Dafne, a high school senior in San Jose, is one of a small fraction of the state’s estimated 27,000 undocumented students graduating from high schools and enrolling in four-year colleges this year.
Barred from federal financial aid and facing the gnawing uncertainty she’ll ever be able to legally work in the U.S. even after earning a degree, Dafne, 17, knows firsthand the hurdles undocumented students face to succeed in higher education.
The basketball player and cheerleader was 8 years old when her parents brought her from Mexico to San Jose. We are not using her full name to protect her identity.
In middle school, she realized why her mother wouldn’t let her go on a school trip to visit the Capitol or why she couldn’t get a job at fast-food chains like her friends. She said she felt ashamed and limited by her immigration status.
But now she’s trying to break free. She will attend UC Davis in the fall.
“I think, for me, college is my ticket. It's a ticket for me to do something greater, to be something else than just my status,” said Dafne, who hopes U.S. immigration laws will change so she can work as a high school teacher one day.
Eighteen years ago, another local undocumented high school graduate contemplated the same prospect as Dafne. Julio Navarrete also dreamed of becoming a high school teacher, but wasn’t sure he could be legally employed.
Now 34, Navarrete has been named “Teacher of the Year” at American High School, the largest in Fremont.
Six years ago, he won political asylum in the U.S. and a life-changing work permit. By then Navarrete had earned a master’s degree in education and teaching certificate at The National Hispanic University in San Jose.
“Every day I wake up feeling grateful,” said Navarrete, in his fourth year as a Spanish teacher at American High. “Just the fact that I'm able to step into a high school classroom and be with my students and teach and be part of this community. That's all I could ever ask for.”
Dafne and Navarrete are at different points of their strikingly similar paths. They were born in Puerto Vallarta and grew up in east San Jose. Their parents worked hard to barely scrape out a living.
They navigated college applications without the Obama-era program that allows nearly 200,000 unauthorized young immigrants in California to temporarily work and be protected from deportation. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has been closed to new applicants and tied up in the courts after the Trump administration took steps to end it.
As more undocumented students graduate from high school without DACA, Navarrete said he encourages students in his classroom to pursue their aspirations.
“I tell them that nobody can take away their education regardless of whether or not in the future they’ll be able to work,” said Navarrete. “Education is our freedom, and we need to educate ourselves. And, when they finish university, maybe things will be different.”
That’s the leap of faith Dafne has taken.
“I am full of hope,” she said. “That’s all I have right now to keep myself sane and motivated.”
For Navarrete, the path to teaching had roadblocks that once seemed insurmountable. After graduating from college, he felt depressed about his inability to legally work. He even considered moving back to Mexico, a country where he fears persecution because of his sexual orientation, he said.
Out of desperation, he took a teaching job at a charter school but was forced to resign mid-year, he said, after administrators found out he didn’t have proper work authorization.
“Living in hiding is so difficult,” said Navarrete. “I really empathize with anybody who cannot be open about their identity, whichever part of the identity that may be, because it's really a source of anxiety and stress.”
What he regretted most, he said, was hiding his immigration status from students and colleagues.
“It was a disservice,” said Navarrete. “I think when we share each other's stories truthfully we just have so much to learn from each other.”
Coworkers and students at American High School know Navarrete’s story.
“He’s extremely uplifting and honestly, it makes the school a better place,” said sophomore Nadin Souki, 15. “It's crazy because like he's been through so much so you wouldn't expect him to be this awesome at what he's doing. And on top of that, like, making it genuinely not lame to learn Spanish.”
Educators nominated Navarette for the “Teacher of the Year” award, said Steve Musto, principal at American High, which has more than 2,400 students.
“He shows uncommon dedication to his students, to his school and to the community,” said Musto. “We are just very lucky to have him.”
While Navarrete was able to fix his immigration status and work to fulfill his potential, many other undocumented high school graduates in California are being confined to the underground economy under current policies, said experts.
All children in the U.S. have the right to a K-12 education, but it’s “another universe” after they graduate from high school, said Kent Wong, who directs the Labor Center at UCLA.
“Unfortunately for undocumented students when they graduate from high school their world flips upside down,” said Wong. “No longer are they treated as other students. They're barred from federal financial aid, they're barred from legally working, and they're forced into the underground economy and to a life of poverty.”
Thwarting the potential of thousands of young people who can’t legally work and have systemic hurdles to higher education hurts California and the nation, said Wong.
“We are stripping the contributions that these young people would make as teachers, as nurses, as social workers, as small business people, who could make immense contributions to our society if we were able to fix this broken immigration system,” he said.
While Congress considers a proposal that would open a path to citizenship for up to 2.5 million immigrants, including those eligible to DACA, California has taken steps to expand access to higher education.
The state offers undocumented residents in-state tuition and financial aid. But school counselors and educators around the state say some students are discouraged from pursuing higher education.
“Some of them would say ‘No, I’m going to start working with my parents,’ or ‘Why am I going to be in classes or think of college when there’s nothing for me after?’” said Diana Camilo, co-director of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University.
For Dafne, the first in her family to attend a four-year university, a big motivation to get a college degree is helping her parents out, she said.
Last year, her family shared their house with 12 other relatives who couldn’t afford other housing, she said. On Sunday mornings, Dafne and her dad, a gardener, would drive from their east San Jose neighborhood to the wealthier, tree lined streets in Los Gatos to look at big houses.
Sitting in her father’s black truck, with gardening tools stored on the back, the pair would point to homes they’d like to live in, at least two stories high with manicured gardens, she said.
“My dad's always like ‘One of these days we're gonna have a house like that,’” said Dafne. “We have that image in our minds like, this is the American dream, you know, owning a house. So one of the things I want to do is provide for them.”
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.