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Wasting potential, a million times over

By Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Put everything you know about illegal immigrants on hold for just a moment and meet Judith Rosales and Pablo Orozco.

Nine years ago, Judith and her mother left El Salvador, crossed through Mexico and found themselves ditched in the middle of the Arizona desert by a man who was sneaking them into the United States. No water, no food. Scary stuff for a 9-year-old girl.

They rode buses from Arizona to Siler City, N.C., where Judith’s dad was working. Judith enrolled in the fourth grade, speaking not a word of English. A teacher, Ms. Marsh, read to her in English every day after school, and gave her a ride home because her parents had no car. Within a year, Judith was in honors classes.

Today, Judith, 18, is ranked first in her senior class with a 4.6 GPA. She wants to be a pediatrician. But her family has little money, and because her mother brought her here at age 9, she is undocumented. “Those are two really big obstacles,” she says. Instead of becoming a doctor, she worried that her education would end after high school and she would work at Burger King, like a friend in similar circumstances did.

Pablo Orozco’s parents brought him to the U.S. from Argentina on visas when he was five. He and his family, evicted from their apartment, live at One7 Ministries in east Charlotte. He is second in his class at Garinger High with a 4.4 GPA and strives to go on to higher education. But as a junior, Pablo wrote a research paper on the DREAM Act. He wrote about the million-plus undocumented students who couldn’t afford college. “I realized I was part of the statistics,” Pablo, 17, says. “That I was writing about myself, not a number.” Without college, Pablo figures he’d hope to land a job as a waiter or busboy.

There are more than a million undocumented kids under age 18 in the United States. They were brought here by their parents, some as infants. They have grown up as Americans. Their English is perfect. Many work hard, make stellar grades, give back to their communities, and have the same dreams as the students sitting next to them. But they don’t have the right papers and, through no choice of their own, are here illegally.

For most of them, their American dream ends after 12th grade. In North Carolina and more than 30 other states, they are denied in-state tuition to public universities and community colleges. They are ineligible for federal or state financial aid. Private universities are far too expensive, and private scholarships for them are scarce.

So they become, as one of them put it, the most over-qualified dishwashers you’ll ever know.

The U.S. Senate continued its debate over immigration reform last week. Much of the focus was on beefing up border security, and on what should be done with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here. No one articulated a rationale for holding children accountable for their parents’ actions. Think what you must about an adult who comes here seeking a better life. But it’s self-defeating for the United States, and North Carolina, to relegate children who never chose to break the law to a permanent underclass.

Judith Rosales and Pablo Orozco are the lucky ones. Judith will not be working at Burger King. Pablo will not be a busboy. Judith will be pre-med at Davidson College in the fall. Pablo will study business at Queens University of Charlotte.

They are two members of the first class of 13 Golden Door Scholars. The scholarships were started by Charlotte businessman Ric Elias, who hoped to attract 25 applications in the program’s first year. He received 487.

“They’ve done their part,” Elias said. “We (as a country) are leaving them behind.”

Elias is able to send 13 kids to college this fall who otherwise wouldn’t have gone. There are many thousands of undocumented students in North Carolina. The legislature should pass House Bill 904, sponsored by Mecklenburg Rep. Tricia Cotham, which allows qualified undocumented N.C. students to pay in-state tuition to UNC campuses and community colleges.

In El Salvador, Judith Rosales would have had to walk two hours to school to pursue her education past the sixth grade. Before I hung up with her at 10 p.m. Thursday night, I told her to go get some sleep.

“I have to go study,” she said.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com, follow me on Twitter @tbatten1.
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