Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2014 (November 2014)

This is What Undocumented Looks Like

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November 2014

By Lynn Vollbrecht'06

cover 2
Photo by Amanda Reseburg

It seemed like any other typical spring night on campus. But on March 24, 2014, Richardson Auditorium was atypically packed. Outside, passers-by could see the silhouettes of people perched in the auditorium’s windowsills. Inside, the tiered aisles became makeshift bleachers, and people spilled into the hallway of Morse-Ingersoll Hall, trying to peer over the sea of heads in front of them.

If they were able to catch sight of the front of the room, they saw five empty chairs lined up in front of the chalkboard. Spanish Professor Sylvia Lopez, faculty advisor for Voces Latinas, stood at the podium to begin a scheduled panel discussion, organized by the student group.

“There’s no single face to an undocumented person,” Lopez said.

Suddenly, five Beloit College students rose from their seats in the crowd, each introducing themselves in turn as they made their way to the front of the room.

“My name is __________, and I’m undocumented,” each said.

Then, one by one, some in voices shaking with emotion, one solemn, one matter-of-fact, another cracking jokes, they told their stories, as their peers, classmates, and professors hung on every word. These students, who spent their childhoods and high school years in the United States after emigrating with their families, talked about what it means to have your life dictated by the absence of a specific string of nine digits. They shared what it feels like to be a college student with a precarious legal designation: undocumented.

For the better part of the last decade, Beloit’s Admissions Office has seen a steady uptick in applicants who grew up in the United States but do not possess a Social Security number or other markers of legal residency.

“The Common Application asks where you were born and, if you aren’t a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, where is your citizenship,” says Jon Urish’96, the college’s director of student financial services. “It also asks about your visa. We started to see applications with no citizenship information, but also no visa.” Many students, he said, even wrote about their status in their application essays.

Although elementary and secondary education is provided by law to these students through the 12th grade, their path to higher education is murky and differs from state to state, school to school, private to public. Some colleges, including Ivy League schools, have openly accepted these students. Others do not. Beloit is among the schools that welcomes undocumented students.

Two challenges, both having to do with financing college, are prominent for college-bound students without legal documents: whether they will pay in-state or out-of-state tuition at public institutions, and how they will cover their costs—at either a public or private institution—in the absence of state grants and federal financial aid, for which they are not eligible. Once they’re on campus, they cannot attain federal work study positions, though they can now be employed by the college since the inception of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act (see sidebar below).

Currently, at least 18 states have provisions allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while South Carolina and Alabama have gone so far as to altogether ban undocumented students from enrolling in their public colleges and universities.

Out-of-state tuition can make schools cost prohibitive for many students, documented or not. For example, at the state of Wisconsin’s flagship school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in-state tuition rates for a semester with a full course load average $5,205, while non-resident tuition costs $13,330 per semester. That means non-residents, or undocumented students denied in-state tuition rates, would pay $65,000 more for a four-year education than a student receiving in-state tuition rates. (Wisconsin’s state law allowing in-state public university tuition for undocumented students was rescinded in 2011.)

Urish says Beloit has closely tracked issues around enrolling undocumented students nationally and regionally. “We don’t have the institutional resources to enroll scores and scores of them,” he explains. “But the word got out very quickly that Beloit works well with undocumented students.”

The college has a process in place for working with undocumented applicants, though it wasn’t clear-cut, initially. Should they be classified as international students? Domestic? What was obvious from the start is that these students, based on their achievements, were coveted applicants. In some places, like the Los Angeles Unified school district, a significant portion of the top 10 percent of high school graduates have undocumented legal status.

“After seeing the academic profile of these kids, we came to the conclusion that these are definitely students we would like to have on our campus,” Urish says.

Beloit settled on an unofficial policy of treating undocumented students just as they would other domestic students. Citizenship is not a prerequisite to pursuing a degree at Beloit College, says Vice President for Enrollment Rob Mirabile, and seeking out a variety of students from a wide swath of backgrounds can positively contribute to the school’s student body.

