By Dave DeFusco
Erwin Hesse is a good example of America’s promise of opportunity. Born to a Peruvian father and El Salvadoran mother and raised in a Hispanic enclave of working class Wheaton, Md., he struggled with his schoolwork and had frequent brushes with the law. He barely made it out of high school, but he was lucky. He had a supportive girlfriend who encouraged him to achieve and steadfast parents who kept a roof over his head and his favorite meal, lomo saltado, or stir-fried steak, cooked with onions and tomatoes and served with white rice and French fries, on the kitchen table when he got home too late.
“I cook it now for my wife and boys,” said Erwin, an EdD candidate in his final semester at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and an associate director of admissions for the Carey Business School.
What didn’t occur to him as a teenager is that his citizenship—that special privilege conferred on Americans simply for being lucky enough to be born in the United States—not only allowed him to make mistakes, but to make them unabashedly in full view of others, to learn from them, and to choose to rise above them. Erwin’s story could be a modern-day version of a Horatio Alger novel. Alger wrote in the 19th century of impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage and honesty.
After graduating from high school, Erwin was accepted into Montgomery College. On a visit to a local jail for a class project, he saw some of his high school friends behind bars. “It was a poignant, but sobering, realization that I could have been right there with them,” he said. “Instead, I had a pen and paper and was taking notes about jail life and how they got there. I vowed to never look back.”
He also came to find out that many of those friends weren’t American citizens, whose failings weren’t seen through the same cultural lens as Erwin’s, when they were refused driver’s licenses for not having Social Security numbers. Six out of 10 immigrant children discover they’re undocumented when they apply for college.
“Growing up, I didn’t realize the privilege of being born in the United States,” he said. “As I got older, I felt it wasn’t fair that my friends had to pay out of pocket for schooling just because they didn’t have nine digits (Social Security). They were as American as me.”
Erwin went on to obtain associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, and then a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Baltimore. Along the way, he worked in various positions in the recruiting and admissions offices at the University of Maryland because higher education had changed his life. When an undocumented immigrant applied in person, Erwin’s co-workers turned to him for assistance.
“I want to impart my wisdom to others, especially our most vulnerable populations,” said Erwin, who lives in Brookeville with that same girlfriend, Andrea, now his wife, and their three sons Leo (5), Mason (2) and Ethan (5 months).
He conducted a needs assessment that explored nine admissions counselors’ experiences with undocumented students at a public, four-year university in the state of Maryland. His findings suggest that admissions staff may confuse which policies apply to undocumented immigrants classified as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, versus Dreamers.
DACA is a program that was introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama as a stopgap measure that would shield from deportation people who were brought into the United States as children. The status is renewable, lasting two years at a time. The program does not provide a pathway to citizenship.
Participation in the program comes with a range of benefits. Along with permission to remain in the country, recipients can also get work permits, through which many have obtained health insurance from their employers.
The ability to work has also allowed them to pay for school, pursue higher education and, in some states, drive legally. The program also opened up access to in-state tuition and state-funded grants and loans in some states. And depending on where they live, recipients can also qualify for state-subsidized health care.
A similar piece of legislation, called the Dream Act, was introduced in 2001 and would have given its beneficiaries a path to American citizenship, but then 9-11 happened and the country’s mood toward immigrants darkened. Dreamers now fall between the ages of 16 and 35; the vast majority came from Mexico, though many others were born in Central and South America, Asia and the Caribbean. The status has been issued to roughly 800,000 people.
Recipients must be enrolled in high school or already have a diploma or G.E.D. in order to qualify. Anyone with a serious criminal history defined as a felony or serious misdemeanor conviction, or three misdemeanor convictions, is not eligible.
Erwin contends that the Maryland university he studied doesn’t have a strategic plan to actively recruit undocumented students, and day-to-day protocols have not been established for advising undocumented students. With millions of undocumented immigrants under threat of deportation, he believes community colleges and universities must understand the needs of this population, which lives in fear, silence and uncertainty, more than ever before.
As part of his dissertation and doctoral research, he created a professional development plan for college admission counselors so they could become more knowledgeable of undocumented students’ needs during the recruitment process. The results of his pre- and post-survey showed increases in counselors’ multicultural knowledge, awareness and terminology of undocumented students. He plans to publish his findings in an academic journal shortly after graduation and offer the professional development to colleges throughout the state.
“Undocumented students live day-to-day in a precarious and vulnerable situation,” he said in an article that published his needs assessment in College and University. “Many experience depression and self-doubt while others learn how to maneuver illegally within the United States. Undocumented students rely on their social capital networks, primarily comprising other undocumented students, family and friends, for insights on how to do so.”
In Maryland there is an estimated 253,000 undocumented immigrants, with roughly 63,000 under the age of 25. The Maryland Dream Act, which passed in a statewide referendum in 2012, resulted in an influx of undocumented students applying to two-year and four-year colleges in the state. At the time, opponents of the Maryland Dream Act argued that undocumented immigrants should be limited to in-state tuition benefits, but Erwin insists that most of them come from predominately low-income families. The average income for an undocumented family in the United States is barely over $35,000.
“Undocumented college students in Maryland are the only population that lack the ability to qualify for federal or state aid and loans,” said Erwin, “even though they or their parents pay taxes and were raised in the United States.”
He chafes at President Trump’s “bad hombres” rhetoric on undocumented immigrants that he thinks casts them unfairly. “What I have seen in my work is an undocumented female engineering student with an off-the-charts SAT math score,” said Erwin, “or the undocumented male student who graduated from college in three years with two degrees and interned at Microsoft—both of whom almost did not attend college because of the lack of financial support.”
He remembers going to Annapolis in 2011 and marching side-by-side with undocumented and documented students to pass the state’s Dream Act. Many of them wore caps and gowns with signs around their necks proclaiming: “Future lawyer, teacher, CEO, if you pass the Dream Act.”
Despite the divisions, the Maryland Dream Act became law. Now Erwin has turned his attention to cajoling state lawmakers to level the playing field by having the state provide financial aid to undocumented students.
“For those of you that say I’m just a dreamer,” he said, invoking John Lennon’s iconic song Imagine, “I’m not the only one.”