment he got the message that the Maryland Dream Act had been adopted. It was in the middle of the day of November last year and he was preparing for the regular session with middle school and high school Hispanic students as part of his work for the nonprofit Identity, Youth Opportunity Center. The phone beeped and he looked down at the text message from his 15-year-old brother, Gerardo Cartagena: “The Dream Act passed. We are finally going to achieve our dreams.” Cartagena just started crying. He had been in the country illegally since he came to the United States from El Salvador when he was 13.

“I was very emotional because I knew it would affect me,” Cartagena said.

The previous night, he and 16 others from the youth movement Justice for Students in America had been watching the referendum results on TV at a friend’s house, holding their breaths and hoping as they saw the numbers in favor of the bill going up. For over half a year they had been fighting for the passage of the Maryland Dream Act that would allow undocumented students like Cartagena to apply for in-state tuition at colleges and universities.

Cartagena, 23, looks up, his dark eyes brighten with a smile as his body relaxes. He is sitting at a noisy restaurant in downtown Rockville with a bowl of chicken and noodles. Cartagena is now finishing his second year at Montgomery College and works part-time at Identity, Youth Opportunity Center. For him, the Maryland Dream Act has not meant an immediate change as Montgomery College already provided in-state tuition for undocumented students. But now he can afford to finish the two last years of his college degree in political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where he will pay $8,000 instead of $24,000 per semester.

“It would have been impossible for me to continue my education if I had to pay out-of-state tuition,” Cartagena said. Now, he wants to be the first Hispanic Governor of the State of Maryland. “There was always a hope, an idea, but it was not clear. Now, it [the Maryland Dream Act] gives me more will to go after it.”

Public colleges / universities Undocumented students,Maryland Dream Act
Two-year collegesMontgomery College

Anne Arundel Community College

Carroll Community College

Four-year universities

Towson University

Morgan State University

Freiburg University

Salisbury University








One year after the passage of the Maryland Dream Act,undocumented students like Cartagena have been taking advantage of the possibility of getting an education they could not otherwise afford. However, Jody Kallis, legislative liaison at the Maryland Association for Community Colleges, an advocacy nonprofit organization for Maryland’s 16 community colleges, said that there has not been a major change in enrollment of undocumented students at colleges and universities. It shows in the numbers of enrolled undocumented students. In 2013, 242 undocumented students have received in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act at Montgomery College while only 60 received in-state tuition at two other colleges. And the numbers are even lower for four-year public universities where only six undocumented students at four universities have received in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act.

This is not surprising as the Maryland Dream Act is one of the strictest of the 15 state dream acts in the country. The biggest opposition in the state was from Republican politicians and organizations opposing immigration arguing that it would cost tax payers money and take away slots from Maryland citizens. But it is not the only possibility Maryland’s undocumented students have for receiving in-state tuition. In 2013, 239 undocumented students at Montgomery College received in-state tuition based on the Obama administration’s resolution of June 15, 2012, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The resolution allows persons who came to the country before they were 16 years old and fulfill certain conditions to stay legally in the United States, obtain a two-year work permit and services like in-state tuition. Cartagena and his two younger brothers applied for their permits last fall. His brothers received their permits in January, but there was none for him. So he waited. February, March, May, June. Nothing. And it got worse. Not only could he not get a better job, Montgomery College where he was studying began in January to require all undocumented students to apply for in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act or Deferred Action if they did not want to pay three times as much in out-of-state tuition. So Cartagena applied for in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act, which unlike Deferred Action is permanent, not time-limited, but does not give a right to work.

“My goal was always to get that permit and get a better job, to make more money. But then I was waiting and waiting and didn’t get it. Then I was just like I just go to school. And then school worked out. So now I have it, but school is first priority, not working,” said Cartagena, who finally received his Deferred Action permit in August.

Cartagena was not the only one, who was happy.

“I felt relived because my goal has always been to have my three kids living here,” Cartagena’s father, Francisco Cartagena, Sr., 50, said.

But Cartagena does not think it is enough. He now has the possibility of education and work, but his work permit is only temporary and he still fears that his undocumented parents are going to be deported.

