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Dreams stall, fate dangling by red tape

His college scholarship gone, Francisco Rosales awaits his green card as the years tick by.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

DADE CITY -- Their lives are bookends.

They grew up a few blocks apart, across rock-lined streets.

They had the same hopes for college, got high marks in school.

But what separates Felicitas Romo and Francisco Rosales is seven years.

Felicitas, 17, dreams of going to college this fall.

Rosales, 26, has waited seven years to do so.

And unless she has a big change in fortune, Felicitas could soon end up as Rosales did, picking oranges and working low-paying jobs.

Both were illegal immigrants when they applied for college. But illegal immigrants can't qualify for student loans and public scholarships.

Even though both Felicitas and Rosales lived in Florida most of their lives, neither can get in-state tuition without a green card or citizenship. For now, Felicitas' membership in the National Honor Society is a hollow honor.

Meanwhile, Rosales continues to wait. He won't get a green card for another three or four years.

"It wasn't my choice of coming to the United States, but I'm getting penalized for that," Rosales said.

Back-breaking work

Rosales sat cramped and nervous in the back of the van as it passed over the U.S. border from Mexico.

He was 12, and his family was in search of work.

Florida held the promise of jobs in the orange groves.

The family lived in a work camp in Dade City, renting trailers or homes. They slept on hard floors, crammed with other families.

Several months of the year, they drove north to Michigan to pick apples and cucumbers.

Rosales and his younger brothers had to work after school. At first they made games of it, climbing trees and shaking oranges loose from branches. As they got older, the work got harder.

"We had to dump buckets into trucks. It was kind of back-breaking," said Rosales, who has a slight build and a round, handsome face.

"You had to keep up with studies at the same time. You come home late and study a little."

Between moving around and grappling with a new language, Rosales had to repeat a grade twice. But as his test scores climbed, he jumped a grade. In high school, he got A's in math and took business and computer courses.

His parents encouraged him. They pointed to the orange groves and asked: Is this what you want for your life? He knew it wasn't.

Dreams of college swelled in his head. He watched the teen television show Beverly Hills 90210. He fantasized about the lives of the young stars who attend university between love spats -- lives that seemed worlds away from sweaty afternoons in the groves.

"I thought I'd live in a dorm and have lots of friends," he said.

Living the dream

His senior year at Pasco High School, he received a letter from the Florida Department of Education. Dated Oct. 14, 1994, it congratulated him on his "excellent achievement" and awarded him a Florida Gold Seal Scholarship worth $1,860.

"The state of Florida has recognized your success in vocational and academic education," the letter read.

He studied one semester at Pasco-Hernando Community College, working in the orange groves from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and attending classes at night.

"Sometimes it was very exhausting, working and studying. But when you have that desire to go to school and do something with your life, it doesn't matter. I always thought school was fun."

He obtained a 3.0 GPA in his classes: a business course, introduction to environmental science and college survival skills.

He was living his dream.

'If I had my papers . . .'

After his one semester at PHCC, Rosales transferred temporarily to Montcalm Community College in Michigan to be near his parents in the apple orchards. The second week of classes, school officials called him in.

At a big meeting table, they grilled him about his immigration status. He could not return. He never should have been awarded his financial aid package. And PHCC would not take him back when officials there learned of his status.

For now, Rosales plans to wait for his green card before going back to school. His parents have their green cards. They'd applied to immigration officials for the family under an amnesty granted to certain agricultural workers in the 1980s. The reply came in 1997. The parents and siblings received permanent residency -- all except for Rosales. He'd turned 22 -- one year too old to fall under his parent's application. The process -- which can take 10 years -- started over for him.

A proposed state law could help him reach his dream of a college degree before he gets his green card. The proposed law would allow certain illegal immigrants to qualify for the more affordable in-state tuition.

Rosales lives here legally, under a family reunification visa. But that doesn't let him work legally or qualify for public scholarships. He does work though, in the orange groves many mornings and in a series of low-paying jobs in the afternoon.

"I still need to work," he said on a recent afternoon at the comfortable house with red carpet and plump white couches where he lives with his parents and four younger siblings.

"I don't want to work in the fields all the time and don't want my parents to support me."

He helps siblings with school work and other relatives fill out forms for college. Marriage is out of the question. A wife and children could derail his plans.

"I will go out here and there, but it's not a big deal," he says. "I never let it go beyond dating."

He doesn't want to go back to Mexico. He remembers little from there. His family is here. He hopes his immigration documents arrive before he turns 30. At times he's saddened by what his life could have been.

"Now that I'm older, I see, if I had my papers, I could have done so much better," he said.

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