By J.B. Smith Tribune-Herald staff writer
Grecia Cantu gazed into the faces of her classmates on a day last June and stifled an urge to cry.
As thousands watched at the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum, the 2009 valedictorian of University High School found her voice cracking anyway as she thanked her teachers and urged her classmates to reach for what seemed unreachable.
Grecia, 19, agreed to be identified in this story knowing the visibility could raise her risk of deportation. She used another surname for this story to protect her parents’ identities.
Grecia Cantu said she considers herself an American and wants to find a way to become a legalized citizen. She has lived here since she was 7 years old.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald
Grecia’s own dreams then seemed within her grasp.
She had math smarts, a love of books and a flair for the stage. She had received a presidential scholarship to go to Baylor University.
“I was going to go to Baylor, become a teacher and settle down here,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Waco.”
That summer her dream crashed into reality. She found out she could not afford Baylor. The main reason was that she is an illegal immigrant.
She came here as a 7-year-old with her parents from Monterrey, Mexico, a city that is now a fading memory.
She had mastered English and considered herself an American. But there was no way, short of an act of Congress, to get legal status.
That meant she couldn’t get a driver’s license or a Social Security number. She couldn’t get a job. She could attend college in Texas with in-state tuition, but she couldn’t get federal financial aid or a student loan.
And without them, she could not attend Baylor.
“It’s a great school and it has the best school of education,” she said. “But what’s the point of going through Baylor and getting in debt, when in the end I can’t work?”
Now entering her second year at McLennan Community College, she is determined to continue her education, but her path after that depends on decisions made in Washington, D.C.
In the meantime, she has joined the growing ranks of second-generation illegal immigrants who are going public about their struggles in hopes the system will change.
“If God wants me to go back to Mexico, he’ll take me by any means necessary,” said Grecia, whose friends call her Gracie.
President Barack Obama has advocated comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a path to legalization for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Such a proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress.
Meanwhile, a narrower bill targeted at young adults like Grecia, who were brought to this country as minors, has been introduced in Congress many times since 2001, but has never come to a vote.
The most recent “DREAM Act” (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) bill, introduced in the House in 2009, would grant conditional legal status to qualifying immigrants under age 35 who entered the U.S. before age 16 and have been continuously present here for five years. The immigrants must have a high school diploma or GED to apply.
Applicants could receive permanent residency after six years if they obtain a college degree or two years of a four-year college, or if they serve in the military. They must maintain “good moral character” and not commit any major crimes.
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, said he supports the aims of the DREAM Act but doubts it could pass as a stand-alone bill.
He said he prefers comprehensive immigration reform, including strong border security, enforcement of the ban on hiring illegal immigrants and a chance for illegal immigrants of all ages to apply for residency if they meet certain requirements such as paying taxes and speaking English.
He thinks such a bill could come to the House as early as December, and that would open opportunities to young people such as Grecia.
“I think most Americans would agree with the principle that you don’t punish children for the decisions or mistakes of their parents,” he said.
Edwards’ Republican opponent in the November election, Bill Flores, disagrees with the goals of the DREAM Act.
“The DREAM Act, by including a path to legalization, is asking the American people to accept amnesty and forgive lawbreaking before the federal government will even adequately secure our border,” he said. “I am opposed to the DREAM Act because we cannot be a nation of laws that rewards lawbreakers.”
Grecia remembers the day in July 2000 she learned her parents were moving the family to Waco.
“Mom came to the house and said, ‘We’re going to Waco,’ ” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Cool.’ We had visited there many times over the summer to see family there. In my innocence, I didn’t understand we were staying.”
Then her parents began selling everything: the taqueria and ice cream parlor they owned, the house and all its contents. They even sold Grecia’s stuffed Minnie Mouse, her Barbies and books.
“I’ve always liked to read, so that hurt my heart,” she said. “As we were emptying the house, I found a Barbie that hadn’t been sold off. It was the ugliest one I had, but I never got rid of it.”
Grecia stands next to University High School principal Nolan Correa at commencement exercises in June 2009. She was the school’s valedictorian.
Jose Yau/Waco Tribune-Herald, file
The parents, Grecia and her 5-year-old twin brothers boarded a bus and headed to Waco on a legal tourist visa.
Grecia’s mother said that because her father, Grecia’s grandfather, was a citizen, the family moved here thinking they could be legalized quickly.
The family overstayed the visa, and the parents applied for permanent residency in April 2001.
The parents, both college-educated, wanted to get their children enrolled in American schools before they got any older.