“I would opt for a rational immigration reform. One that doesn’t break up a family but brings it together,” Cartagena said, adding that the bipartisan version of the Dream Act adopted in the U.S. Senate on June 27 is a start. The bill would give 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, the possibility of a permanent residence permit and a pathway to citizenship after five years on a conditional permit. However, in the House, the Republican majority opposes comprehensive immigration reform, opting instead for a piecemeal approach that does not include a pathway to citizenship for all 11.7 million undocumented immigrants.

Now several months afterwards, Cartagena heads towards Montgomery College for evening classes in his old Acura Integra 2000. It is late afternoon and still raining when he arrives at the yellow buildings at Rockville campus. Two students go by talking but at this time of day there are not so many people at campus and for Cartagena the library is a quiet place to study before classes begin.

When Cartagena had to choose college three years ago, Montgomery College was the logical choice. The college was close, convenient – but most of all, it was affordable because at that time Montgomery College was the only college in Maryland, where undocumented students could pay in-state tuition on equal terms with U.S. residents. Marcus S. Rosano, media relations director at Montgomery College, explained that Montgomery College wanted to support higher education for everyone who went to high school in the county. The college thereby became a refuge for undocumented students like Cartagena, who would also be accepted to other colleges but could not afford to pay out-of-state tuition.

“So a lot of schools replied and said yes you can come but then they said no money for aid. And I was like why? That sucks because I had really good grades [he had a GPA of 3.16], all my work was done and my family needed the money but was not going to get it. It felt like a wall,” Cartagena said.

It was the first time Cartagena really encountered the problems of being undocumented. His parents had told both him and his brothers that they were undocumented when they came to the United States but at home they never talked about it. He and his brothers were going to school and his parents were working like everyone else but they always had in mind that they were undocumented.

“You know you can be deported. It makes you think twice,” Cartagena’s brother, Jose Cartagena, said.

For Cartagena, the turning point came one day in March last year. He was finishing up his homework for the next day when his mother came home from church with some bad news. Another undocumented family had been detained by immigration officers and was being deported to Colombia. The story hit him hard.

“I felt that could have been me. We were maybe a year apart age wise, very similar record academically. So I thought if I don’t help him out, who is going to help me in the same situation?” Cartagena said. That day, Cartagena began organizing protests for Jorge Steven Acuna and his family, going to meetings at night and using his contacts at the nonprofit Action in Montgomery, an alliance of 30 congregations and neighborhood organizations in Montgomery, where he was volunteering fighting for the Maryland Dream Act, while attending school during the day. Five days after, they were released.

But for Cartagena his biggest fear is that his undocumented father will be deported to El Salvador where he will not be able to receive the necessary treatments for his diabetes.

“There is no health care for him over there,” Cartagena said.

The fear is real. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported that in 2011 the immigration service deported 3,108 persons in Maryland, while they in 2006-2010 deported an average of 2,297 persons per year. Veronica Serovia, 18, another undocumented student at Montgomery College, told that she received a deportation letter when she was only 11 years old, one year after she walked over the Mexican border from El Salvador with her 8-year-old brother.

“My parents and I were scared that they would come to my door and take me away. So we moved from place to place trying to hide,” she said and added that now she has deferred status, she feels more secure. With in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act she can also afford a four-year college education, even though her ultimate dream, being a Marine, would require U.S. citizenship.

Even though undocumented students now can afford other colleges, most undocumented students like Cartagena and Serovia still attend Montgomery College. This is not surprising as most undocumented immigrants in Maryland according to Rommel Sandino, youth organizer at the nonprofit Casa de Maryland, are Hispanics and Montgomery County with 17.9 percent has the largest Hispanic population in the state. In comparison Hispanics make up 8.7 percent of the state’s population. Montgomery College, where 13.1 percent of the student body are Hispanics, has also done extensive outreach work with Latino families, supported the students in school and conducted workshops in English and Spanish to students at high schools and middle schools, according to a plan by Montgomery College first published in 2009.

At four-year public universities, Kallis is not surprised to hear that there are no more than six undocumented students at four universities as the Maryland Dream Act requires students to attend community college for two years before they can receive in-state tuition at a four-year public university. At Towson University, where state legislators expected the impact to be significant, only four undocumented students have been granted in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act. Kallis does not think that there will be a significant change in the number of undocumented students, who receive in-state tuition, unless something happens on a federal level.

