The Connection

Bright and intense but undocumented, Bob could have been just another immigrant laborer. Then he met Susan Lieberman.

He had some money. He'd scraped together $1,600 from his summers of yard work. (He gave the money to Susan for safekeeping.) His guidance counselor had found a three-year, $1,500 sports scholarship that didn't require him to be a U.S. citizen. His parents could kick in another $200 for books. And one of UH's colleges offered him a $1,500 scholarship, renewable as long as Bob remained in good standing.

But Bob was too good at math to delude himself. That money wouldn't be enough.

Near the end of May, Susan placed a call to Rob Sheridan, the university's director of financial aid. Susan didn't know Sheridan, but she knows how to place a business phone call, and she knows how to be aggressive and polite at the same time.

Jill Hadley Hooper

Hypothetically, she asked Sheridan, what if a bright, highly motivated kid, who happens to be an undocumented immigrant, needed financial assistance? Could you do anything?

Sheridan said he'd have to meet the student. Susan thought Sheridan was on her side, but she couldn't be sure.

She told Bob, This is dangerous, but you should do it. Go to Rob Sheridan's office, and don't leave until you've made an appointment.

"If Susan says it's okay, I do it," says Bob. "She knows what's supposed to be done."

In May a story similar to Bob's landed on the front page of the Houston Chronicle: Adam Carranza was both Madison High School's valedictorian and an undocumented immigrant; after the Chronicle reported that his scholarships had been withdrawn, a philanthropist offered him assistance, and UH, Texas A&M and Texas Southern University dangled the possibility of full, merit-based scholarships.

Carranza was applying for U.S. residency and had nothing to lose by seeking publicity. But Carranza's case was unusual; Bob's is more typical. Sheridan assumes that Bob is far from the only undocumented student attending UH, or any other college in Texas -- but there's no way to tell for sure. It seems likely that most undocumented students are even more secretive about their situations than Bob, who at least applied as a foreign national. If a student applies as a Texas resident, unless a red flag is raised (by a need-based scholarship application or somesuch), the university makes no effort to ascertain citizenship; it's not the university's job.

When Bob came to Sheridan's office in late June, he struck the financial officer as unusually intense and dedicated, far more focused than the average incoming freshman. Sheridan wanted to help, but doing so would require him to find scholarship assistance that was tied to neither federal nor state funds. "Sometimes I have the money, and I can assist," he says. "Sometimes I don't have it."

Bob and Susan waited a month. At the end of July, Sheridan called to say that he'd found another merit-based scholarship, which would cover $1,000 a year. Even more important than the money itself were the merit-based scholarships' side effects: By state law, a non-Texan who wins a large scholarship is allowed to pay in-state tuition. The money would work out. Bob would go to college.

So far, he's doing well at UH. He likes engineering, though he flirted briefly with becoming an actuary. Actuaries are in demand, and that demand might help him get a green card. Mexico "is in my heart," he says, but he doesn't want to live there.

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