DADE CITY — Jose Amateco tried to find the right words in English to describe what he would like to study in college.
"I love saving energy," the 19-year-old said.
He gets satisfaction from riding his bike to church or his various volunteer outlets, he said, because he knows he's not polluting the environment with fossil fuels.
The bike is his main mode of transportation because his family doesn't have a car. His parents, undocumented Mexican workers at a nearby restaurant and chicken farm, can't afford a vehicle.
Or a college education for Jose.
Struggling to find the money for higher learning is a sentiment echoed by college-bound students throughout the country.
But Jose's undocumented status means he can not apply for an in-state tuition discount, government student loan or public scholarship.
He sees his future split into two possible paths: illegal farm or construction work, or college.
"If I go to school here, I will become a professional," he said. "I'm trying really hard. I think I should have a chance."
• • •
Jose and his uncle immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 15.
At the time, it was an adventure. He remembers swimming, walking for hours, and the joy of reuniting with his parents, who came to the United States the year before.
Adjusting to American high school was tough at first. Jose could only count to five and name some colors in English. The first day of class, he came home and went straight to bed.
"My head was so tired."
Since then, his English has greatly improved and he's maintained a 3.8 GPA. His favorite classes are the ones he finds most difficult: physics and calculus.
Richard Lewis, Jose's sixth-period precalculus teacher at Wesley Chapel High, helps the young man with real numbers and vectors after class.
"He makes sure that he stays on top of everything he's working on," Lewis said. "He hasn't taken the easy route."
Last year, Jose was recognized as the "Unsung Hero" at Wesley Chapel High by the Central Pasco Optimist Club. Each year, the group awards underprivileged overachievers with a trophy and free dinner.
At last week's senior awards ceremony at Wesley Chapel, he spent as much time as anyone walking to and from the stage. He received a couple of scholarships, a few academic awards and the principal's Outstanding Senior plaque.
"There are a lot of students that deserve this," Jose said. "I don't know why they gave it to me. I respect and admire all my peers. They are so helpful to me. That's the only way I survived high school."
Throughout high school, Jose's goal was to attend a stateside college, which is not explicitly forbidden or allowed in the tangle of immigration laws.
"The federal law says that if someone is undocumented, they can be deported. But it doesn't speak as to whether they can attend a university," explained Marshall Fitz, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. "What a dance."
Earlier this year, Jose applied to nearby Saint Leo University.
Along with his acceptance letter came Jose's next challenge, a $17,000 annual tuition bill for the next four years.
Paying for college
Most days after school, Jose volunteers at Farmworkers Self-Help, an advocacy center for migrant workers in the largely Hispanic Tommytown area north of Dade City.
The staff there has raised enough money to cover two of Jose's first semester classes. He also received a $4,000 renewable academic grant from Saint Leo.
Under current law, undocumented students can qualify for private scholarships from churches, organizations and private universities.
But Jose and his supporters worry that there won't be enough money to get him through the next four years.
They fear their only hope is a bill introduced to the U.S. Senate two months ago.
Jose is one of about 360,000 undocumented 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide who officials estimate would benefit from the Dream Act.
If approved, the Dream Act would temporarily legalize the status of qualified immigrant high school graduates and allow them to apply for in-state college tuition rates and student loans.
If the "Dreamers," as the proposed act's beneficiaries are called, complete a certain number of college credits or serve in the military during their window of legal status, they could become permanent legal residents.
Jose, who doesn't have any family living legally in the states or an employer to initiate the application for citizenship, sees the Dream Act as his only chance to become a legal resident.
Opponents of the act fear the legal status for students would be extended to undocumented family members. They say access to college and jobs should be reserved for U.S.-born citizens and worry the bill would promote illegal immigration.
Others, like Jose, say the proposed legislation provides a strong incentive for undocumented youth to finish high school and to pursue a college degree or to join the military.
"If we get our education, that's the only way we could be really helpful to this country," he said.
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.