The daughter of migrant farm workers, Felicitas Romo has worked her way to the brink of a better life. But even as she dreams of a college degree, the honor student is in danger of being deported. The 17-year-old illegal immigrant's hopes are caught in a tangle of red tape and legal uncertainties.
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
Felicitas Romo, the daughter of migrant farm workers, did not want to be like her parents. She had watched them work the fields, seen her older sisters follow in their footsteps.
Felicitas wanted something better.
She wanted a college degree.
Her family wanted that, too. Her parents got stable jobs so Felicitas would not have to jump from school to school. Her sisters labored outside so Felicitas could stay home and study.
Felicitas matched their devotion. She aced advanced placement courses at Wesley Chapel High in Pasco County, earned membership in the National Honor Society, made herself eligible for scholarships.
She dreamed of being an artist, or perhaps a lawyer, who might help illegal immigrants like herself.
And then, this month, Felicitas and her family learned that all of their work, all of their sacrifice, may have been for nothing. College suddenly seemed out of reach.
Felicitas, 17, would be lucky to stay in the country.
"I did all this work," she said. "And what was the point?"
Felicitas was barely walking when her family crossed into the United States from Mexico. She remembers nothing of the country of her birth.
Her memories start with the drive up and down America's East Coast: hands torn from pulling tomato plants; eyes left weak from the searing glare of the sun.
But by the time Felicitas entered middle school, her parents had steady, but low-paying, jobs. Her sisters work in orange groves to supplement the family income.
From their hardship, Felicitas drew a lesson.
"I've always wanted to be as much of a success as I could be because of what I've seen," Felicitas said. "I've seen what the possibilities are and looking at how my family is struggling and pushed down, they are stuck at that level. Education is the best possible way I can get out of that level.
"I've always thought through high school, as long as I had good grades, there'd be a way."
Her sisters were honor students, too. So, though they are proud of Felicitas, they are also jealous.
She would sit under orange trees and eat oranges, they taunt.
We had big sacks. She had a little bucket.
She cries when she gets a B.
She burns rice.
Felicitas rubs tears from her face.
"Don't hate me," she says.
She pulls out her report card and slides it onto the kitchen table. "That's work, that's a lot of work."
It was a lot of work. But for Felicitas, it's not enough.
As an illegal immigrant, she doesn't qualify for public scholarships or federal loans. Although she has lived most of her life in Pasco County, she doesn't even qualify for in-state tuition. (At the University of Florida, that's a difference of $10,000 a year.)
To make college affordable, she needs a green card or citizenship, a process that can take more than 10 years.
There are tens of thousands of children like Felicitas: 3,000 to 5,000 each year in Florida; as many as 65,000 a year nationwide.
Brought to this country by their parents looking for work, they stay illegally and attend American schools. Federal law guarantees elementary and high school education for all children.
Many excel, becoming honor students and class presidents. But when it comes time for college, they can't get the financial help available to other good students.
Several states have changed laws to let illegal immigrants qualify for in-state tuition. Florida could be next.
Supporters of proposed bills in the House and Senate, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say educating illegal immigrants makes good financial sense. With a degree, they can get good jobs and pay taxes; without it, they might end up getting by on government assistance.
Opponents say the proposed law would take classroom seats from citizens and legal residents in a tight budget year. Plus, even after graduating from college, students can't legally work without a green card.
Even though she and her family are in the country illegally, she does not face much risk of being forced to leave.
Immigration officials are so swamped, they rarely seek out illegal residents unless they are brought to their attention or have committed a crime. And public schools are not allowed to ask about students' immigration status.
Felicitas thought she could get around her immigration problems, one way or the other.
Years ago, her parents applied for a green card under the sponsorship of a relative who was a U.S. citizen. Felicitas likely would be a citizen by now, but the relative died before the process could be completed. Her family had to start the paperwork over again. It could take another four years.
Then, a backup plan emerged.
If Felicitas were adopted by an American citizen, she could more easily become one herself.
Along came Margarita Romo. She is the director of the Self-Help Farmworkers Inc. and a well-known community activist for migrant workers in Dade City. Romo saw something special in the strong-willed girl.
