Mandeep Chahal is a young woman in limbo.
An honors student at UC Davis, Chahal has plans for medical school and a career spent healing children in poor communities.
She is also undocumented, which means no matter what academic degrees she ultimately earns, her ability to work in her chosen profession in the United States remains clouded in doubt.
In just more than a year, under the California Dream Act legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in October, Chahal and more than 10,000 other undocumented students in the state can start competing for millions of dollars in public and private college financial aid.
The legislation allows undocumented students who came to the country before age 16 and attended California high schools access to public financial aid, including Cal Grants. Those students already are eligible for in-state tuition, and Brown in July signed a companion measure affording them access to private financial aid.
But nothing in the legislation eases their path toward citizenship; and no matter how well those students do in college or graduate school, they will have a tough time landing professional jobs because undocumented students can't get the Social Security cards required by hospitals, law practices, engineering firms, universities and other employers.
Chahal, who was 6 years old when her mom brought her to the United States from the Punjab region of India, wonders if her hard work and growing debt will pay off.
"People like me are in this limbo state," said Chahal, now 21. "I don't have a path to legalization. You can absolutely get into medical school, but if I don't have legal status, all that work will go down the drain. I won't be able to help anyone here in California, where I grew up."
President Barack Obama is pushing federal Dream Act legislation that would create a path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children and went on to attend college or serve in the U.S. military. But the bill has failed to get out of Congress, opposed by some Republicans who argue it would draw more undocumented immigrants.
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, makes the same argument about the California legislation. He is gathering signatures for a referendum that would repeal Assembly Bill 131, which he calls "The California Nightmare Act."
Donnelly rails against the "unfairness" of AB 131, saying the children of parents who broke the law shouldn't go to college "on the backs of taxpayers" while "California is billions of dollars in the hole, 2.5 million people are out of work, the governor has cut our schools, shut down job centers, closed our state parks and slashed veterans' reentry services "
The architect of the Dream Act legislation, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, counters that California's future depends on undocumented students who, once they get legal status, will shore up California's economy and tax base.
"Many parents of these children pay taxes for many services they cannot get," said Cedillo.
Even without citizenship, the so-called "Dreamers" can work as tutors, researchers, caregivers, architects and lawyers, Cedillo said.
"We want them to be prepared to optimize their God-given talents so they can make a constructive contribution," he said. "By not educating them, they may end up being illiterate, ignorant and a burden on society."
Naturalization path varies
Undocumented immigrants account for perhaps 1 percent of students in California's three college systems. In the Dream Act's first year, an estimated 5,500 undocumented students will qualify for Cal Grants ranging from $1,551 for community college up to $12,192 for UC.
The California Student Aid Commission estimates the Dream Act will cost the state about $13.6 million in Cal Grants in 2013 and about $50 million over the first four years of the program. The commission is working with the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento to reach out to students and help them apply for grants and scholarships and explore paths to citizenship, said Student Aid Commission Executive Director Diana Fuentes-Michel.
"It's our job to take the law and implement it," said Fuentes-Michel, "and it's going to be a challenge."
To qualify for Cal Grants for four-year colleges, students come from families whose average income is no more than $44,100 a year. Before entering college, the students must sign an affidavit promising to seek a path to naturalization.
But how long that might take varies from student to student. If they leave the country and apply to enter legally, the process could take nine years.
Chahal, voted "Most Likely To Save The World" at Los Altos High School where she raised money to build third-world schools, plans to join Doctors Without Borders and serve the poor in other countries if that's what it comes to.
Chahal said she doesn't plan to leave the United States to try to get her citizenship.
"I'm not leaving," said Chahal. "My head just spins in circles I can do organic chemistry, but I can't figure out the immigration system."
Chahal can enter medical school on the merits of her academic work, though she won't qualify for federal financial aid without a Social Security number. The average student at UC Davis Medical School racks up about $150,000 in debt, said Associate Dean of Admissions Mark Henderson.
The medical school doesn't consider immigration status when selecting its entering class, Henderson said. But undocumented medical school graduates won't be able to qualify for paid internships and residencies without papers, he said.
Chahal, who is putting herself through Davis with help from friends, family and scholarships, said she has undocumented friends who have put their college degrees to work at nonprofits; others, she said, work under the table.
"A lot of us can't get regular jobs," said Irvis Orozco, 24, a UC Davis student now working for Sacramento Building Health Communities through the California Endowment.
"My mother brought me here when I was a few months old, and then we went back and forth until I was 6," said Orozco, who graduated from Woodland High School. "My mom took me out of school when I was 13 we would wake up at 4:40 a.m., drive for an hour and work in the tomato fields in 110-degree heat for minimum wage."
His mother let him go back to school if he promised to get straight A's, said Orozco.
Grads in low-level jobs
Undocumented students are graduating from California law schools. But the State Bar asks about immigration status, "and if you lie about it or anything else it's reviewed as part of your moral character examination," said spokesman Bob Hawley. "It could keep you from being admitted to the California Bar and being licensed."
If you answer truthfully that you're undocumented, the State Bar has not resolved that issue, Hawley said. If someone limits their practice to federal immigration law, they could conceivably practice in California, Hawley said.
Robert Guzman, a Sacramento City College student whose parents brought him from Mexico's Zacatecas state when he was 2, hopes to do just that. He plans to go on to law school and "open up my own immigration business to help people become residents."
He has undocumented friends who have finished college "and are much smarter now, but they're stuck in the low-level jobs they started in as custodians, restaurant workers."
"It's a bit ironic that we have immigrants using all the state resources, and yet they won't be allowed to contribute to society because of their immigration status," Guzman said.
When Chahal and Orozco get discouraged they watch a video of Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a former school teacher from the village of Palaco near Mexicali who jumped over the border at age 19. He worked as a janitor, a welder and a migrant farmworker from Fresno to Stockton.
He went from community college to UC Berkeley to Harvard Medical School and is now Associate Professor of Neurosurgery and Oncology and director of the Pituitary Tumor Center at The Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.
Quinones-Hinojosa obtained his citizenship under President Ronald Reagan, who signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, legalizing several million undocumented immigrants.
"My life's been dedicated to fighting brain cancer," said Quinones-Hinojosa, 43. "I work the same way I did when I first came to the U.S., seven days a week, 14 to 18 hours a day."
"I can assure you our brains work the same way as anybody else's," he said, "and if we are given the opportunity we will succeed and help this country."