By Rob Kuznia Staff Writer
Posted: 10/13/2011 07:43:33 PM PDT
Updated: 10/13/2011 07:55:08 PM PDT
From coast to coast, the passage of the California Dream Act has prompted loud cheers from supporters and bitter outrage from critics.
But for Vilma Nerio, a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson – and an undocumented student – last weekend’s signing by Gov. Jerry Brown felt almost inconsequential.
Nerio’s problems pertain more to the near future: though she is within striking distance of earning her teaching degree, she will have no way to land a job once she graduates.
“There are no undocumented teachers out there,” she said.
For Nerio, the more important Dream Act is the federal version, which would provide permanent residency to qualified undocumented students. In December, it came before the U.S. Senate, and fell five votes short of being considered for final passage.
Nerio is far from alone. In August, a study by the American Sociological Review found that undocumented students with college degrees often must settle for the same low-wage jobs that their parents perform. In fact, of the 31 graduates of four-year universities interviewed, none was working in their chosen professions.
“I know many who have been out three, four, five, six years and there is really nothing for them,” said Roberto Gonzales, author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.
“They speak English much more fluently than their parents and have an education level that far surpasses their parents’, but find themselves stuck in the same narrowly circumscribed set of options.”
He added that the phenomenon is relatively new, because the first generation of college-educated undocumented students is only beginning to graduate en masse.
Titled “Learning to be Illegal,” the study found that attending college has been a way for many undocumented students to delay the stress of living in a manner that feels impermissible.
Nerio, a Gardena resident, didn’t know she was an illegal immigrant until she was 17.
Her friends were getting their driver’s licenses and she told her mother she’d like to do the same. That’s when her mom dropped the bomb: Nerio was shuttled over the border from her native El Salvador when she was 1.
“It was a big shock to me,” she said. “I thought I was just like everyone else. I was a typical teenager, hanging with friends, going to school, going to football games.”
Nerio said the news had a profound effect on some of her friendships.
“About half of them were fine, but the other half took it as `You broke the law, go back,”‘ she said. “We’d had sleepovers together.”
Now 25, Nerio said she may have to return to El Salvador for up to a year to qualify to obtain her visa.
“The problem with me is I don’t have any family back there,” she said. “I’ve been in California for 24 years, I consider this my home. Going back to a place I’ve never been to is quite scary.”
Nerio, who has maintained a 3.2 GPA at CSU Dominguez Hills, said doesn’t blame her mother for bringing her over, or for waiting so long to tell her.
“Her main reason to bring me here was to give me a better life,” she said. “She only went to fifth grade and then stopped. After fifth grade you had to pay for your school. Our family is not wealthy, so they said, `Well, this is it for you.’ She didn’t want that for me.”