• December 20, 2014

Academic Purgatory

An illegal immigrant earns a Ph.D.Now what?

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Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle Review

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Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle Review

Jorge Arbusto isn't the type of person who seeks the limelight. In fact, for years he has thrived in the shadows. But ask him today what he wants, and his answer is unequivocal: to be recognized.

A sweet, passionate, steadfast student originally from Mexico, Jorge (his name has been changed for this article) may be the only undocumented immigrant to successfully defend a doctoral dissertation in the United States. Certainly he is among a very small group. Yet his case poses questions that not only affect thousands of undergraduates today—some sources put it at around 50,000—but also challenge our ideas about hard work, the choices that colleges do or should make, the value of education (for students and society), and, yes, that thorn in our political side—immigration and the Dream Act, which is still stalled in Congress.

Having defended his dissertation on Spanish-language popular culture, Jorge received his Ph.D. in Hispanic studies this past spring. To reach this point, he has gone through astonishing hardships, which include beatings and imprisonment, not to mention the shame that comes with being illegal. He has endured all by focusing on achieving the highest academic degree. But now he may not be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor: No university I know of will offer him a full-time, permanent position.

Jorge is a criminal with a Ph.D. Is that what America stands for, education without reward?

No one is certain how many undocumented immigrants there are in the United States. Estimates suggest that the number is between 10 million and 12 million—approximating the population of countries like Greece, Portugal, and Tunisia. Last year alone, our government deported more than 300,000 of them. Dire economic conditions in Latin America constitute the principal reason people cross the border, but corruption in politics also plays an important role.

Some studies indicate that the recession may be decreasing the number of people entering America, as immigrants find it harder to get jobs, but it's difficult to know. Mexico, the source of the largest number of legal and illegal immigrants, is the world's 11th-most-populous country, with in excess of 112 million people—more than six million of whom are thought to be in the United States illegally. Mexico is going through terrible times, and its people are ready to try anything to escape drug-related violence, poverty, and a bleak future.

By any measure, Jorge is an overachiever. Within the United States, educational prospects for the Latino minority are bleak. The high-school dropout rate is astounding—more than 18 percent in 2008, and almost 20 percent for boys, compared with an overall U.S. rate of 8 percent. College-graduation figures are appalling; census data reveal that in 2009, only 13 percent of Latinos 25 and older had four-year degrees. The number receiving graduate degrees is minuscule.

Unfortunately, our immigration debate has succeeded in dehumanizing undocumented immigrants. Entering the United States without papers is against the law. That is all we see. Not who is entering illegally, why, or what their individual circumstances may be. In December what we call the Dream Act passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate. It would have provided a path for students like Jorge, who were brought illegally to the United States as children, to become citizens, helping them to attend college or enter the military. The New York Times estimates that some 1.2 million students would benefit from the act. President Obama has recently stepped up his support for liberalizing immigration laws and passing the Dream Act, and top Senate Democrats have urged suspending the deportation of students who would have been protected by the legislation. But until it becomes law, that suspension is not likely to happen in any systematic fashion.

At the same time, the situation in the states is contentious and confused. Many are tightening restrictions on immigrants: Leaders in at least five states have said they will unite to seek legislation to deny U.S. citizenship to children born in this country to illegal immigrants. Indeed, Alabama's governor has just signed a bill forbidding undocumented students from enrolling in public postsecondary institutions in the state. But Maryland's governor recently signed legislation to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and the Illinois Senate has passed a bill to create a Dream Fund, privately financed scholarships to accomplish the same goals as the federal Dream Act for students brought to this country as children. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an eagerly awaited announcement, has declined to hear a challenge to California's law allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. To say the least, the confusion and uncertainty leave students like Jorge living in the shadows of their undocumented status.

I became acquainted with Jorge's ordeal four years ago, when a colleague in the institution where he was enrolled contacted me saying that the university had found out he was illegal. With strong support from the faculty and some members of the administration, he was allowed to stay. But all his funds (tuition, teaching assistantship) were immediately eliminated.

Jorge and I met shortly after I received my colleague's e-mail. I asked around, at various institutions, to see whether anyone would let him teach a Spanish class. But no administrator was ready to bend the law. Learning that Jorge's finances were tight, a restaurateur friend of mine arranged for him to have free meals.

Eventually his situation stabilized. He gave private Spanish lessons, and a high school allowed him to teach a couple of courses. Not much, but enough to finish his Ph.D. and send his mother in Mexico $200 a month. (He says that she's old and can't keep on working, and that her house is in need of repair.)

