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For Illegal College Students, An Uncertain Future

For Illegal College Students, An Uncertain Future

By Dina M. Horwedel

Amy Chen* grew up in New York, living the life of a typical suburban American girl, with one exception — she’s been living in the United States illegally ever since her parents emigrated from Taiwan when she was an infant.

Although Chen, now 27, was able to attend high school and even college, her professional aspirations hit a dead end halfway through law school. She discovered that in order to qualify to take a state bar exam, she would have to undergo a background check.

“At that point, I no longer saw any reason to continue,” Chen says. She dropped out of law school, but got further along in her education than most undocumented students.

With almost two million undocumented children in school and an estimated 65,000 graduating from high school every year, higher education is becoming the new frontier in the immigration debate. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the children of illegal immigrants have a right to a free K-12 education. But the court never extended that right to higher education.

What has resulted is uncertainty state by state — and often case by case — about how to respond to undocumented students. Some institutions summarily reject such students while others accept them as international students. Still other institutions play a quiet game of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Multiple immigration bills that hope to clarify the situation are currently working their way through the U.S. Congress, including the DREAM Act. In response to constituent pressure to resolve immigration problems, President Bush and Congress have self-imposed a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, to adopt immigration reform. But with a contentious debate about immigration raging, the future of the act is uncertain. Its proponents argue that it should be considered on its own merits because it concerns fairness and children’s education, and ultimately impacts American competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Until legislation is passed, however, undocumented students face an uncertain, obstacle-filled life. Their distant dreams of a better life are tinged with the hope that no one will catch them in the meantime.

Reasons to Stay in the Game
For Enzo Ferreira, an undocumented immigrant from Uruguay, the debate about whether an undocumented student has a right to attend college feels like one of those irrelevant, ivory tower questions — his family simply could never afford the tuition. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for federal or state financial aid or government guaranteed student loans. And in Virginia, they are not eligible for in-state tuition.
For that reason, Ferreira says he stopped caring about his education in 10th grade. He began skipping school and acting disrespectfully to his teachers and was eventually kicked out of his Manassas, Va., high school.

“I always knew I couldn’t go to college. I don’t have a driver’s license, an I.D., or any papers,” he said while walking with friends to the pro-immigration rally in the nation’s capital last month.

Ferreira, 17, is unemployed but says he intends to work in the music industry one day. Although he thinks it’s already too late for him, he went to the rally anyway. “I’m here to help the others,” he said.

Ferreira’s situation is unfortunately all too common. The high school dropout rate for Hispanics is the nation’s worst. Estimates by the Child Trends DataBank, which compiles statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that in 2004, 24 percent of Hispanic youth under the age of 18 did not attend school, compared to 12 percent of Blacks and 7 percent of Whites. And according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, White community college students are nearly twice as likely as their Hispanic counterparts to finish a bachelor’s degree. The completion gap is even greater in four-year colleges, with 81 percent of Whites completing compared to only 57 percent of Latinos. The reasons Hispanics drop out of high school vary from poor academic performance to the financial need to work. For many, the inability to attend college offers no incentive to stay in the game. And even those that can get into college have little incentive to finish their degree. They are legally unable to work once they graduate.

While 95 percent of Latino parents want their children to attend college, 77 percent say this is impossible given the cost, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

“Universities are important because we’re spending all this money on grade and high school and then they can’t afford to go to college. So it impedes their growth as an individual and the growth of the economy and the country,” says Juan Carlos, national coordinator for the National Capital Immigration Coalition.

Even in states that have passed laws providing undocumented students in-state tuition and enrollment, applications from undocumented students are rare. According to Robin Ryan, associate director of admissions at the University of New Mexico, there has been little or no change in their enrollments since that state adopted a law a year ago granting in-state tuition and financial assistance to undocumented students who have attended college for one year and graduated from a New Mexico high school. Ryan says approximately 50 undocumented students in a student body of 25,000 are currently enrolled. And for the last 10 years, university admissions encouraged undocumented students to enroll, operating under a state attorney general legal opinion, Ryan says. But policies are different across the country and by institution.

They’re seen as international students,” says Steve Steppe, client services representative for admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., considered one of the country’s most diverse higher education institutions. “We don’t report them. But we do charge them out-of-state tuition of $17,000.” For in-state tuition, George Mason’s rate drops to about $9,000.

The Great Debate
When it came time for Amy Chen to apply to college, she was able to sidestep the question of her legal status because she had a driver’s license. However, she could not qualify for in-state tuition. Fortunately, her parents had squirreled away enough money to pay her way through the University of California, San Diego. Chen kept her undocumented status a well-guarded secret during college. When friends went backpacking through Europe, she concocted an excuse why she couldn’t go. During weekend jaunts to Tijuana, Mexico, Chen stayed behind.
“I wanted more than anything to be a part of those adventures,”
 she says.

As graduation approached, Chen’s father pushed her to get married — the fastest way to citizenship. But at 21, marriage was the last thing on her mind. She took informal jobs, such as tutoring, to make money while attending law school. But that dream ended after she learned about the bar exam’s background check.