“Consistent with federal and state law, undocumented students are welcome to apply to the college and to enroll, if admitted,” Mirabile says. “In terms of future expectations, we will continue to monitor federal and state policies.”

In recent years, Beloit has enrolled anywhere from a few to as many as seven such students in a given semester.

“We send them a letter saying ‘based on your status, you’re not going to be eligible for any state or federal aid, but we are going to consider you,’” Urish says. The Admissions Office makes a point of acknowledging the students’ status, while also trying to be mindful and open about the possible limitations when it comes to funding sources.

When the college started analyzing how to handle and enroll undocumented students, it paid close attention to those who were involved with private scholarship programs that could help supplement Beloit’s aid, Urish says. One such example is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a private foundation that provides generous scholarships and educational guidance to low-income students, regardless of their legal status. Milica Mihajlovic’16, one of the students we profile here, was involved with the foundation from elementary school through college.

Once undocumented students enroll at Beloit, many say they find support among their peers, but there is no formal programming in place to reach out to the college’s undocumented population, in large part out of respect for students’ privacy.

“We haven’t created services or programs specifically for undocumented students,” says Dean of Students Christina Klawitter’98. “Given the nature of this identity, asking students to self-disclose for the purpose of receiving a service has the potential to produce anxiety unnecessarily.” 

The issue does lend itself to the college’s current focus on critical identity studies, however. “It’s our hope that we are creating spaces for conversation in which being undocumented is received like other identities: with curiosity, openness, and inquiry,” she says.

According to Urish, the students he’s worked with in this situation make a notable contribution to the Beloit community.

“We’re fortunate to have them among us; I think they appreciate beyond words the opportunity to show what they can do,” he says.

Last spring, a small group of undocumented and formerly undocumented students revealed their identities in an effort to further discussion of a critical issue of our time. Here are their stories.

(photos by Amanda Reseburg and Peter Wynn Thompson)

Fabiola Ramirez'16

Undocumented portrait FabiolaGrowing up in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, Fabiola Ramirez’16 was always fascinated by the English language and was used to crossing the international border regularly for shopping in the adjoining city of El Paso, Texas. Her brother even attended school in Texas during the week.

“When my parents told us we were moving, I wasn’t sad, but I wasn’t excited, either. I was an 8-year-old girl, you know?” she says. All she understood was that she was going far away, and not coming back, so she did what any 8-year-old would do: she squirreled away her most prized possessions (dolls, her baby teeth, and a braid from the first time her hair was cut), hiding them in a dresser drawer in her family’s house in Mexico.

Though she was only a child, she felt that this trip was different, more permanent. “I packed up my Barbies, and my hair, and my baby teeth. And I was like ‘if I come back, these better be here,’” she says.

The day she left Mexico started like any other. “Traveling to El Paso was nothing new,” she says, “But I realized Milwaukee was not just up the street, and that this was not like any other trip with my family.”

She, her parents, and her three brothers arrived in Wisconsin after a 36-hour bus ride, just before Christmas. They spent the holiday—usually full of parties with hundreds of cousins in Mexico—in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with a clogged toilet. “No presents, no food, no dinner. It was kind of sad. It was one of the worst memories I had of Christmas,” she says. “I realized after I grew up and started listening to other stories how fortunate I was that I had that travel experience—that I didn’t have to go through a harder path to get here. But it was still extremely difficult.”

When she started elementary school, Ramirez quickly set herself apart as an exceptional student. It wasn’t until she started considering pre-collegiate programs in eighth-grade and was denied because of her lack of documentation that her status really hit her.

“It’s hard growing up here, knowing about your status, knowing you’re undocumented, but in a way it’s harder to remember what it’s like to be documented, to have had an identity that’s legitimate up until you were 8,” she says. “Everything was perfect, then your identity’s taken away. You’re still yourself, you’re still Fabiola, but you’re no longer a legitimate human being—or that’s what you’re told. That was hard for me.”