“The idea was for them to come here to learn English,” the mother said.
Grecia quickly learned English and moved up through Waco public schools. She never thought of herself as an illegal immigrant. In fact, she barely thought about her immigration status at all until she was applying for college.
By then, the family’s possibilities of becoming legalized had dwindled. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, threw a wrench in the legal immigration process and led to a long backlog of applications.
Grecia’s mother has been told that her case will likely take 13 years, meaning they will be illegal until 2014.
Time running out
Grecia’s grandfather is now 83 years old, and if he dies before the case is closed, the family loses any hope of legalization. Grecia will only be eligible for family-based immigration until she is 21 — two years from now.
Susan Nelson, a Waco immigration attorney whom the family has consulted, said Grecia’s dilemma is common.
“A lot of kids I see who are caught and would benefit from the DREAM act are from families that have had petitions on file a long time,” Nelson said. “A large majority have a petition waiting for them, but they’re going to age out before they can benefit. It’s a really long line, and it’s hard for families to know when their turn is going to be.”
She said one wrong move could get a young illegal immigrant deported to a country they don’t know.
“We’re already deporting people who don’t have any ties to their home countries,” she said.
Grecia sailed through high school with A’s and participated in a dozen plays, some as an actress and one as co-director. She was also an editor of the school yearbook.
“She’s by far one of the brightest students I’ve ever worked with, and she’s become a good friend of mine,” said Kendra Willeby, who was Grecia’s drama teacher at University High School and now is in graduate school in Houston. “She’s brilliant, and she’s well-rounded, equally bright in math and science, and a beauty on the stage. She has a maturity beyond her years.”
Grecia had no trouble getting into Baylor. She was accepted in November 2008.
“I called everyone and told them how now I was going to be a Baylor Bear,” she said.
Willeby and others at University High guided her through the financial aid forms and thought she could afford it. She won the $4,000-per-semester Baylor presidential scholarship and two local scholarships.
She put down her deposit and went to the university’s orientation that spring.
But Grecia learned in July 2009 that Baylor did not participate in the state of Texas’ valedictorian scholarship program, which covers tuition at many universities.
And without federal grants or loans to fall back on, she couldn’t afford the $14,000 a year she would owe at Baylor, Grecia said.
Baylor officials wouldn’t comment on her case, but said they don’t base admission or merit scholarships on legal status. Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said undocumented students have access to state aid but not federal aid, and Baylor can’t control that.
“Baylor has worked very diligently and deliberately to remove hurdles that would create any additional burdens for these students,” Fogleman said.
Willeby said she regrets that she could not help Grecia fulfill her Baylor dreams.
“Baylor’s not at fault,” she said. “They gave her a presidential scholarship. It’s the way the system is.”
Grecia said MCC is less challenging than Baylor, but she intends to earn her four-year degree there and then try to become a manager or start her own business.
Grecia said she’s frustrated that she can’t get a driver’s license or a job.
“I need a job to make myself feel better,” she said. “I feel like such a burden to my parents. At least I should be able to pay for gas.”
She said she can’t imagine going back to Mexico as an option.
Grecia planned to attend Baylor University before she ran into problems.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald
“The U.S. is my life,” she said. “I can’t go back. I feel like I’m an American. I love my Mexican heritage and culture. It’s beautiful. But I don’t know anything but Waco and the U.S. I don’t have pride in being Mexican. This is home.”
She doesn’t blame her parents for her predicament.
“It was all about me and my brothers,” she said. “They gave up everything for us so we could have a better future. They didn’t think about how difficult it would be for us in the long run.”
Her brothers, incoming seniors at different Waco high schools, said they intend to go to college and hope for the best. One wants to attend MCC and become a Waco police officer.
The other expects to graduate at the top of his class, attend Texas State University and teach at the high school or college level.
“I plan on studying until I get a doctorate,” the 16-year-old said. “I think by then the law will change. If I can do it, it will be a slap in the face of the government, because they’re trying to make our lives as hard as it can be.”
He said he understands why people are opposed to illegal immigration.
“They’re right,” he said. “It’s the law that you’re not supposed to cross into the U.S. without permission. They’re right we’re here illegally. We’re breaking the law on a daily basis. But there’s not much we (the children) can do about it. It’s not like I can get on a bus and go to Mexico.”
Willeby said she thinks Grecia and her brothers will succeed because they are determined.
“I don’t think you could call anything about Gracie a tragedy,” Willeby said. “She’s made the best of it. Gracie is going to be phenomenal at whatever she does. In her quiet and strong way she’s going to fight to make the system better.”