The Connection

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

As a mentor to high school kids, Susan Lieberman dispensed the standard good advice: Take tough classes. Study hard. Go to college. Education is the pathway to a good future. But kids are kids, and most ignored her.

Bob was different. He did what she said. When she told him to call about an internship, he picked up the phone. When she suggested that he study vocabulary lists, he memorized the words, and his standardized test scores rose. When she urged him to apply for a summer writing program, he filled out the application and won a scholarship.

The program was in Minnesota, which to Bob, a poor Hispanic kid from the east side, might as well have been Mars. He had never been on a plane before, much less left his family for three weeks. But Susan said he should go. "And he went," she remembers. "Do you know how much courage it takes to leave your family and friends and go to a world you can't even imagine?

"When a kid does what you ask, it's amazing. You say to yourself, I'll walk over hot coals for this kid."

As it turned out, Bob required that kind of commitment.


Bob -- that's not his real name -- is an undocumented immigrant. In 1990 his dad left Mexico, sneaking into the United States to look for work. Seven-year-old Bob and his two siblings stayed behind with their mom and worked beside her in the fields. For a day spent picking tomatoes, he earned eight pesos, roughly eight cents.

A year later Bob's dad asked the family to join him in Houston. Bob, his brother and sister attended public schools. His dad mowed lawns; his mom cleaned houses. Bob helped his dad mow, and he called his mom's clients to set up her appointments because his English was better than hers. He played soccer and daydreamed about playing in the Mexican college leagues, maybe for the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. As he grew older, his dreams became more practical: He wanted to become an engineer.

Susan was not thrilled to hear that her bright, hardworking pupil was an undocumented immigrant. "Do I want to become known as someone who fosters illegal aliens? I don't want the right wing to torch my house. I'm not leading a movement. I'm not a saint."

But on the other hand, Bob was bright and eager and did everything right. Was it his fault that his parents had brought him to the United States? And doesn't the United States need more highly educated technical workers? Wouldn't Bob contribute more to Houston, in taxes and otherwise, if he operated a computer instead of a leaf blower? "What was I supposed to say?" asks Susan. "Don't bother, you're consigned to the underground economy. Forget school. Screw around. Have a cigarette."

Starting when he was a sophomore, they met about twice a month at Milby High School or at Susan's house or at fast-food restaurants. Between those meetings, they talked by phone. Much of her advice was the kind middle-class kids take for granted. She says, for instance, that she had to teach Bob that "the phone works both ways," that he could call her to ask a question or report a victory. Bob was shy and didn't want to presume.

She urged him to apply for a computer-related internship in the Texas Medical Center. The internship was unpaid, so there'd be no reason to check his citizenship. But it involved a different kind of danger: Bob would have to drive there, and he couldn't get a driver's license without a social security number. Riding Metro buses from the east side to the Med Center would take two and a half hours; by the time Bob returned home, night would have fallen, and he wouldn't be able to help his dad mow lawns.

Bob was a good driver, but Susan worried about his being behind the wheel. What if he were in an accident? What if he were stopped for some minor traffic violation? Was the internship worth risking deportation? This is dangerous, she warned him. You have to decide whether it's worth revealing yourself. Bob decided that it was.

He'd learned something at the Med Center, and besides, American colleges like to see their applicants list internships. Bob had decided to try attending college in Houston. If he attended UNAM, he'd be too far away to help his family; and after graduation, he'd have a hard time finding work in Mexico. Besides, an American degree would carry at least as much weight as a Mexican one, even in Mexico -- and far more in the United States.

The University of Houston seemed the obvious choice, and it also seemed obvious that Bob was the kind of student UH hopes to attract. He applied to UH as a foreign national, which was technically the correct thing to do, and UH admitted him. But because Bob didn't claim to be a U.S. citizen, he wasn't eligible for in-state tuition. And the difference was significant: By state law, nonresidents pay $255 per semester hour, more than six times the $40 per hour that residents pay.

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.

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 Chroniclereported 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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