For undocumented teenagers, life after high school can sometimes appear bleak.
Education is often used as a portal to a better life, but for those students who enter the United States without going through the proper channels, not much hope exists to ever come out of a shadow world where individuals can fall prey to crime, violence and unemployment.
“The question I wanted to answer is, What is happening to undocumented immigrant high school students who are falling through the cracks?” said Akash Patel, who, after graduating from the University of Oklahoma last year, decided to create a nonprofit to address this problem. “And those cracks are not finishing high school and not going on to college.”
After speaking with several school officials, community leaders and families that were willing to talk, Patel heard many horror stories of students coming home to find their parents in handcuffs and being deported, feeling forced to create a fake social security number in order to get a job and other examples of students feeling disconnected from their community.
“I asked school counselors what they were doing to help these students,” Patel said. “They said, ‘We don’t know how to help them.’”
That’s where Patel’s nonprofit comes in. Called Aspiring Americans Initiative, Patel’s organization works with high schools to help counselors, teachers and principals understand the resources that exist to help undocumented students.
One of the best resources available to undocumented students is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA allows undocumented students who entered the U.S. under the age of 16 to pursue education or military service without fear of deportation. It also means undocumented students can pursue a college education and apply for financial aid.
“I asked [schools] if they were offering their students DACA, and the counselors looked at me like, ‘What’s DACA?’” Patel said.
“We signed a lot of kids up this year [for DACA],” said Clay Vinyard, principal at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, which is one of the first schools to work with Patel’s nonprofit and is home to one of the city’s highest population of immigrant students. “We have a lot of kids going to college this year because of this program.”
Vinyard said a lot of his teachers and counselors were unaware of DACA and what it actually meant for undocumented students. Now, with the help of Patel’s organization, teachers and administrators at U.S. Grant are able to communicate the benefits of DACA to students and provide post-secondary options.
However, there are some challenges in getting families to seek out the help, as many remain skeptical of authority figures.
“We want to create a culture where people aren’t scared of being undocumented citizens,” Vinyard said. “You tell the kids, ‘We are going to meet to discuss this program’ … and for people who live in fear, there is a fear of the unknown. There is a fear of being taken back to Mexico or wherever they immigrated from. Building that trust between the district and the families is important in an effort to help educate them on what’s available.”
Patel is in the process of working with the entire Oklahoma City Public School district in an effort to train school officials on how to help undocumented students.
“Those cracks I was talking about are knowledge cracks, and we can fill those cracks without having to wait for immigration reform and having to lobby legislators,” Patel said.
Educating school and community leaders is one step. But as Vinyard alluded to, many undocumented residents are afraid and are not quick to trust a helping hand.
“I see people who are extremely scared. Especially after the tornado last year, we had a number of people come to the cathedral seeking assistance,” said Justin Lindstrom, pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, which works with many immigrant families in OKC. “They didn’t want to go through the federal assistance programs. They didn’t even want to go through the Red Cross or Salvation Army because they were afraid of their status.”
Pew Research Center estimates Oklahoma is home to 75,000 undocumented residents, which is a 500 percent increased from 20 years ago.
The reality is undocumented residents are in OKC, and the number increases each year. Most lawmakers, even those against immigration, acknowledge deportation isn’t necessarily a good solution. But helping individuals advance in their education and obtain work skills might just be.
Patel, who moved to America at age 2 with his family, has a personal experience with the difficulty in a family immigrating to the United States. That experience helped plant a seed in Patel to discover ways to make the process better for others.
“The counselors at my school weren’t really able to help me,” Patel said about his own experience. “There are other Akashes out there who need help and support.”