On the other hand, Sandino argued that a lot more undocumented students have received in-state tuition because the numbers do not include undocumented students, who have received in-state tuition on the basis of Deferred Action. Most universities and colleges use the student’s social security number for registration, if he applies for in-state tuition on the basis of Deferred Action. They do not register his status.

“It is easier to get in-state tuition with Deferred Action because the student has a work permit and a social security number and they can just go up to admissions and update their information,” Sandino said.

One of them is Claudia Quinonez, 18, who came to the United States from Bolivia when she was 12 years old and started studying at Montgomery College this semester. In the spring, she began to apply for in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act, but after she got deferred status in March she decided not to go through with the application.

“Then I received my Deferred Action and it was going to be easier to apply with that because they were asking me for many documents. All I needed to was to go the college and update my status,” she said. After two years at Montgomery College, Quinonez is planning on studying pre-med at the University of Maryland, College Park, and go on to study neuroscience at John Hopkins University, a feat she did not think possible three years ago. She is confident that her work permit will be renewed after two years but otherwise she will apply for in-state tuition after the Maryland Dream Act when her work permit expires.

However, undocumented students do still not have the same possibilities for higher education as Maryland residents. Kallis explained that the Maryland Dream Act hasn’t changed that.

“Undocumented students are still not eligible for financial aid, so they still have an extra financial burden,” Kallis said. Even though they cannot receive government financial aid, they can still apply for scholarships and parents may also help pay for their education. Cartagena said that his parents could not afford to pay for his education, but he is working and applying for a scholarship at the political science department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, to finance his studies in political science at the university in the spring.

At his work at Identity, Youth Opportunity Center, Cartagena is busy. The table in front of him is full of containers with mangos, stacks of bananas and other healthy snacks for the hungry high school teenagers he is going to teach about healthy food and exercise today. He frowned when asked about whether he had encountered anyone who is against the Maryland Dream Act.

“People tend to think that because you did not come legally, you did something wrong or your parents did something wrong. Not everyone is accepting it. I had that situation with a few people,” Cartagena said.

Maryland State Delegate, Patrick McDonough (R-District 7), voted against the adoption of the Dream Act one year ago and is still opposed to undocumented students getting in-state tuition. He argued that the Maryland Dream Act was expensive for tax payers and took away slots from Maryland citizens.

“We attract illegal immigrants. For the illegals this is a virtual Disney land,” McDonough said and added that he had no problem with allowing undocumented students to attend higher education as long as they paid out-of-state tuition. “I am opposed to any benefit to people who are here illegally. It costs tax payers money and takes away slots from Maryland citizens.”

Sandino argued that this was why the Maryland Dream Act required undocumented students or their parents to have paid taxes three years in advance before they could receive in-state tuition.

“They have the right to go to college and pay in-state tuition because they are a part of the state and are state tax payers,” Sandino said. He added that undocumented students granted in-state tuition on the basis of the Maryland Dream Act were not taking slots from Maryland residents. The Maryland Dream Act specified that universities and colleges for the purpose of in-state tuition counted them as international students and not as residents.

However, Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, a group that advocated against the Maryland Dream Act one year ago and still is opposed to undocumented students getting tuition, said that it was not only an issue of money.

“It is a right and wrong issue and it is a dollars and cents issue. When you come here illegally, to me you have no rights,” Botwin said.

McDonough did not believe it was an issue the state should regulate at all. However, he would be sympathetic if Congress established a guest worker program and a pathway to citizenship for the young people, who had grown up in the United States as long as it did not include their parents or grandparents and posed no cost to the taxpayers.

At Gaithersburg High School, Outreach Coordinator Teresa Wright said that the Maryland Dream Act has already made a real difference for some of the young people, who have grown up in the United States.

“I see that there is a lot of hope now. It is a very big thing for them because before they could not afford an education. There are a lot of kids, who want to study,” Wright said and added that a lot of undocumented high school students were applying to college this fall. She explained that their parents are now pushing them to get an education – something they did not think was possible before.

Cartagena agreed. As he arrived at the familiar red buildings of Gaithersburg High School, where he went to high school and now is working with Hispanic high school students, he said that he had seen how the possibility for in-state tuition had inspired students here. They did not have to be afraid of not being able to afford a higher education because of their status in the same way he had. His father agreed.

