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Arizona Law Has Undocumented Immigrants Dropping Out of College


Changing laws have made life tougher for undocumented immigrants in Arizona, including young people giving up dreams of college and better lives because they are unable to pay out-of-state tuition as required by voters.

With privately funded grants and scholarships lagging far behind the demand, some would-be students have dropped out, and others are considering a return to homelands they hardly remember in search of opportunity.

At 22, Jesus Pineda has lived half his life in Tucson. After arriving here at age 11, Pineda learned English in three months, eventually graduated from Catalina High Magnet School and started working with his dad at their family business.

He was planning to become a mechanic and studied the craft for two years at a community college until he dropped out of school in the fall of 2007 because he could not prove his legal status as required under Proposition 300, approved by voters in 2006.

Proposition 300 requires students to prove they are citizens or legal residents in the United States to qualify for in-state tuition at Arizona community colleges and universities. If they cannot, they must pay the higher out-of-state tuition fees. An in-state, part-time student can expect to pay $297 for six units while an out-of-state student will pay $504 for the same number of course units in college.

Voters approved the proposition after backers said the state should not be taking taxpayer resources and giving them to people who broke the law. The estimated 200,000 to 250,000 illegal immigrants living in Arizona at the time were costing the state substantial amounts of money, backers said.

Other states, including Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma, also have laws denying in-state tuition benefits to students who entered the country illegally with their parents but grew up and were schooled in the state.

“I could no longer study because I don’t have a Social Security number, so I started working full time,” Pineda said.

Unable to continue his education here, Pineda, like other Mexican students who grew up in this country, is considering returning to Mexico.

When Proposition 300 became law, efforts were made to raise funds to offset its effects, said Francisco Marmolejo of Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration at the University of Arizona. However, little money was collected.

“There have been some scholarships from private funding that students have gotten thanks to the generosity of some donors,” Marmolejo said. “That solved the problem for a year, but not in the long run.”

And at the University of Arizona, there is also no funding available to help these particular students, said Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, a UA spokeswoman.

Oscar Lujan of the UA Hispanic Alumni Association said it is frustrating to not be able to assist them. The organization has about $455,000 in funding for 2008-2009, but to be eligible, students must prove they are in the U.S. legally.

Only one local organization, Fundacion Mexico, is presently offering help, but it has only about $10,000 available, said its president, Florencio Zaragoza.

Pima Community College reported 951 students had been unable to qualify for in-state tuition as of June.

However, activists and immigrant advocates estimate about 5,000 students were unable to return to or attend colleges and universities during 2007 because of Prop. 300, based on anecdotal accounts.

“We have had a lot of phone calls from parents and students who now are seeing their chances are becoming more limited,” Marmolejo said.

Educamexus, an information center in Tucson that offers assistance to Spanish speakers looking for online study options, says parents of affected foreign-born students are worried that their children are not able to continue attending college or the university.

“It seems they feel bad that by coming to the U.S., and trying to give their children a better life, they now face this obstacle,” said Gilberto Olivas of Educamexus.

Rafael Barrera, 20, has already left Tucson. He dropped out of school and returned to Sinaloa to reunite with his parents after he could no longer pay the out-of-state tuition at college.

At Pima Community College he was working toward a career in management, but he has no idea what he’ll do in Mexico. He speaks Spanish, but all his formal schooling has been in Tucson and in English.

“I need to see if there’s a place for me here, and I’m afraid I won’t get used to being here,” he said in a telephone interview from Mexico. “Besides, I was afraid at college because I saw the ‘migra’ (immigration law enforcers) there twice.”

Going back to Mexico is not a good option, said activists who see congressional approval of the proposed “Dream Act” as the only solution.

Stalled in Congress, it would give the children of illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship if they attend college.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who is co-sponsor of the act, said the loss of opportunity is a loss for the students and for the nation.

“This is not only about being humanitarian or doing a charity, it is about investing in something healthy for our community future,” he said.

But it is unlikely that any action will be taken in an election year, Grijalva said.

Ricardo Castro, educator and vice president of Fundacion Mexico, says unless all these students are deported, most of them are going to stay in this country without the option of continuing their education.

“They will be second-class citizens, and that is contradictory,” he says. “They are people who grew up here; they are an important part of their communities.”

For now, Pineda plans to wait for an immigration reform, but in the long run, he knows he may have to leave.

“I have no idea what I would do in Mexico. I’m from there because I was born there, but I believe I’m from here, too, because I grew up here. But here, I’m nobody.”

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