College tuition costs are just part of the challenge for illegal immigrants

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Sunday, November 27, 2011
— A small number of students at UW-Rock County and across the state are struggling because their tuition more than doubled this year.

A change in state law means they have to pay out-of-state tuition, even though they grew up here. They are illegal immigrants.

UW-Rock student Maria—who agreed to an interview on the condition that her real name would not be used—entered the United States on a tourist visa with her mother when she was 12. They never returned.

Others crossed the border before they could walk and grew up here.

"It's all they know, whether it be Madison or Janesville or whatever. They pretty much are American," said Javier Neira, president of the Madison-based organization Alcance, which encourages Latinos to go to college.

'Keep studying'

A 1982 Supreme Court decision requires that children of illegal immigrants be educated in public schools. Like their peers, they are encouraged to follow their dreams.

"They tell you when you're little that you can be whatever you want to be if you keep studying," Maria said.

With the loss of in-state tuition, "they seem lost. They don't see a future," Neira said.

Neira is afraid youths will turn to gangs or other trouble.

Maria graduated from high school in Janesville, where she got good grades and teachers loved her. She is in her second year at UW-Rock County.

She was one of 20 UW-Rock students who learned this August that their tuition would double because they are illegal immigrants. Five dropped out; others went part-time.

UW-Whitewater also notified 20 students they would have to pay more. Eleven remain enrolled, nine of those full-time.

Lawmakers step in

The students in question had paid in-state tuition last year, under legislation passed when Democrats controlled the lawmaking process in Madison.

Republicans took over in the 2010 elections and changed the law in the 2011-13 budget bill passed last summer.

UW-Rock tuition is $4,502 a year for state residents, $11,486 for out-of-state.

"I was obviously freaking out" when she learned of the change, Maria said.

She talked to her mother, who works two jobs to support her. Her mother said she would have to drop out for a year to earn money for school.

But Maria and two others were lucky. They're getting help from a UW Colleges tuition-remission program that gives financial aid to current students who demonstrate need and merit.

Maria has to keep reapplying for the program. She still doesn't know if she'll receive the aid next semester.

Waiting and hoping

Even if they manage to graduate from college—or even if they don't—these young adults face a future of uncertainty. Finding employers who don't ask for documentation of their legal status will be difficult.

What remains for them is to wait and hope. Maria and her friends watched C-SPAN last December when the House of Representatives voted on the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act has been introduced in Congress for 10 years. It lays out a path to permanent legal residency for illegal immigrants of good moral character who arrived in this country as minors and graduated from U.S. high schools.

They would get temporary residency for six years if they completed two years in the military or two years at a four-year college. They would become permanent residents if they later graduated from college or obtained an honorable discharge from the military.

Rep. Ryan's take

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, voted with the majority against the DREAM Act last year. A Ryan spokesman said what's needed is comprehensive immigration reform "before pursuing piecemeal proposals like the DREAM Act."

Asked if Ryan would support the DREAM Act if those reforms were addressed, the spokesman said he could not address a hypothetical question.

"It is clear that our immigration system is not working," Ryan said in a statement. "People who are attempting to come to the country legally find that it takes years to process citizenship applications and requires endless paperwork and other requirements. In order to discourage illegal immigration, I believe it is important that we work toward improving our immigration system so needed workers and eligible people are processed in a timely manner. At the same time, I do not support amnesty for the 11-13 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States."

Maria and thousands like her still pin their hopes on the DREAM Act.

Return on investment

"I want to let people know that we're not here to take their jobs," Maria said.

She notes that communities across the country are investing their tax dollars to get people like her through high school, but they won't see the benefits if those people leave the country because of a lack of opportunity.

Maria said she wants to get a degree so she can contribute to the community where she grew up. She doesn't think she should be penalized because of something her mother did.

"It's like mom is speeding and you give the ticket to the kid sitting in the back seat," she said.

Maria considered going to college in Mexico, but being accepted is problematic because her level of Spanish isn't up to academic standards, and getting through the bureaucracy and into a college there can be a matter of who you know rather than what you know, she said.

While she battles discouragement, Maria also appears at local high schools to encourage other Latinos to go to college. She works with Alcance.

Alcance's Neira said a degree from an American university could get these students a job anywhere in the world, but it would be better if they stayed in the United States.

"Why not keep investing in these children? Why not keep investing so that money isn't lost?" Neira said.

Asked whether Americans should be expected to invest in illegal immigrants during tough economic times, Neira said Americans are already spending lots of money to bring students here from other countries. He suggests the money would be better spent on students who are already here.

Hard work

Historically, immigration has paid off for the United States, with immigrants becoming the backbone of the country, Neira said.

"Let these people pay their taxes and even pay a fee if they need to make them legal. That's not a problem," Neira said.

Maria hopes to eventually transfer to UW-Madison, where "I know it's really hard to get accepted and even harder to pay." She wanted to become a nurse, but licensing requirements include a residency check. So she's taking biology courses while hoping things change.

Maria said she has a "gut feeling" that she should remain in the U.S.

"Things happen for a reason, is something my mom tells me," she said. "Maybe my purpose is to be here and grow old and be one of the people that helps this country."

Maria and a friend were up until 4 a.m. recently, studying for a math test. At one point they stopped and looked at each other, asking whether it was worth it.

"We're just groping in the dark and hoping we'll get somewhere," she said.


An estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high schools in the United States each year, and about 5 percent of them attend college, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twelve states—including Illinois, California and Texas—allow in-state tuition for at least some of these students. The NCSL lays out these arguments in the debate about tuition for illegal immigrants:


-- Many of these students came to the United States with their parents as young children and should not be deprived of higher education because of their parents' choices.

-- Many have U.S. high school diplomas. It is inconsistent to provide them with an education that ends at high school graduation, which limits their future social and economic mobility.

-- In-state tuition gives these students an incentive for completing high school, attending college, and eventually contributing to a state's society and economy.

-- Without access to postsecondary education, a growing uneducated workforce results in significant costs to states.

-- Failing to help students attend college results in higher costs to state prisons and state welfare systems, according to a 2005 report from the American Association for State Colleges and Universities.


-- Allowing in-state tuition, especially during tight economic times, takes opportunities away from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.

-- It rewards undocumented students and their families for breaking the law while punishing legal citizens and legal immigrants by taking away enrollment slots for them.

-- It provides incentives for people to immigrate illegally to the U.S. or to remain in the U.S. after visas have expired.

-- Granting resident tuition rates violates the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. This question remains to be decided in courts, including a case pending before the California Supreme Court.

-- It's too costly, and tax dollars should not be used to support undocumented students.

-- Even if these students graduate from college, they will not be employable if they are still undocumented after graduation.

Last updated: 6:50 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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