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‘Nobody wins’ when immigrants are blocked from college, says Memphis author

A teenage male student wearing a white shirt, dark pants, and a backpack stands in the doorway of Kingsbury High School in Memphis.
Isaias Ramos stands in the doorway of Kingsbury High School in Memphis, where reporter Daniel Connolly embedded himself to chronicle Isaias' journey and the challenges facing America's immigrant students.
Karen Pulfer Focht/The Commercial Appeal

Daniel Connolly spent five years reporting and writing about Isaias Ramos, an exceptionally bright Memphis high schooler and son of Mexican immigrants.

When Isaias graduated in 2013 from Kingsbury High School, he had to choose between applying to big schools like Harvard University or staying home and painting houses with his father — a choice that Connolly said reflects the lives of many immigrant children across America. Connolly’s 2016 work, The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America, follows Isaias during his senior year.

Daniel James Conolly
Daniel James Conolly

A Memphis native and graduate of White Station High School, Connolly is fluent in Spanish and German and has reported on immigration issues as a journalist in Alabama, Arkansas and now Tennessee. Since 2006, he has been a reporter for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

Connolly says that providing opportunities for immigrant children — and access to higher education — is a growing societal issue in America. It’s especially relevant in Tennessee as the state legislature considers granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students, many of whom can register legally under DACA but still can’t access that education benefit. The measure failed in the House two years ago by one vote and was shelved last year.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Connolly to talk about the challenges. Here are the highlights, condensed for brevity:

Tell us about The Book of Isaias. What’s your ‘elevator pitch’ for the book?

The book gives a real sense of how we got here with immigrants in America and where we’re going. I wanted to help people understand the history of illegal immigrants. I think knowing that creates a lot more empathy and understanding with where we are now.

The book follows a bright child of Mexican immigrants through his senior year of high school. Isaias is choosing between going to college or staying home to help his family with their painting business. I was imbedded in Kingsbury High School during the 2012-2013 school year, which was Isaias’ senior year. The DACA program had just come through, and Isaias was able to register for a social security card and work permit through that program. He assumed, like many immigrant children, that in-state tuition would be available for him when he went to college. But that’s not how DACA works.

What are your thoughts on Tennessee’s in-state tuition bill?

Isaias, even with legal documents, would have to pay out-of-state tuition if he went to school in Tennessee. That’s $20,000-plus in yearly tuition versus a much much lower cost for in-state. And he’s not eligible for scholarships. That part is really important.

Who benefits from that? There’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to attend college at a reasonable cost as any Tennessee resident would. A significant point of the book is what’s lost by children of immigrants not having equal access to opportunities. There’s so much lost potential, and no one, not our economy or society, benefits from that.

Elections get decided at a primary level. Anyone who holds a Republican seat is very worried about a challenge from the right during the primaries. They are worried a campaign ad against them would read “you helped illegal aliens” if they supported something like the in-state tuition bill.

I definitely support something like this bill, but I think the politics are very different, maybe even impossible right now.

You mention the impact of guidance counselors in your work. Tell us more about that.

When I go around the country to present this book, this is something I always talk about. Counselors have a big impact on guiding students in their post-high school choices. If you don’t have enough counselors in the school, you lose out on those opportunities.

When I was at Kingsbury High School in 2012, they had a pretty full staff of school counselors and outside-of-school organizations to help students weigh future options. I’ve heard anecdotally that there’s a guidance counselor shortage in other schools in Memphis. That can be a that sends a child to college. And they are often some of the most overworked people in a school. Their workloads are huge.

The immigration fight won’t be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, we can hire more guidance counselors, create mentoring programs, and find scholarships for immigrant students. There’s a lot to be done.

What’s one revelation that really stuck with you while working on this book?

That people in Memphis are stunned to learn there are majority Hispanic schools in the city. A high school like Kingsbury surprises people, and it’s just not widely known to the general public. For that reason, the perception of immigrants to most in Memphis is that it’s an issue that affects other places, but not us. Like many school systems throughout the country, Shelby County Schools have seen explosive growth in the Hispanic population. In 1992-1993, there were only 286 Hispanic students enrolled in the Memphis City Schools, (which is now Shelby County Schools.) This has changed dramatically. As of 2015, there were 13,816 Hispanic children and teens in the Shelby County schools, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Memphis has no Hispanic political power. There’s no Hispanic vote to go get because most are immigrants. There are no Hispanic officials at any level that I’m aware of. So, we have an environment where 10,000 people have no political representation. I think that helps contribute to that invisibility.

But I hope The Book of Isaias is an opportunity for people to come away from the book with a deeper understanding of immigrant law and society in general. Writing it was absolutely that process for me.

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to

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