Romo feared what would happen if she didn't act.
"Her education is now; she's motivated," Romo said. "Another four to five years, she might be in the fields and not have the energy."
Or she could get pregnant and give up on college, Romo said. "Sometimes because of hopelessness, they say, 'Okay, forget it.' "
Felicitas is not the type to give up. Her pluck has put her in multiple advanced placement classes by day and adult education courses at night. And she's more than a bookworm.
At Sunday service, she rocks babies and teaches lessons to children.
She holds pottery classes for younger students. Her paintings line her school.
She grew up the typical immigrant child, straddling two worlds. Spanish was spoken at home, where she would help her mom make pinatas. But English was the language of the classroom and her friends. Soon, her Spanish got rusty.
Felicitas studies Spanish in school.
"I'm better in English," she said, flashing a bashful smile.
Her room reflects her blended worlds: a poster of America's Sweethearts, her favorite movie, starring Julia Roberts; CDs of merengue mixes and Celine Dion; tae kwon do belts; the American and Mexican flags.
Her long hair with auburn highlights frames her face. She wears T-shirts she's designed and jeans that flare. Her socks are emblazoned with USA.
She insists she's not ever getting married. She wants a career. Until recently, it never occurred to her that she would make a living anywhere but here.
"Everything I've known is in this country," Felicitas said.
Romo started the process to adopt Felicitas in spring 2001. In tears, Felicitas' mother signed the documents giving away her daughter.
Social service workers completed a home study of her family in July 2001, and Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper signed off on the adoption two weeks later.
Once immigration officials signed off on the adoption, which typically takes a year or two, Felicitas could apply for a green card and, later, citizenship.
Her senior year began with the honor student's dream: Felicitas was courted by dozens of colleges. By December, with a 4.4 semester grade point average, she was among a group of students pulled from class so they could fill out the application for a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.
On that day, which should have been a landmark on the road to college, Felicitas found herself blushing with embarrassment. It was then she realized that her plan might not work. She had no Social Security number. Without it, she could not apply for the scholarship. To avoid awkward stares, she kept quiet and answered the other questions anyway, knowing she could not submit the form.
"It didn't hit me in the face until I actually had to fill it out," she said.
By January, Felicitas started tossing college brochures in the garbage.
"They want me, but I can't go," she said.
Then a phone call to St. Leo University sparked a glimmer of hope.
A private school near Dade City, St. Leo could offer scholarships with no ties to federal requirements on immigration status. Plus, it was close to home.
Romo and Felicitas visited the campus in January. With her grades and record, admissions officials said, she would likely qualify for a lot of help toward the $13,000 annual tuition.
In late January, St. Leo University offered a $5,000 annual scholarship.
With graduation looming, she set her mind to figuring out how to raise the rest of the tuition money.
"I would qualify for so much if the adoption went through," she said, frustrated.
After some private donations, Felicitas figured she would still be $4,000 a year shy of the needed tuition. St. Leo would kick in another $2,000 if she got good scores this spring on the SAT test.
She could pay off the rest, plus book costs, with loans or government scholarships once her immigration status changed.
Last month, Romo asked immigration attorney John Ovink to help with the adoption.
Ovink pulled the file and immediately looked at the date of the adoption. Immigration law states that adoptions must be completed before the child turns 16. Felicitas' adoption was finished six weeks after her 16th birthday. Though valid, the adoption can't help Felicitas get a green card or help with her education.
Then Ovink gave her more bad news.
This month, Ovink told Felicitas that the only way for her to legally stay in the United States is for immigration officials to start deportation hearings against her. During the hearings, the judge has the option of granting her a green card because she has been in the country for more than 10 years with a clean record.
By telling her story publicly, Felicitas takes the chance that immigration officials will track her down. But Ovink thinks that ultimately might be for the best.
Felicitas stared intently at Ovink. Could the deportation process, she asked, help her realize her dreams?
If a judge is merciful, yes, Ovink replied.
If not, she goes back to Mexico, leaving everything she has ever known. She nodded her head firmly.
"Let's do it."