Educated but undocumented: Esther Lee’s immigrant student story

by Aurora de Peralta

When Esther Yu-Hsi Lee and her family fled a domestic violence situation in Taiwan and moved to Los Angeles, they entered the United States as undocumented immigrants. She was only two years old when they arrived.

Lee, who is currently the immigration reporter for the left-leaning Center for American Progress blog ThinkProgress, said she grew up without fully understanding the implications of her status as an immigrant without legal documentation of US citzenship. In other terms, she was an undocumented immigrant.

But she soon realized that a lack of legal U.S. citizenship would present a serious barrier to accessing higher education.

“I knew early on that my family was undocumented. I didn’t really understand what the implications of being documented meant,” Lee said. “But I did know that it would be challenging for me to go on to college.”

As she applied for colleges in the late nineties–before immigration came to the forefront as a national discussion–Lee found that higher education institutions didn’t have a grasp on the implications of being undocumented. She wasn’t a legal citizen, yet she also wasn’t an international student eligible for an F1 or J1 student visa. The result was confusion and uncertainty from all parties regarding Lee’s ability to enroll in school.

“At  many universities that I applied to, they still weren’t that knowledgeable about what being undocumented meant,” Lee said. “A lot of times I would have to be pulled into a backroom, and I would have to tell them that I’m undocumented. And they wouldn’t really know how to place me.”

In the end, the only school Lee was accepted into was New York University. But there was one caveat: she would not be eligible for any financial aid or scholarships, and would have to pay the full tuition of the private university. To pay for school, Lee spent her years at NYU working long hours as a nanny, a Mandarin tutor and a cleaner.Through this hard work, Lee was able to receive both a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a master’s degree in Psychology.

After years of national discussion about immigration reform, the process for foreign-born students in applying for higher education has since shifted. Since 2001, states have taken steps to try to make postsecondary education more accessible to undocumented students. State-based Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Acts—which have changed state residency requirements to allow undocumented students to pay the same tuition rates as their peers—have become law in several states.

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

Esther Yu-Hsi Lee of ThinkProgress shares her story as an undocumented immigrant.

Lee encouraged immigrant youth to consider whether or not their states would provide in-state tuition, as state government legislation has eased access to higher education for undocumented youth.

“I know that cost is a huge barrier to higher education for undocumented students,” Lee said. “State governments and legislation will have an impact on whether or not they can attend state school, and whether or not they can afford state school.”

Private schools even have adopted more progressive policies regarding accepting undocumented youth into their institutions–including Lee’s alma mater.

“The UC system in California has decided to give $5 million in scholarships yearly to undocumented students,” she said. “Even NYU now has a scholarship for undocumented immigrants.”

“This had never been the case before,” Lee emphasized.

But even after attaining postsecondary education, Lee, too, has been able to benefit from the shifting national dialogue on immigration. Two years ago, President Obama announced a new program to bring relief to immigrants like Lee: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA is open to unauthorized immigrants younger than 30 who came to the US when they were under 16, have been in the US for at least five years, don’t have serious criminal records, and are either enrolled in high school or had a diploma or GED. Immigrants who apply for DACA and are approved receive two years of protection from deportation. Now, Lee is a DACA beneficiary.

She recalled the Obama’s announcement of the DACA program as the day her life had changed for the better.

“I was very tired of working as a nanny. I was very depressed because I was like, ‘I have a Master’s degree and I can’t use it and this sucks!'” she said. “[DACA] would give me the opportunity to work, and it’s going to give me the opportunity to never look behind me to see if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is right there.”

Now, Lee works full-time as an immigration reporter for ThinkProgress, covering a field that affects her personally. She considers herself an advocate for immigration reform, but maintains that she must remain objective as a journalist.

“I hope my work [as a journalist] is objective enough that we do hear both sides of a story,” Lee said.

“But apart from that, I am an advocate for immigration reform because it does affect me,” she added. “I know DACA is not permanent, so we do need a permanent pathway to citizenship through Congress. We do need a permanent pathway that only Congress can provide, and not the president.”


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