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Illegal Immigrants Denied Corporate Scholarships

Earlier this year, Hector Vega learned from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation that he was one of 250 winners of a merit scholarship that had drawn applications from 50,000 high-school seniors across the country. “I was so excited,” recalls the straight-A student from San Jose, Calif. Vega was co-valedictorian of the senior class at James Lick High School and had spent months scrambling to raise funds for college.

But his joy turned to tears in February, when he received an e-mail from the foundation. It said “they couldn’t give me any money because of my immigration status,” recalls Vega, an illegal immigrant.

U.S. companies and their affiliated foundations are facing a new challenge: whether to award scholarships to students who are in the United States illegally. Coke’s foundation eventually decided to give Vega the scholarship after he proved he is pursuing legal residency.

Currently, most U.S. corporations award scholarships only to students who can prove they are legal residents, typically by filling in the boxes provided for a Social Security number. But the question of whether to reward scholarships to illegal-immigrant students with stellar academic records has increasingly come to the fore.

Few companies are willing to speak openly about their policy regarding scholarship applicants who are in the U.S. illegally. “Most corporate foundations simply want to give scholarships to kids who deserve them,” says David Rattray, vice president of education and work-force development at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which awards college money to undocumented students. However, he says, “pragmatic corporate America” is coming face to face with hard-line public discourse on illegal immigration.

Just two corporate foundations stepped forward when the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which is supported by big-name companies like Anheuser-Busch, approached donors a few years ago about offering scholarships on a limited basis to students here illegally, says fund president Sara Martinez Tucker. This year, amid the immigration debate in the U.S. Congress, the fund’s attorneys reviewed federal law and decided it was too risky to continue the practice. HSF, which disburses about $25 million in scholarships annually to Hispanic students, “can’t jeopardize that for the sake” of a minority of undocumented students, says Martinez Tucker.

Some companies have a policy that amounts to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” For example, Microsoft Corp. simply doesn’t request proof of legal residency. “I don’t know that we are intentionally accommodating these students,” says a Microsoft spokesman. “What is relevant to us is the fact that someone is a student in good standing whose potential we can help realize.”

The San Francisco affiliate of Spanish-language network Univision awards scholarships to Hispanic students who aren’t legal residents, as long as they provide an ITIN, the taxpayer identification number that foreigners use to pay U.S. taxes. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. won’t consider illegal-immigrant students for its scholarship program.

By the end of June, some 65,000 undocumented students are expected to graduate from U.S. high schools. The majority are Hispanics who came to the United States as babies or toddlers. Others, like Vega, crossed the border illegally when they were older to join family members already here.

Unlike other graduates of U.S. high schools, illegal immigrants can’t qualify for federal grants and loans or work-study programs to finance their higher education. Ten states, including California and Texas, have tried to make college more affordable for undocumented immigrants by passing legislation that allows them to pay in-state tuition. But for many of these students, even state fees are prohibitive.

Bipartisan legislation, known as the Dream Act, would enable illegal immigrants who have earned a high-school diploma and received a college acceptance to qualify for federal aid other than grants. But the future of the legislation, introduced five years ago, remains unclear. It is attached to the immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate Thursday. But the bill must go to a conference committee to try to resolve differences with the House bill passed in December.

Vega, whose mother works in the kitchen of a nursing home and part time at a fast-food restaurant, began to trawl the Web for scholarships last fall. Coke’s application requested a Social Security number. Vega, who doesn’t have one, filled in number ones on the electronic form so that he could move onto the next part of the application. “I told myself that maybe all that matters is that you earned it and deserved what you’re getting,” he says.

After Vega learned that his $4,000 scholarship would be withdrawn, he left a message on the voice mail of the foundation president, asking him to reconsider his case. A few days later, an official from the foundation contacted Vega and asked if he could prove that he was in the process of rectifying his immigration status.

Eventually, an immigration attorney wrote Coke a letter indicating that a relative who is a U.S. citizen was going to try to sponsor the student for a green card. Though it could take many years for Vega to secure residency, the application was enough to make Coke “comfortable” in awarding the scholarship.

In September, Vega will start his freshman year at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution in Santa Clara, Calif.

— Associated Press

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