When leaders of eight Arkansas higher learning institutions sent a letter to Congress recently calling for immigration reform, among their arguments was that undocumented students brought to America as children struggle to access college — a waste of their talents, both for them and for society.
They didn’t mention specific students, but they were talking about people like Lidia Mondragon.
Lidia is a native of Guerrero, Mexico, where her family did not have electricity. Work was available only during the harvest season, so her father came to America illegally to work in chicken plants and send money home. He was able to visit his family occasionally.
At age seven, Lidia traveled across the California border with her family. A border patrol agent shined his flashlight into the car but did not ask questions. After a few months, the family relocated to Waldron, Ark.
The only Latino student in her class, she did not speak English, so she would nod her head and pretend to understand what was said. When she was in the sixth grade, English clicked for her. She graduated high school as her class’s salutatorian.
It wasn’t until she started applying for college as a sophomore that she began to understand what it meant to be illegal in Arkansas. She was accepted by every school where she applied, but she had to pay out-of-state tuition and, because she was undocumented, wasn’t eligible for scholarships. Her tuition and mandatory fees at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are three times what they would be were she a citizen from Arkansas. Her education, she said, is costing her $20,000 a year.
How does she pay for it? Her parents each have worked up to 75 hours a week at the chicken plant. She says they file income taxes every year. When Lidia’s mother contracted cancer, Waldron’s Latino community raised money so she could be treated. She was supposed to be in recovery for a month. Instead, she rested a week and then went back to work. The family needed the money.
Lidia, a senior now, is majoring in biology and is carrying a 3.5 grade point average. She will graduate next May and then enroll in medical school, perhaps specializing in pediatrics or oncology — a cancer doctor, in other words.
She wants to practice in Arkansas. According to a 2013 report by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the state currently is short 360 primary care physicians — family doctors, pediatricians, etc. Central Arkansas is the only part of the state that has more doctors than it needs.
Lidia received a two-year work permit in March because of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, announced in June 2012. Under that policy, holders of permits brought to America by their parents won’t be deported.
She will have to renew her permit before the two years are up. It might not be available then, but she’s enrolling in medical school anyway. She owes it to her parents. Her dad quit school in the sixth grade, her mom in the eighth, both to work. They don’t want her to work 75 hours a week in a chicken plant.
“My dad always tells me, ‘You already have the brains. All you have to do is work hard on your studies, and we’ll do the rest,’” she said. “It’s hard, but I’m going to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a doctor for a reason, because one day I will support them how they supported me.”
Lidia has not traveled to Mexico since she was seven. She would not know what to do there. She grew up in Arkansas.
“Since I started school, every morning, we had to pledge allegiance to the flag, and I loved doing that. Here, this has been my home. … When they say, ‘Go back to your home,’ this is my home. How can I go back to something that I don’t remember, that I don’t even know what it’s like to live there?”
There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants floating around what everyone knows is a broken system. This column could have been written about an American construction worker or chicken plant employee who lost his job to someone here illegally.
So what should be done? Blanket amnesty? Blanket expulsion? Or could Congress create a solution somewhere in between?
And what should be done about Lidia? Give her a chance to be a doctor? Send her to Mexico because her parents brought her here illegally? Or keep her stuck in the no-man’s land where she lives now?
Whatever answer policymakers produce says more about this country than it does about her.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.