Portland Community College has been celebrating its 50th anniversary all year. The party continues Friday night at PCC commencement.
Every year, it's an upbeat send-off for students. But the path to university or the work force can be tough. And it can be more difficult for some than others.
It's an especially unique challenge for students who aren’t in the U.S. legally.
The student body president at PCC Rock Creek is an outgoing 21-year-old Latina. She wants a four-year degree in communications. Liliana Luna is her name and she has a legal problem.
“Yes, I am undocumented. I came out – I came out of the shadows, May 1,” Luna says.
That was the day she joined the May Day rally in downtown Portland and led a group off the permitted parade route.
“We took over another street. There was maybe, 100-plus people around us, I think. We were yelling ‘We are undocumented, and we are not afraid'.”
Luna was among a number of protesters to be arrested May 1. She says a federal immigration officer interviewed her. Luna says she knew she could’ve been deported.
“I call him, that he was like my angel because I, somehow I could trust him. The other police officers, they were different, you know? But the immigration officer, I said, ‘you know, I did what I thought was correct.’ And I said ‘if you think that I should be here just because I stood up for my rights, and for my family, and for my community – I mean if you feel that that’s what I did, that’s what I did, I deserve to be deported’. That was the only thing I could say because I was about to cry, because you know, you’re maybe facing deportation, what else can you do?”
Luna says it helped her case with the immigration officer that she had no previous criminal record.
“He said ‘You know, I need you to be out there. I don’t want you here.’ He was very nice. And then he said ‘you are a low case priority. So I will do my best to get you out of here’.”
By the evening of May 2, Luna was out.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to discuss Luna’s situation on the air. But, a message from the agency characterized Luna’s case as a “perfect example” of the discretion field agents and other officials are expected to use.
Weeks later, Luna is sitting with two friends. All three are undocumented PCC students who want four-year college degrees.
Ulysses Olvera says that’s tough financially. He says he’s cobbled together small scholarships, waivers, and a little out-of-pocket money to cover the lower cost of community college. Universities cost more.
“It’s not as easy as just finding jobs that can help you with tuition. It’s actually finding a school that will accept you, because you don’t have that social security number. And it’s also more expensive, because you have to pay out-of-state tuition. It’s a challenge.” Olvera says.
Olvera is wearing a purple shirt with big white letters reading "Do I Look Undocumented?". But he says getting attention on the subject is complicated by one major challenge: the people most directly affected by the limits of their immigration status are afraid of being deported.
“It’s like a taboo to talk about it. But why? People within our group – we don’t talk about it, in fear. It’s really frustrating, because instead of really talking about it, and helping each other, we just hold it back.”
A third student, Carlos Sanchez, listens to Olvera and Luna, and admits he’s been reluctant to tell people he’s undocumented. Not any more.
“I feel like I’m destined to do this. Not just because I’m undocumented, but because I’m also – I’m going to throw this – I’m gay. I know that going to Mexico isn’t an option for me, because that’s another whammy down there. It’s difficult,” Sanchez says.
Liliana Luna remembers the exact date she entered the U.S. as a teenager. It was on her parents’ wedding anniversary, six years ago.
Carlos Sanchez doesn’t remember when his parents first crossed the border. It was before he was born.
“Funny story. My parents came in 1989, and I was made here.”
But Sanchez says his mom started having problems with her pregnancy.
“She was brand-new to this country, and didn’t know how it worked. People were telling her that if she was to stay here, they wouldn’t give her the attention she needed, or they weren’t going to be helping her. So she decided to go back, and I was born in Mexico.”
Sanchez says his parents re-entered the U.S. with him, when he was two.
“When people say 'oh, you’re an illegal immigrant' – yeah, but I didn’t choose to come here, it’s not like I came here walking as a child, and said ‘I’m going to start working in the fields, and go to school, and take everyone’s money away' No. I grew up here. I didn’t even know I was undocumented until I was like 15.”
Sanchez, Olvera, and Liliana Luna have a fix in mind. They call it “tuition equity.” It would change the law, to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students in good standing.
Such a bill reached the senate floor in 2011. The bill’s supporters argued that undocumented youngsters shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ decisions. Not everyone agreed.
“Unfortunately, children do pay for the sins of their parents. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality," says Bruce Starr, a Republican state senator whose district comes very close to PCC Rock Creek.
He says even if lawmakers helped undocumented students go to school, another problem awaits them.
“These educated kids can’t work here.”
Starr goes on to say that if students want to work legally in the United States, they have to leave the country and then go through the proper immigration process. Some have argued that the government should address that issue by offering special visas to these graduates.
The bill passed the Senate last year, but it died in the Oregon House without a floor vote.
PCC student leader Liliana Luna had warned her parents in advance that she was likely to get arrested in this year’s May Day protest. She says her father argued against it.
"‘What if you get deported?’ My Dad told me ‘if you get deported, I can’t stay here. I will have to go to Mexico and live with you.’ And like, the family would have to move to Mexico. He told me ‘you are being selfish because you are thinking about yourself, and you are thinking you don’t care if you get deported. But I have to think about my other children, not only you.”
Luna says by the next morning, her Dad had changed his mind.