Despite the daunting road ahead, Franklin High School principal Gary Shields is steering his undocumented students toward the naturalization process. Gaining citizenship would give his students a shot at higher education and better job opportunities.
“They’re not going home, and so we’ve got to find some way that they can make a contribution to our society,” said Shields.
Shields became interested in helping the students after one of his football players came to him for help after being threatened with deportation last summer.
Shields assisted the student in applying for citizenship and decided to do the same for the rest of the undocumented students at his school.
“The students look at me saying, ‘I don’t even know anyone in Mexico, I don’t even know anything about the culture,’” said Shields. “I call them the hip kids. They came here on mama’s hip. They know nothing about their homeland.”
Shields enlisted the help of Saul Olvera, a Macon County Middle School business teacher who brings firsthand experience of the naturalization process.
The duo met with undocumented students and their parents earlier this school year to educate them on the lengthy, expensive procedure.
“Going through the process was tedious, it was expensive, it required many trips,” said Olvera, who said he’s returning the favor after receiving help from his own teachers in the past.
Shields stressed the importance of starting paperwork early since the application procedure can take five to eight years to complete.
A 16-year old junior at Franklin High School said she’s still waiting to hear on a naturalization application that her parents submitted eight years ago.
Despite the long delay, there’s no guarantee that she will become a U.S. citizen. If she doesn’t become a legal resident by the time she turns 18 next December, she will have to restart the entire process.
“I kind of don’t think it’s fair, for the kids,” said the student, who would like to see children prioritized over adults in the naturalization process. “We have more opportunities than they do.”
While she and her fellow undocumented students wait for a decision, they live with an ever-present fear.
“We can’t go out like other people,” the junior said. “We can get deported ... We’re terrified for our parents to get deported.”
Unlike their classmates, undocumented students cannot obtain a driver’s license, check out materials from the public library, or work summer jobs legitimately.
Olvera and Shields have contacted county commissioners and state representatives to point out treatment they see as unfair.
“Most of the students that are in school now did not have the option to come or not,” said Olvera. “That is the poignant disadvantage. Why are children being punished for something they had no control over? ... We’re just trying to make their dreams possible.”