Karl Camillucci of the Division for Media Relations and Communication Services for the American Bar Association, says the ABA has provided admissions standards for law schools, although each school has its own policies. For example, the ABA says a law school shouldn’t admit students that it knows are incapable of satisfactorily completing its educational programs and being admitted to the bar. According to Camillucci, law schools must also advise their applicants about the character, fitness and other qualifications their state requires to take and pass the bar. This is to ensure that a pool of lawyer candidates can matriculate.

One of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent years has dealt with whether illegal students should be eligible for in-state tuition, which is often as much as 75 percent cheaper than out-of-state tuition. Currently, a 1996 federal law bans illegal immigrants from receiving any benefits not first afforded to all U.S. citizens — for example, an undocumented student in Texas can pay in-state tuition to attend the University of Texas at Austin, while a U.S. citizen from Colorado would pay out-of-state fees to attend the school.

But traditionally, it’s been the states and not the federal government that decides how foreign students, undocumented students and U.S. citizens are treated when it comes to in-state tuition. Many states have dealt with the debate in different ways, says Niels Frenzen, clinical associate professor of law at the University of Southern California Law School.

Frenzen says there is nothing in federal law that prohibits a state from treating undocumented students more harshly or making it difficult or impossible for undocumented students to enroll in state schools. 
“Such action on the part of a state certainly implicates 14th Amendment equal protection issues, but equal protection does not require equal treatment; it simply requires a state to have a rational basis for treating people differently,” Frenzen says.

“So the question would be, ‘Does a state have a rational reason for favoring U.S. citizens from other states and disfavoring undocumented residents of the state?’ Strong arguments can be made as to why differing treatment is not rational, but in today’s world, I would not bet on winning such an argument,” he says.

Many groups argue that keeping undocumented students out of college punishes them for their parents’ actions, especially since many undocumented students have lived most of their lives in the United States. Groups pressing for immigration reform, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), argue that in-state tuition should be a benefit for legally present taxpayers, whose tax dollars support the institutions.

Yet, even in states where undocumented students can get in-state tuition, many do not apply due to confusion and lack of awareness.
“They are chilled because of the fear of being caught, or chilled because of the cost of education,” says Kevin Johnson, associate dean for academic affairs and Mabie-Apallas Public Interest Professor of Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis School of Law.  

Colleges generally say they are not in the business of playing immigration official. Few colleges turn undocumented students over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, heightened security concerns surrounding international students have caused problems for some undocumented students. Frenzen says the two groups are actually very separate legal issues.

“Colleges that enroll foreign students on student visas are required to closely track those foreign students and report addresses and courses in which the student is enrolled, dates of arrival and departure, among other things, to Homeland Security,” says Frenzen. “But colleges and universities are not required to track undocumented students.” 

He points out the single biggest difference between international and undocumented students — the international ones are here legally. They possess student non-immigrant visas and are monitored through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. Undocumented students, on the other hand, do not have a visa and so can’t be tracked by SEVIS. Frenzen says he is not aware of any institutions that admit undocumented students as foreign students, and if an institution were to do so, the fact that the student is illegally present would be communicated to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Uncertain Futures
A good deal is at stake in an issue that has divided Congress, political parties and many Americans. Besides the DREAM Act, two other Senate versions of an immigration bill are also making their way through Capitol Hill. One of them, sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., promises “no amnesty” to undocumented workers. The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the House of Representative’s tough border security bill, which passed in December and would make it a federal crime to live in the United States without proper documentation.

It is impossible to say when the debate will be resolved, and what shape immigration reform will take. But as commencement 2006 nears, and students prepare themselves for college, the dreams of tens of
thousands of students like Ferreira will have to be put on hold.

Christina Asquith contributed to this report.

 *not her real name

In-State Vs. Out-of-State Tuition

California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington state have passed laws to provide in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the National Conference of State Legislatures. With the exception of California, most states circumvent the federal law by basing student eligibility requirements on attendance at an in-state high school rather than state residence. 

Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina are seeking to pass legislation denying undocumented children in-state tuition benefits. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, often perceived as a liberal state, defeated a bill in January to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition. A law barring undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition in Virginia was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner. The Virginia attorney general then stated that existing law requires state colleges and universities to charge higher tuition to undocumented students.

Pending Legislation

In November, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and 12 bipartisan co-sponsors reintroduced the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors) Act. The bill was first introduced in 2003 by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Under the bill, students who have been in the United States for five or more years, were brought to America when they were 15 years old or younger, are high school graduates and have kept out of trouble with the law could apply for conditional lawful permanent resident status.

With that designation, the students could live legally in the United States for six years. During this time they would be required to graduate from a two-year college, complete two years towards a four-year degree or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years. They would also be eligible for financial aid, which is currently unavailable for them, although they can receive private loans or internal grants from individual universities. Residence would be granted if the student met these conditions and maintained  “good moral character.” The National Immigration Law Center supports this bill, saying kids will be allowed to get on with their lives and start careers.

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