Jorge and I remained in touch. I occasionally took him out for lunch. We talked about his dissertation, and when he asked me to be part of his doctoral committee, I accepted the honor, even though I taught at a different institution. As he began to describe the details of his ordeal, I became more and more impressed by his commitment to his work—and his endurance.

Jorge's current legal situation isn't exclusively the result of the poverty of his childhood. It is also related to his homosexuality. He left Mexico to escape a dangerously homophobic atmosphere. "I had an alcoholic, violent father and a devout Roman Catholic mother," he told me recently. "I was sexually abused by a local farmer when I was 7. I didn't tell anyone. You simply didn't talk about sex, because it was a sin. And because I was abused by a man, it was even more shameful."

He hated school—the education for which he would eventually sacrifice so much. "I told the priest that a man had touched me near the river. He replied that if I did well in my studies, I would be redeemed. 'Saca puro 10 y te vas al cielo'—earn straight 10's and you'll go to heaven." Discovering and understanding his homosexuality became the central puzzle of Jorge's adolescence.

He was born in 1981 in the small town of Antúnez, near Apatzingán, in the Tierra Caliente valley of the state of Michoacán. Apatzingán is where the Constitution of 1814 was signed, a highlight in Mexico's war of independence against Spain. But today it is notorious as the turf of La Familia Michoacana, the region's principal drug cartel. In a society ruled by machismo, Jorge was a constant target of harassment. "Kids threw rocks at me. I only understood the seriousness of the problem when a gang member put a knife to my throat. He and his pals said, 'Swear you aren't a joto or we'll kill you.'" In Mexican Spanish, joto means fag.

Jorge said one of his uncles used to yell that effeminate guys belonged in the United States. An aunt had crossed the border, and Jorge fantasized about following suit. At the age of 14, he began saving money from a variety of jobs, and then, with the help of a friend, he traveled north. He entered America three times. The first time, early in 1996, he crossed into California. He was caught, put in jail, and soon deported.

He waited. A week later, he tried a second time, without better luck. The third time, while he and the group with which he was traveling were already on the other side, their coyotes abandoned them, although not before stealing everything: watches, earrings, money. For two days Jorge didn't know where he was, what to do. He passed out for several hours. He was lost in a forest. He hid in the bushes. When they were noticed, he and the others pretended to be part of a nearby factory's labor force.

Jorge had $500 securely stored in his shoes. With the money, he paid another coyote, who led him to a house filled with other undocumented immigrants in the San Diego area, where he worked at a store. Unable to survive on his own, he moved in with his aunt near Fresno and finished high school in 1999, an outstanding student. That same year he enrolled in a local community college to get an associate degree, with which he could transfer to a four-year college. He did well enough to qualify for scholarships—private ones. He was afraid to apply for federal or state funds.

In a new country and a new culture, his attitude toward education had changed. "Only when spending time in school," he explained, "did I realize that through learning I would better understand my identity as Mexican and as a gay man."

To support himself, he worked at hard-labor jobs, but then he started mentoring Hispanic migrant children, working in elementary, junior, and high schools tutoring math, Spanish, and English. He wanted to give something back. And the classroom felt safe. "Nowhere did I feel happier than in the classroom. Less confused, more fulfilled. And I didn't feel persecuted.

"It was around then that I discovered that you don't need good grades to please God. Good grades don't get you to heaven—but do get you scholarships."

I wanted to find out why Jorge hadn't crossed the border legally in the first place. He was unequivocal: "Given my situation, there was no way to do so. To get a visa, you must show documentation of a bank account, properties, family ties in Mexico. But no tenía ni en qué caerme muerto, I didn't even have a bed to sleep in. You need money to get an interview with an immigration officer, to buy a bus ticket to Mexico City."

In 2001, Jorge transferred to a state university in California. He continued to excel academically, receiving his degree in Hispanic and French studies summa cum laude in 2004. His academic career landed him acceptance in an M.A. program in the Midwest. In the first year, he received a full scholarship; in the second, he was invited to serve as a TA. He graduated in 2006, at which point he applied to a doctoral program at an East Coast institution. Now, five years later, he has completed his Ph.D.

Jorge's case raises a number of issues that lie beneath the debate on immigration. First there's the question of money and benefits. Jorge has never filed a tax return in the United States, for fear of being caught. A couple of times, in California and again in the Midwest, his Social Security number was shown to be fake, and he was called into an administrator's office and asked to present proof of legal status. When he couldn't, he told the truth.

