When Fabiola Guevara graduated from South Dade Senior High School in June, 11 years after her mother fled with her from Mexico, she had nearly a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
Her dream was to enroll in a state university nursing program, but she didn’t even apply. Guevara couldn’t afford higher education.
Like thousands of other illegal immigrant students, Guevara was ineligible for college financial aid. And it would cost triple what legal Florida residents pay, impossible on her mother’s housekeeper wages, to attend a public university because undocumented students don’t qualify for in-state tuition discounts.
“When I started high school, it never hit me that when I graduated, I had no place to go,” says Guevara, who is 17. “I studied here all my life. What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? Work as a housekeeper? Pick beans in the fields?”
Federal law prohibits illegal immigrant students from receiving government-backed loans and grants to attend college. The law, which was part of 1996 immigration reforms, also discourages states from providing these students with in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
But lawmakers in Congress have proposed legislation to help students like Guevara. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM ACT, would allow undocumented students who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have lived here at least five years to become temporary legal residents, making them eligible for college financial aid and other benefits.
Florida also is moving to join other states with huge illegal immigrant populations — such as California, New York and Texas — that allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. A bill, introduced in October and scheduled for committee consideration in March, would offer in-state rates to undocumented students who attended Florida schools at least three years and agree to seek permanent U.S. resident status.
Across the country, an estimated 65,000 to 90,000 high school seniors who graduate each year — including some 4,000 from Florida — face the same dilemma as Guevara. As children, they migrated to America illegally with their parents but find their college and career ambitions blocked by their illegal status.
“The children that are here should not be punished for the sins of their parents,” says Hector M. Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization. “They are the children that are going to give us the competitive edge.”
As high school seniors who are among an estimated 1.7 million undocumented children under 18 graduate, many abandon higher education — and career plans — because they cannot afford college, says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for college Admission Counseling, a Virginia-based association that represents 9,000 secondary school and university counselors and financial aid officers.
“They’re stuck in a limbo where they can’t get formal employment and they can’t go on to college,” Hawkins says. “At best, they become part of the underground economy. At worst they become a liability.” Some turn to crime, he says.
The DREAM Act, which is sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has been introduced with each Congress since 2001 but has never passed. It faces a difficult battle amid congressional concern over national security and illegal immigration.
Flores and other advocates for undocumented students hope the bipartisan bill will be more successful than in previous years because the Bush administration and Congress are now pushing hard for immigration reform.
— Associated Press
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