FRESNO, Calif. -- Going to college seemed inconceivable when Adriana Sanchez, the 12-year-old daughter of farm workers, was brought from Mexico to Central California and the family overstayed their visas.
Even though Sanchez excelled in high school, she was in the country illegally, lacked a Social Security number and work permit, and didn't qualify for financial aid. But she volunteered hundreds of hours and paid her way through college and graduate school with a dozen internships.
Now 24, Sanchez graduated last week from California State University, Fresno with a master's degree in International Relations, a full-time job and no loans to repay. Using a gray area in federal law, she works as an independent contractor.
"For most undocumented students, you have to put yourself out there. You volunteer, you go beyond what regular students do," Sanchez said. "That's what connects us to opportunities. Now employers call me."
With thousands of young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children now holding college degrees, Sanchez and others are finding creative ways to get around the legal roadblocks and find a career. They are getting work experience, opening businesses and seeking professional licenses in their fields.
The Associated Press interviewed about two dozen such graduates across the country. Some, like many legal graduates, are struggling in a grim economy. But others do highly-skilled work, though not always in their professions. Many are "out" about their status despite the risk of deportation; a few asked not to be identified for fear it could cost them their jobs or alert immigration authorities.
"There's a pool of talented young people who in their hearts believe they're American, because they're raised and educated here, speak fluent English and have a level of education that equals or surpasses that of average Americans," said Roberto Gonzales, a University of Chicago sociology professor who has collected data on hundreds of such young adults. "Our colleges don't teach them to be undocumented immigrants."
The growth in young illegal immigrants with college degrees is spurred by demographics – children who crossed the border with their parents are coming of age – and by laws granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition, Gonzales said. Eleven years ago, California and Texas passed such laws, followed by a dozen other states.
No one knows how many illegal immigrants are enrolled in colleges or have graduated; schools don't collect such data. But in 2010, an estimated 96,000 young adults without legal status held at least an associate's degree or higher, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
What motivated them, Sanchez said, was hope for the passage of federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and attended college.
But 11 years later, the DREAM Act – the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors measure – is in political gridlock.
Some graduates who are here illegally defer going into the workplace by getting another advanced degree, including the Ph.D., according to interviews. Others leave the country. Others work under the table in low wage jobs, still hoping for immigration reform.
But many, like Sanchez – who once dreamed of a career with the U.S. Department of State – are driven to find meaningful work without papers.
Although federal law prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, it does not require those who hire independent contractors to ask for proof of immigration status. As a result, the client who pays for services is not necessarily breaking the law even if the contractor isn't authorized to work in the United States, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell Law School.
And while self-employed illegal immigrants still violate immigration law, they may avoid additional grounds for deportation if they don't present counterfeit documents, Yale-Loehr said.
Sanchez consults full-time for a Fresno-area education nonprofit, and teaches literacy and English at an adult school and a domestic violence shelter. But she lives with major frustration. Her parents, who have been crossing the border to work in the fields since the 1970's, are legal residents and her oldest brother is a U.S. citizen through marriage, but it would take years for Sanchez to get a green card through them and pursue her dream of becoming a diplomat.
"I'm here, I have this education and all these aspirations," she said. "I could do so much more, but I can't."
Other illegal immigrant graduates are pursuing professional licenses in fields such as law and nursing.
Courts in California and Florida are considering cases involving two law school graduates who passed their state bars to determine whether they should be allowed to get licenses to practice law in those states. Both graduates are illegally in this country after being brought here as children.
While such legal issues play out, Cesar Vargas – a CUNY School of Law graduate who entered the country illegally when he was 5 years old – passed the New York bar exam and opened a legislative lobbying firm, DRM Capitol Group LLC.
"I found out that I can do this and in a legal way," Vargas, 28, said. He recruited several other so-called Dreamers and a U.S. citizen to work with him.
Though he once planned to be a prosecutor, he's now contributing to congressional blogs and planning to open a Dreamers' Chamber of Commerce.
"We're creating businesses in media, web design and political campaigning," he said. "It wasn't by choice, but we're challenging the anti-immigration rhetoric that all illegal immigrants steal Americans' jobs. We're creating jobs and we're hiring U.S. citizens."
Organizations and industry leaders have stepped up to help graduates without legal status start careers. The Dream Resource Center at UCLA places such graduates at job sites throughout the country via its national internship program called Dream Summer.
San Francisco-based Educators for Fair Consideration, or E4FC, connects graduates with lawyers and Silicon Valley leaders. Mentors such as Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs, and Palm Pilot inventor Jeff Hawkins provide financial support, life and legal advice and networking clout.
One option they're exploring is getting companies to sponsor graduates for H-1B visas, temporary employment visas for specialty occupations. It has been done in a few cases. But it's risky; the young person has to leave the country and could be barred from returning for ten years.
"We're really looking hard for solutions," Hawkins said. "What else can these kids do? They are desperate. They want to work, they want to practice what they learned in college. What do you tell them? Become an undocumented housekeeper? They have advanced degrees."
But critics say those degrees should not mean preferential treatment to legalization.
"They're illegal immigrants, so being a college graduate doesn't make any difference," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that advocates tighter immigration policies.
Despite such sentiments, many graduates have come out publicly about their status and formed a nationwide network through social media, marches and conferences.
Experts say a growing number, like Isabel Castillo of Harrisonburg, Va., who was 6 when she was smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, have ecome politically active. Castillo, who couldn't use her social work degree from Eastern Mennonite University, waited tables and volunteered with education and immigrant rights groups.
Now, she works full-time advocating for passage of the DREAM Act, leading local rallies, squaring off with Virginia politicians and running local political campaigns.
"I never thought I'd be doing this, it's very political," she said. "It wasn't part of my interests in college. Now, people are calling me a future congresswoman."
Follow Gosia Wozniacka on Twitter at (at)GosiaWozniacka