It forced her to evaluate her life in a way that most eighth-graders never have to. “It was then that I realized, ‘Well, what am I going to have to do then, to get myself where I want to be?’”

Her plan was to work hard. Harder. She switched high schools to tackle a more rigorous academic program and spent hours with the guidance counselor, talking about colleges.

“She did a lot of research, a lot of calling, to see how every college would treat my situation. Even every private college has a different way of dealing with someone of my status,” she says. “It was stressful. Every lunch period I’d sit in her office and tell her how I felt and cry my eyes out and say ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m not going anywhere. This is too stressful.’ She said, ‘We’re going to get through this. I know what I’m doing.’ And I trusted her.”

In the end, Ramirez, now an education and political science double major at Beloit, applied to 19 schools. Almost half accepted her. Some, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, were not even a possibility—the fact that she would be charged out-of-state tuition and was not eligible for state or federal aid made it cost-prohibitive.

“I got pretty good financial aid from a lot of schools, but in the end I visited Beloit, and I loved the campus, and I loved the staff I interacted with,” she says. “Beloit was generous, and they believed in me. They believed I was a student that would contribute to their school. Ultimately, it just felt right. As soon as I submitted my deposit I was happy. I didn’t have any regrets.”

Despite the heartache her status has caused, Ramirez says it’s taught her so much—that it doesn’t define her, but it is a huge part of her identity. Though citizenship is ultimately the goal for her—she wants to become a lawyer, and without citizenship, she can’t practice—she wouldn’t forego the experience of being an undocumented person. It’s a topic she and her fellow undocumented students have talked about.

“Would you trade your life? Would you want to have been born here?” she asks. “And we say no, not because we wouldn’t love to be U.S.-born citizens, but because we’ve learned so much through our experiences,” she says. “We’re really sensitive to other issues now and other people’s stories as well. We’d probably take for granted what it means to be a U.S. citizen if we were to have been born here.”

Milica Mihajlovic'16

Classes, clubs, study abroad applications, anUndocumented portrait Milicad studying for a civics test—it sounds like a typical college student’s schedule. But for Milica Mihajlovic’16, the civics test she crammed for last year wasn’t a run-of-the-mill midterm, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test. She passed it in 2013, nine years after getting her green card and 16 years after moving to the United States. She was a Beloit College sophomore at the time.

“I told all my professors, ‘I’m missing class, because I’m going to become a citizen, finally!’ And everyone would make the joke like ‘Ha ha, welcome to America!’” she says. “And I’d say ‘thanks, but you’re 15 years too late.’”

Born in Serbia’s capital city, a 4-year-old Mihajlovic was visiting her family in the United States when the political situation in Serbia began to rapidly deteriorate. (Her father and older brother had moved to the States in order for her brother to pursue a tennis career.) It was 1998, the height of the Kosovo War, and bombs were falling on Belgrade, her hometown. She, her mother, and her other brother were in the country on tourist visas.

 “So we’re like ‘we’re not going to go back,’” she says. “Our visa was for about six months, and we overstayed the visa. That’s when immigration laws weren’t as strict.”

Settling in the Midwest with her family, Mihajlovic set out on the educational path that would lead her to Beloit, and the road toward American citizenship—not an easy trek, and one often beset with bureaucratic roadblocks. Sometimes the two overlap when she explores the ways in which she is both Serbian and American and the inherent internal conflict of feeling that one of these identities may overtake the other.

“My college essays were about this identity crisis, my study abroad essays were about this identity crisis. I’ve always been aware of it, but it’s been especially difficult lately,” she says. “My brothers used to make fun of me by calling me an American. I lost my accent the quickest, and they’d make fun of me, and I’d get so mad at them.” Before she was an American citizen, though, or even a permanent resident with a green card, she was undocumented.