“He has always had to be aware that his immigration status is a problem,” Cartagena, Sr., said.

On the other hand, the Maryland Dream Act has made it easier for his younger son Gerardo Cartagena, who is in 11th grade at a nearby high school, Seneca Valley High School.

“”I think my possibilities are better now. I just have to work pretty hard in school and then go to college. I just want to get a good education and a good job,” Gerardo Cartagena, 16, said. Now, the next step for him is to get the highest score on his SATs, get a scholarship, go to college and get his degree in information technology.

Sandino said that he had seen how the Maryland Dream Act also had inspired undocumented students like Gerardo Cartagena at other high schools in Maryland.

“There is a ray of hope for undocumented students that are currently in high school. That is a ray of hope that they will be able to continue their education. They will be able to continue fulfilling their dreams in the state they consider their home by having this law,” Sandino said.

In the classroom on the first floor, Cartagena began setting fruit and healthy snacks on a table. Soon the room began to fill with 13 to 16-year-old boys and girls with Hispanic background, speaking in English and Spanish to each other and Cartagena, who had known several of them since they were in middle school.

For the last one and a half years, Cartagena has been able to afford his studies by working with Hispanic middle school and high school students for $15/h at Identity, Youth Opportunity Center, even when he did not have a work permit. However, Sandino explained that for students like Cartagena other job opportunities were limited because public offices and some big private companies register their employees with a social security number in the E-Verify program provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, he has the right to work, Cartagena would like to work at the mayor’s office in Gaithersburg. He worked there as assistant manager for six months but had to stop last fall because they discovered that he was undocumented.

“So now I can go back and if there is a job I will be able to fully enjoy it, fully explore it,” Cartagena said.

However, Sandino emphasized that the work permit is only valid for two years, where after it will have to be renewed. And that will depend on the president, unless Congress in the meantime adopts a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to work.

“We are out working for immigration reform, because even if students have a pathway to education that’s one part of their life. Another is that they do want to work and Deferred Action allows that but that is only a temporary solution. The permanent, most humane solution is passing immigration reform,” Sandino said.

The present bill adopted by the Senate on June 27 would allow the 65,000 undocumented students across the country who graduates from high school each year to apply for a work permit, in-state tuition, and provide them with a pathway to citizenship. However, in the House leading Republicans like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have stated that there is no chance that they would consider such a comprehensive immigration reform, and the House version of the Senate immigration reform bill is only being sponsored by three Republicans. Instead the Republicans have opted for a piecemeal approach, adopting four bills in the House Judiciary Committee that would simplify avenues to fill higher- and lower-skilled positions, improve border security and make registration of workers mandatory. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has presented a bill, which would give undocumented immigrants, who came to the country as children a pathway to citizenship. However, the bill has met opposition from both Democrats and conservative Republicans in the House, according to the Huffington Post on Nov. 7. And as the year comes to an end, most Republicans and Democrats agree that the chances for immigration reform in 2013 are slim.

Cartagena said that the Senate bill would be a start, but not nearly enough.

“If it was up to me, it would be a system where people were able to migrate by choice not by necessity and where states and countries had the ability to do that. In an ideal world I would like my kids not to worry about where they are living,” Cartagena said.

Back at Gaithersburg High School, Cartagena ended the session by taking the teenagers out into the school yard to play ball. On the way, he told that it had just been his birthday.

“How old are you,” a lanky boy with black curls asked.

“I just turned 23,” Cartagena said.

“Old,” the boy said.

Out in the school yard, Cartagena threw the ball to one of the teenagers. He said that he had recently started thinking more about what he would have done if he had been in his parents’ place.

“I love my parents, they are great, but I think sometimes when you start to get older you start to realize that maybe they could have done a little better. I started doing that recently. My dad knew he was diabetic when he was 25, never worried about it, never took care of it. Now I do and I am 23,” Cartagena said and explained how he helps his father with his weekly doctor appointments and medication.

For now he considers himself lucky that he can get an education, work legally and has a possibility of a future on equal terms with other U.S. residents. But it doesn’t stop there…

“I would like to see my children in a place where they are Americans by birth but Latino by pride. I don’t think that it is okay to label people legal or illegal. So I would like that to go away,” Cartagena said and yelled to one of the teenagers to throw the ball.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: