"A lot of students were babies when their parents brought them. This is the only home we ever knew. I can't imagine moving back, it's so dangerous there and I don't know anyone there," said U. student Brizia Ceja, a panelist who left Sinaloa, Mexico, for Utah at age 13.
The United States is home to about 2.1 million undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. Under current law, many cannot legally work, go to college or obtain financial aid. Undocumented students in Utah enjoy in-state college tuition, but only if they attended Utah schools for three or more years.
Sam's U. education will be sidetracked for want of an internship. She needs professional experience in a print shop to get her degree, but without a Social Security number, an internship is out of reach. Her best hope is a change in U.S. law.
"Otherwise I'm not going to graduate, and even if I graduate, I won't be able to get a job and all these years will be wasted," Sam said. "There is nothing for us in Mexico; we don't even have family. I hope one day my mother doesn't have to work for me and I can work for her. If I don't have an education the best I can get is a restaurant job that pays minimum wage."
Foes of illegal immigration offer little sympathy.
"It's foolish for them to get an education in Utah unless they are able to get a job," said Phyllis Sears of the Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, based in St. George. "I'm opposed to passing any kind of an act that increases taxes on our citizens for noncitizens' benefit."
Immigrant advocates say Sam's story illustrates the need for the DREAM Act the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act now up for consideration on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
"They are being penalized for a decision that was not theirs," said Annie Brewer, a social worker at Salt Lake City's Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. "Their parents were trying to a build a better life for them. They have tremendous potential, having survived moving to a new country and learning a new language, living in poverty and succeeding in school. They have tremendous strength of character."
Brewer's work at Horizonte brought her in contact with many high-achieving, but undocumented students who aspired to college and productive careers. But their undocumented status halted their educational progress by rendering them ineligible for financial aid, scholarships, internships and, after graduation, jobs. These students' stories spurred her to team up with photographer Lynn Hoffman-Brouse to create the portrait exhibit.
"If the law is going to change, public opinion has to change," Brewer said. She recruited students to pose for Hoffman-Brouse, who photographed them in ways that would capture their character without revealing their identity, while Brewer interviewed them. The students' first names and stories accompany their portraits.
"They have big plans like everyone else," said Hoffman-Brouse, a former teacher at Judge Memorial High School. "A few wanted to be teachers, which they can't be. A few wanted to be police officers. One girl wants to work for the gang units to convince kids to not go that route."
Another subject in the exhibit is a Horizonte graduate who came from Mexico to California at age 2. He can't get in-state Utah tuition because he attended school in Utah for only one year, Brewer said. With the help of a new private scholarship, he started at Salt Lake Community College this fall.
SB81, Utah's 2008 anti- illegal immigration law, shut down public scholarships to undocumented students, said Ceja, a 2010 U. graduate in speech communications and political science. She graduated before the scholarships dried up, but now hopes to enter the U.'s new graduate program offering a joint degree in law and social work.
"We really want to do better. We are not out joining gangs. We have to work harder to get scholarships and we have to work harder to go to college," Ceja said. "If I don't have documents I can't be a lawyer. I can't take the bar exam. It's not just punishing us, it's punishing our communities."
'DREAMers: Living in the Shadow of Hope'
What • This series of portraits by Salt Lake City photographer Lynn Hoffman-Brouse features 30 Utah students who are undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. All encountered challenges to attend or graduate from college. The exhibit opens today with a reception and panel discussion at the University of Utah.
When • Today, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where • Goodwill Humanitarian Building, 395 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City. After a week, the exhibit moves to the U.'s Olpin Student Union.
Who • Panelists include Hoffman-Brouse, Annie Brewer, of the Horizonte school, U. student Brizia Ceja, and Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jennifer Sanchez.