Jesus Palafox, 21, came to the U.S. illegally when he was 11. He was the last member of his immediate family to make it across the border, posing as a son of a relative who was an American citizen.
Palafox knew he wanted to attend college, but as he grew older, he realized he’d face a monumental challenge: In Illinois undocumented students can pay in-state tuition at public universities, but they’re ineligible for most student loans. Meanwhile, the number of affordable alternatives is dwindling. One option, Chicago’s City Colleges, may soon be out of reach if the city ends open admission, as was proposed last summer.
Some of these concerns would have been partially addressed by the federal DREAM Act, co-sponsored by Democratic Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. The proposed law offered a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who, like Palafox, enrolled in college. The measure was filibustered in the U.S. Senate last year.
Palafox was lucky; ultimately he made it to college by cobbling together several sources of funding, including a $2,500 award from former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan. Palafox earned the award for having racked up the second-most service learning hours of any CPS student in his graduating class.
Now that Palafox is set to graduate from Northeastern Illinois University, he wants the new mayor and city council to make the dream of a college education a reality for other undocumented students, especially ones who may not be as lucky as he was.
Dear Chicago is a project of WEBZ’s Partnerships Program. Jesus Palafox was nominated for the series by the American Friends Service Committee.
Dear Chicago -
I want to tell you my story about being an undocumented student.
The beginning was hard. I didn’t know any English. The only thing I was good at was math, because math doesn’t have a language.I even had to help some of my fellow classmates because they were behind on math.
I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to be able to afford college. My dad wasn’t making enough. So we started going to visit technical schools, but I realized I wasn’t even going to be able to pay $10,000 a year, so even the technical schools were too expensive.
The counselors at my high school were not prepared to help me. I let them know my situation but they told me to either go to a City College or not go to college at all. I didn’t see the City Colleges as an option for me at that time. I wanted to go to a four year university.
I started looking for scholarships, trying to find ones for undocumented students. I was doing a lot of research on my own, sending letters to different organizations, visiting chambers of commerce. I would lock myself in my room and just cry, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I was getting some acceptance letters but I didn’t have any money.
Then I started getting more scholarships and getting into more universities. I decided to go to Northeastern because it was affordable. I think my first year I paid $7,000. UIC was a little more expensive. I also got accepted by Valparaiso University. There I got accepted as an international student and offered a scholarship for $30,000 for four years. But tuition was $30,000 a year and I couldn’t pay the rest.
My first year at Northeastern I got about $12,000 in scholarships, but it was year to year. I didn’t know if I would have the money to pay for the next year.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to college was to set an example for my younger siblings. My sister is graduating from high school this year and she knows that she has to go to college because I already did it. I will do everything to help her. But we’re going through a recession and my dad didn’t work for six moths, so we’re just recovering right now, and my sister graduates in three months. I know she’s going to get accepted to colleges but it’s going to be tough financially.
I think there are a couple of things I would say to the new mayor and city council.
First of all, reform the public school system. A lot of undocumented students drop out. They don’t feel welcome in the schools and they know it’s going to be hard for them to go to college because of their status.
Next, set up some kind of scholarship or grant for them. I know that they talk about having a local version of the DREAM Act that would let students have loans, but I think what we need are scholarships and grants, and not just for students with a 4.0 GPA. We hear about the valedictorian, but we don’t hear about the regular undocumented students.
Then, keep open enrollment in the City Colleges. The reality is that a lot of undocumented students are not prepared to go to a four-year university.
We’ve talked about Chicago being a world class city. I think that a world class city needs a world class citizenship. We should allow not just a citizen but also an undocumented person to be part of this. If we want to compete in the world, as Mayor Daley says every day, then we want to have a citizenship that can compete in the world. We need people prepared to compete, and not just U.S. citizens, but every resident of the city.