“I knew I was undocumented, because my parents told me not to talk about it in school,” she says. Her first year in the American education system was a lonely one. “I didn’t know English in kindergarten. People couldn’t say my name. I couldn’t say my name in a way that people could understand me. I wasn’t made fun of, necessarily, but I was just sort of avoided as a kid.”

By second grade, she’d lost most of her accent; by the time she was 9, she’d gotten a green card. Her father married a U.S. citizen and began the petition process for Mihajlovic and her brothers.

“It didn’t hit me how serious our situation was until my dad got remarried,” she says. “Going through that [green card] process was even worse than the citizenship one. They question everything. They even asked me, little 10-year-old me, ‘Is this really your brother? Is this really your father?’ And I was like, ‘I thought so?’”

Mihajlovic’s father passed away in 2007, leaving her to complete the citizenship process on her own once she turned 18. Having the status of a legal resident made the college application process easier for her than for her undocumented peers, and the German and Russian major initially chose Beloit for its proximity to her family in Chicago and its anthropology program. Until the panel discussion, many of her classmates knew little about her long road to citizenship, which is exactly why she wanted to talk about it.

“The worst is when people will start talking about immigration as if they know it. And a lot of times, people just don’t understand the statistics of it—and definitely not the experience of it, what it’s like coming to a new place,” she says. She hopes sharing her story opened people’s eyes.

“We went to middle school with you, we went to high school with you, we went to elementary school with you. We have the same experience, we watched the same TV shows. Be more conscientious,” she says. “We are just like you.”

J.P. Marquez'17

Undocumented portrait JPThough J.P. Marquez’17 moved to the United States when he was in third grade, it wasn’t until he was a teenager that the Beloit sophomore started to fully grasp his family’s tenuous legal status: tago ng tago.

His family subscribed to a Filipino-language TV channel, and the phrase sparked questions for Marquez.

“I would always hear ‘TNT’ on the news—they’d say ‘a lot more TNTs are coming to the United States,’ and I didn’t know what was going on, so I asked my mom,” he recalls. “And she was being vague about it. I looked it up, and it meant ‘tago ng tago.’ That literally translates to ‘hiding and hiding.’ I went to my mom and asked ‘What does tago ng tago mean?’ And that’s what we were.”

Suddenly the idiosyncrasies of his upbringing started to make sense.

“When I first got here, there were so many rules: Don’t open the door, don’t play outside. I would never ask why. I was a kid, I just followed instructions,” Marquez says. “It didn’t really pose any problems to me until I got older, when I started questioning why I couldn’t get a driver’s license, or why I couldn’t apply for a job, or why we were always nervous at the airport, or why my dad didn’t want to drive at night.”

Marquez was born in the Philippines and lived there until he was about 7. His mother came to a pre-9/11 United States to work as a home health aide, and his father worked as a supervisor at a plant in Saudi Arabia. When they decided that they wanted the family reunited in one place, they got tourist visas and overstayed them.

“I got here in the third grade. I had to memorize a lot of things for going through the interview process, the screening process,” he says. “I had to memorize why I was coming here—I had to lie about going to Disneyland because we went through California.”

Once Marquez understood the implications of his undocumented status, it weighed heavy on his mind.

“I used to think about it a lot,” he says. In his sophomore year of high school, his mother was battling cancer without insurance, and between that and the family’s legal situation, he felt hopeless.

“When I used to think about it a lot, it felt like being on an endless road leading to nowhere. I felt like I was stuck and like I was working only to be stuck,” he says. “Like looking at the horizon and not seeing the sun, and I had a lot of questions about ‘what am I working for? To be more oppressed? To be kept here like this?’”

