Caps and gowns mark the rite of passage for thousands of East Valley teenagers finishing high school this month, but for some in an invisible class, the celebration is bittersweet.
For undocumented teenagers brought to the United States as children, graduation is a brick wall ending their education and dreams, some educators say.
Without documentation, they don't qualify for scholarships. They can't get a driver's license or a legal job. If they are admitted to one of the three Arizona public universities, they have to pay international tuition of about $13,000 a semester, compared with the in-state tuition rate of about $1,700 for 12 credits.
"They were brought through no choice of their own, brought by their parents," said Kathy Rivera, executive director of educational operations for the Scottsdale Unified School District.
But more choices may be around the corner for future undocumented high school graduates.
The Student Adjustment Act, introduced in Congress last month, is an effort to allow these students to continue on to college. The act, awaiting debate in congressional committee, would provide permanent residency status to students 21 and younger, in seventh grade or higher, who have lived in the United States continually at least five years, are graduating or earning their GED, have no criminal record and are applying for college.
The bill also allows states to charge in-state tuition for these students. Current federal law requires states to charge international tuition for noncitizens with proof of residence. The U.S. Senate is poised to introduce a similar counterpart called The Dream Act.
Opponents say the proposed legislation opens a door to easy-access illegal immigration.
"It's a sympathetic case because, obviously, you have students who are smart and interested in attending college in the U.S. and through no fault of their own ended up here in some cases," said Center for Immigration Studies research associate John Wahala.
"But the bottom line is the act would encourage illegal immigration and sends conflicting messages. On one hand, we're saying because of national security and because our legal immigration problems are so bad we want stricter enforcement, then on the other hand we're handing these benefits out."
The Urban League estimates about 50,000 to 60,000 students nationwide would be affected by the legislation. The 2000 U.S. Census estimates there are about 8.7 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
The reason these undocumented students get to graduation with nobody knowing their legal status is because schools don't ask about their legal residence; by law, they are required to educate all children.
"These students remain in our society. They're not going back to their home countries," Rivera said.
Chandler High School counseling department chairman Bruce Ireland said he's counseled students who emigrated at young ages from Mexico and other nations and discovered late in their education that their family's status might hold them back.
"I did have a situation, I recall, last year where a young lady was interested in pursuing postsecondary education and, because of her residency status, was not able to get scholarships," he said. "That's kind of heartbreaking to see that. One of our really top students last year was in the same situation where they're very bright students, but they're in a situation where they're not able to enter college on their own. Being a citizen is a prerequisite."
Chandler High intervention assistant Virginia Cardenas has seen a handful of students get married early to citizens in hopes of legalizing their status.
"There are repercussions to kids who have dreams and aspirations," she said. "They become very angry, and often drop out. What's the use of staying in school?"
Jerry Burns, a Chandler immigration lawyer, said he has seen cases in which students get married or pregnant, thinking those are "magic tickets" to become citizens and move forward.
Chely, a 17-year-old Chandler resident who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, hopes to graduate from high school in two years. She was only 5 when her parents moved her to the United States on work visas that have since expired.
"I get excited, just thinking I have a chance to succeed," she said after a teacher explained the proposed legislation to her. "We had a career fair at school, and I talked to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and fashion designers. I feel like I'm from here, I spent most of my life here. I really don't think it's fair, if I try my best to succeed, to send me back to Mexico."
Her sister Angelica, 21, a former honor roll student and now a mother of two, had to give up her dreams of going to law school because it requires documentation.
"I had straight A's all the time," Angelica said. "I was a student council treasurer. I want to be somebody."
Reps. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., are co-sponsoring the bipartisan legislation.
Renzi said in a statement that his legislation targets excelling students.
Matt Ash, a spokesman for Renzi, said, "It would give these immigrants to the U.S. the ability to be eligible to become legal residents."
A spokesman for Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said while Flake sympathizes with these students, he doesn't support the bill because it raises issues of fairness by targeting a specific group of undocumented immigrants.
Mesa mother and Emerson Elementary School parent-teacher organization president Carmen Guerrero said undocumented residents pay taxes, and many own homes, which means they pay property taxes to schools.
"Their children have a right to go to school," she said.