I asked him if any of the departmental assistants, advisers, or associate deans who had called him in had ever denounced him to authorities. "They knew my situation," he answered. "Depending on the occasion, they either allowed me to go on, or they told me I needed to resolve my status within a period of time. I knew these people were protecting me. That's one of the reasons I've moved from one school to another—not to put them in jeopardy. And to protect myself, too."

Unfair, I can hear the critics yelling. Illegal. Costing us money! Yes, but that's our own fault. Jorge would be glad to pay taxes, if he could without fear of being deported. "I want to pay back everything I owe," he told me unequivocally. The Dream Act would allow him to do just that.

Since 2001, 11 states have enacted legislation allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. In most of those states, legislators argued that doing so would give students who were here and willing to work hard the chance to become productive members of society.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average annual expenditure per K-12 public-school student is $10,792. The average yearly charge for tuition and fees at a four-year college is $9,000, according to the College Board. Leaving the emotional and intellectual facets aside, deporting someone like Jorge represents a significant waste of investment. No doubt those are some of the issues confronted by educators who found out about Jorge's status while he was enrolled at their institutions.

Then there are the emotional and intellectual issues. Jorge has shown astonishing perseverance. He is grateful for his education. And he wants to pay back not just the money it cost but also what he learned: to communicate his knowledge, his love of learning, and the value of hard work to another generation. But how can he go openly on the job market?

And what about the human toll? One night in 2003, while he was walking down the street in Fresno, a bunch of drunken thugs surrounded Jorge and the female friend who was with him. The story isn't pretty: The drunks broke his friend's jaw and punched him repeatedly in the head. When he and his friend were taken to the hospital, "they asked for all sorts of information I couldn't provide: a Social Security number, health insurance, a home address," he recalled. "I might have suffered a concussion, although I don't know, since I never received proper medical care. I didn't have money to pay, so I signed a form refusing treatment. There were policemen around the hospital, but I knew the law didn't protect undocumented people. I didn't want to get into more trouble. I was afraid of being deported again."

The memory of the incident plagues Jorge. "The ambulance alone cost $700. I couldn't come close to paying that amount, even in my wildest dreams." As it turned out, the attackers knew him. "Shortly after the incident, while working in the computer lab at school, I went to the restroom, and when I came back, I found a message on top of my keyboard: 'Be careful! I know who you are.'" He realized that someone at the university had probably been involved, knew his legal situation, and was threatening to reveal it if he tried to pursue his attackers. The message was clear: Keep his mouth shut. "Of course, it has always been shut," Jorge said.

It is time for America to recognize the human tragedy beneath the debate over immigration. That means following through with some kind of comprehensive reform plan that will recognize the complexities that Jorge's story raises. But to do that, America needs a conscience, because behind every immigrant's ordeal is a story worth paying attention to.

Before us is a paradox. Some educators are allowing undocumented immigrants to be educated but are doing little to support the Dream Act. The membership of the Modern Language Association has just ratified an amendment to the group's constitution in support of undocumented students' seeking legal status through higher education. It's time for more of us in education to do the same and do more to take a stand. We aren't only teachers; we are also leaders.

"My crossing the border was a matter of survival," Jorge told me several times. "I might not be here, alive, had I not dreamed of being on the other side." Having defended his dissertation, he expresses a deep appreciation for those who helped him. "I've learned in American schools that talent is what this country is about: talent and merit. It is my turn now to help others realize what they're worth."

Jorge's biggest challenge is still in front of him. His best hope of being able to find an academic job was the Dream Act. But if and when it is brought up again, it might not apply to him anymore: The provisions of the bill put the maximum age of those who could gain legal status at 30. Jorge defended his dissertation in the same month of his 30th birthday. "Unless a miracle happens, my chances of leading a normal, respectable life in the United States, a teaching life, are small," he said.

Jorge may have to give up the benefits of his higher education and look for a job in construction. At least that way he can stay with his current partner and have a dignified life as a gay man. He has also applied to a Ph.D. program in Canada, in the hope that with an acceptance in hand, he might have a legal status there as a student, even if that means he needs to get another doctoral degree. His partner, an American citizen and Ph.D., is willing to relocate. The university officials there are aware of Jorge's situation and looking for options to help.

Or Jorge could return to Mexico, where he hasn't been for a decade and a half. That looks unlikely, though. "If Ciudad Juárez is hell," he told me, "Michoacán is purgatory."

Have we dismantled not only the Dream Act, but also the American dream?

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He has recently been author of José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race (Rutgers University Press, 2011), editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010).

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