He credits getting involved with the Albany Park Theater Project—a multi-ethnic youth theatre project in Chicago focusing on social issues—with helping him find a voice and tell his story. It’s also how he found out about Beloit College. Another student in APTP went to Beloit, and the program had a college-counseling component. Some schools, he said, didn’t even acknowledge his application. “Thank God Beloit was—well, Beloit,” he says. “Some colleges straight-up ignore you. Others don’t know what to do with you.”

That was not the case with Beloit.

“I love the school. I honestly love how weird people are, and I love how anything is accepted, and I feel like I can do things here,” he says. “I definitely feel like I have a voice at Beloit and that I have an opportunity to let people hear that voice and change the way they think, and introduce a new perspective on the world.”

Participating in the undocumented students’ panel was exactly the kind of thing he wanted to do with his college experience.

“I think we definitely shattered some stereotypes after that,” he says. “Every time you hear a story from an undocumented person, it’s so different, each one. And I think that’s cool that it’s not just the expected, stereotypical undocumented person from Latin America, but there are also people from Europe, people from Asia.”

Marquez says he plans on becoming a U.S. citizen, but also believes the issue of comprehensive immigration reform might be resolved within several presidencies. In the meantime, he plans to keep telling his story.

“I hope that the right people heard what I wanted them to hear. And that they do something about it—that they let other people who can do something about it know about it, make it happen,” he says. “It’s a like a game of telephone with the most important information, and it needs to be passed on.”


Undocumented portrait Katia“My childhood was not carefree,” says Katia, a junior at Beloit. “It’s been really difficult, but I’ve learned a lot from it.”

From the ages of 3 to 6, Katia lived with her aunt and grandmother in Toluca, Mexico, while her mother worked in the United States. The Christmas Eve her mother returned was one of the best of her life, she says. They stayed in Mexico for a month after that before beginning the arduous, months-long journey to cross the border.

When asked how she arrived in the United States, Katia, a soft-spoken, contemplative environmental biology major and Kemper Scholar at Beloit, at first simply says, “We crossed the border. We walked.” But then she begins to describe what it was like, and her story reveals a scene of shimmering heat and poignant details—like the brand-new Tweety Bird backpacks filled with clothes that had to be shed layer by layer and then, finally, discarded, because they were too heavy to carry, or going to Burger King before they left Mexico, then a luxury for her family.

She, her mother, and brother slept in barns and spent weeks in cramped, crowded houses infested with rats. At times they were separated in order to cross the border in specific cars. At one point they were detained by authorities, but due to overcrowding, they were released without having their fingerprints taken.

“My mom was really scared, and she’s told me now that she regretted it, that she’s angry that she risked our lives,” she says.

Things did not get easier once they arrived in Illinois. Katia missed her aunt and grandmother. “I haven’t seen my family [in Mexico] in 14 years. It took a long time to not feel a strong sense of loss. That’s an aspect of being undocumented—the isolation,” she says.

Her mother worked multiple jobs, sometimes 16 hours a day, to keep the family afloat.

“I think the first five years she worked nonstop,” she says. “The routine was go to bed, wake up, go to the baby-sitter, she’d go to work, we’d go to school, go back to the baby sitter, do homework, go home at 10. She busted her back in order to get us a college education. She never let her problems affect how she approached the world.”

Growing up in Illinois, Katia had many friends in the same situation she was in, but her undocumented status was not something openly discussed outside those friendships. She compares it to having to reveal your worst insecurity. One of the first people she told was a high school academic counselor, and she described the experience as “nerve-racking.”

The counselor and online resources helped her sort out which schools would accept a student with her status. “Even from the start, that’s one of the things you have to consider, which colleges will accept you,” she says.

But besides accepting and enrolling undocumented students, Beloit had another draw—her older brother had attended.

Now that she’s at Beloit, she’s found herself coming to terms with her status in a way she hadn’t before. She had been toying with ways to creatively address the issue through art or performance when she was approached to participate in the undocumented students’ panel.

It wasn’t easy.

“It didn’t hit me until that day that the campus would know,” she says. “I felt conflicted about it, because it felt like, yeah, I’m revealing an insecurity, or the equivalent. But it also felt freeing. I don’t think I knew it, but it felt like a weight on my conscience. You deal with it, you accept it.”

Having her brother (he’s since graduated and become a teacher) as a sounding board has been invaluable, and her involvement with Beloit’s Peace and Justice and Outdoor Environmental clubs has caused her to seek out ways to combat injustice and fight for the causes she believes in. She wants to continue this work after college.

At Beloit, “I am able to have really good discussions with people about life, about who they are, who I am. I think I’m at a place where I’m privileged, because I’m closer to being at peace with myself. That’s one of the greatest things about Beloit, is being at peace with myself,” she says.

Though it was difficult for her, she doesn’t regret speaking up publicly about her status.

“I told my story to make people connect the issue to actual people,” she says. “I hope that people see we’re people too—why don’t we matter?”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: What it Is, What it Isn't

marquez tintedBeloit students who spoke in last spring’s panel discussion are among nearly 600,000 young people who have taken advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the Pew Research Center. The program has been in place for more than two years.

In the summer of 2012, the Obama administration issued the executive order now commonly called DACA, which allows young immigrants to receive identification and live, work, and attend school in the United States without having to face deportation. It’s intended for young immigrants who were brought into the country as children, not of their own volition.

The president issued the order after Congress failed to reach consensus on a piece of legislation called the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors bill) versions of which have come to the House and Senate floors several times over the last decade. The DREAM Act went a step further than DACA by giving young immigrants conditional permanent legal residency. DACA does not offer that sort of status and must be renewed every two years. It does offer a reprieve from deportation and the ability to obtain legal work permits.

“I didn’t apply right away, because I was kind of skeptical. I was waiting for the DREAM Act to happen, where you’d become a legal permanent resident,” says Fabiola Ramirez’16. With DACA, “You’re still not a legal person. You don’t have residency in the U.S., you get a working permit and an I.D. I was happy about that, but I’ve been waiting for 12 years for something more, so it’s a little hard.”

It’s also expensive. Each two-year renewal process costs a minimum of $500, though fees for those seeking legal advice can force those costs higher. J.P. Marquez’17 was in the process of reapplying this summer. “I have to get passport I.D.s, proof that I haven’t been in a felony,” he says. “It expires after you’re 30, and it’s ridiculous that you have to renew it every two years, because it’s so expensive.”

It can also be frustrating to be at the mercy of changing political tides, the students say. This past September, two U.S. Senators tried to pass an amendment that would put a stop to DACA, but the possibility of putting the motion to a vote was narrowly defeated.

“I think deferred action has been very helpful,” Ramirez says. “But what about when another president comes and decides they don’t want us to have deferred action anymore? They can take it away, and we’re back to zero, not having anything.”


Deferred Action Fast Facts

To be eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and therefore protected from deportation, young people without legal documentation must:

  • Have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16
  • Be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012
  • Be at least 15
  • Not have a lawful legal status, meaning they arrived in the U.S. without documentation or the documentation has expired
  • Have continuously lived in the U.S. since June 2007 until the time of application
  • Have to either be in school, have a GED or high school diploma, or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military
  • Not have been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanor offenses
  • Pass a background check



  • November 11 2014 at 2:54 pm
    Lawrence C. Pakula, M.D.,'49

    I never thought or knew  about this aspect of the lives of undocumented persons.

    I am thrilled that these young people are able to have the opportunity of attending Beloit. I am very proud of Beloit for this program. 

  • November 14 2014 at 9:45 pm
    Marilyn Vollbrecht

    The article was very informative and well written.  I admire these young people for pursuing an education with the obstacles they have had to face.

  • November 25 2014 at 8:09 pm
    Cristo Mendoza

    Congrats to Beloit College's professors and Admissions staff for believing in such stellar-students. No regrets both ways.

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