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In Tuition Aid Rules, Immigration Debate Meets Reality

April 7, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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As the immigration debate continues to evolve, some states are denying children of undocumented immigrants government grants and tuition loans offered to low-income students to help pay for college. Lee Hochberg reports on how undocumented students are coping.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid the national debate over illegal immigration is another debate over their children.

Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our report.

MAN: Think of the Statue of Liberty and what it says on there and that beacon, and what it means.

LEE HOCHBERG: The immigration debate is more than just a school exercise for 17-year-old Jesus Lopez. He and a few others in this 12th grade Seattle classroom were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Now they’re not eligible for the government grants and tuition loans that their low-income classmates can receive.

Lopez, a school leader with an A average, doesn’t think that’s fair.

JESUS LOPEZ, High School Senior: The kids were brought here not knowing. Their parents choose the decision for them. So, it’s like they’re paying because of what their parents decided to do.

We are all here and we’re all spending time together and we’re all sharing the same room. I don’t see why you should have privileges more than I do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Seventy-five thousand undocumented students will graduate U.S. high schools this year, but only a tiny fraction will go on to college.

Lopez fears not being able to get a loan will hold him back, too.

JESUS LOPEZ: I have been dreaming to have a profession. I got really interested in computers. I like to tear them apart, put them back. But we will see how it goes.

GABE OSARIO, High School Senior: I want to be a writer. And I want to go to college and I want to be able to write well.

LEE HOCHBERG: Gabe Osario also worries about the money. She was 2 when she crossed the border with her father. Fifteen years later, she has a 3.9 grade average and imagines attending the University of Washington.

GABE OSARIO: I want to use that to make something out of myself and make my parents proud.

LEE HOCHBERG: Classmates empathized with them, but the class discussion brought out dissent. Adante Melton was concerned…

Anti-immigration sentiments

State Rep. Russell Pearce
R-Ariz.
You can't come here and get free jobs, you know, have jobs waiting for you, free health, free medical, free education, and expect people not to come. You have got to -- you have got to shut down the spigot.

ADANTE MELTON, High School Junior: People that are undocumented, that's a whole bunch of people that I have to go against also all over again. I'm trying to get in, too. And I don't want anybody taking my spots. I will love you. I will be your friend, but I want to love my family more than I love you. So...

LEE HOCHBERG: LaQwana Toles agreed: Those here illegally shouldn't get benefit.

LAQWANA TOLES, High School Junior: I don't have the money. My mom doesn't have the money for me to get into college. I have to make it for myself. There's a lot of kids out there that's like that. Do you even think that's, like, really fair? You have got to think about them, too.

LEE HOCHBERG: Making college easier for undocumented students to afford is a volatile issue, sparking anti-immigrant rallies, like this one in Arizona.

RICH GALEENER, Protester: But to come here and demand services, demand free things, it's just not the American way.

LEE HOCHBERG: There are two issues. In some places, the argument is whether undocumented students who have grown up in the U.S. should be allowed to pay the lower tuition reserved for state residents. This Arizona legislator said no.

RUSSELL PEARCE (R), Arizona State Representative: You can't come here and get free jobs, you know, have jobs waiting for you, free health, free medical, free education, and expect people not to come. You have got to -- you have got to shut down the spigot.

LEE HOCHBERG: In 2006, Arizona outlawed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Four thousand of them then saw their bills triple, and many dropped out. Colorado, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia also ban in-state tuition for undocumented students.

And legislation to do the same has been introduced in California, Utah, Kansas, North Carolina, Maryland, and New Hampshire. And there's another issue: financial aid. Arizona lawmakers prohibited illegal immigrants from getting state-funded financial aid.

Washington State has chosen a middle course. Undocumented students cannot receive state grants or loans, but, here, and in eight other states, those that have been residents for several years can go to college on in-state tuition if they promise to seek American citizenship if that becomes possible.

Washington's tuition program

Gabe Osario
Student
If I'm able to have a dream, I want to achieve it here. I'm going to be fighting all the way, so I could can make something out of myself, you know, whether it's here or anywhere.

LEE HOCHBERG: In 2003, this young immigrant -- now 24 and still shielding her identity for fear of being deported -- was the first to benefit from Washington's in-state tuition law. Her parents brought her to the U.S. at the age of 6, in search of educational opportunity. She was shaken when she realized how expensive out-of-state tuition was.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT: It almost seemed like, OK, this is not going to happen. I'm not going to be able to go to school. And, so, I'm not going to be able to go to college. I just hoped that, somehow, something would happen, and, with God's help, I was going to go somewhere.

LEE HOCHBERG: Help came from Ricardo Sanchez, a Latino activist who was looking for compelling students who might convince state legislators to change the tuition rule.

RICARDO SANCHEZ, Latino Activist: What possible justification is there for leaving young scholars in this -- who we have educated in this state and spent tens of thousands of dollars doing it, what possible justification is there to turn our backs on them now? You know, it's -- it's immoral.

LEE HOCHBERG: Sanchez argued that the state agricultural industry relies upon undocumented families, and blocking their children's education only creates a new generation of undereducated Latinos, who then become a drain on social services.

RICARDO SANCHEZ: We purposefully and intentionally don't enforce our laws in order for these workers to be here. This game has been played for decades, and -- and innocent kids are -- are caught up in the mix of this. So, let's not punish young children for the deals that adults cut.

LEE HOCHBERG: Maria took advantage of the law. She graduated from college with honors, and now attends law school.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT: It was one of the greatest feelings in the world to have, to know that now I can afford school. I have a stake in this country.

LEE HOCHBERG: Since then, about 1,000 undocumented students have received in-state tuition at Washington colleges. The state hasn't calculated the cost of that, but officials in Texas, where more than 7,000 illegals used in-state tuition in 2006, said the annual cost of its subsidy may be as high as $11 million.

That may sound like a lot, but Gabe Osario's father says he has earned some of those benefits. An electrician, he makes $20,000 a year, and says, using a taxpayer identification number, he pays taxes, like any citizen.

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT: And this is the gross, federal...

LEE HOCHBERG: Federal withholding...

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT: ... withholding, and FICA. The point is, I pay taxes.

GABE OSARIO: This is my fourth grade class back in California. I think you will see I'm right there.

LEE HOCHBERG: Gabe says all of her memories are of America, growing up with her young sister, Gladys.

GABE OSARIO: If I'm able to have a dream, I want to achieve it here. I'm going to be fighting all the way, so I could can make something out of myself, you know, whether it's here or anywhere.

LEE HOCHBERG: Even with in-state tuition, she says the University of Washington is out of her range without financial aid. She says it seems arbitrary that her 7-year-old sister, born in the U.S., likely will have no trouble getting aid when she's ready for college.

GABE OSARIO: I want to go to college. And I see, yes, she's going to go. And she probably won't have the same barriers that I'm facing. And it makes me kind of mad, actually. But, I mean, it's life. I have to live with, you know, a decision from many years ago affecting me, and now I have to live with it.

The American dream

Travis Reindl
Education analyst
It is difficult enough to make the argument for eligibility for in-state tuition. To say that aid dollars go directly to the student on top of that for undocumented students is virtually politically radioactive.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Adante Melton and his father, Job, feel they have limited resources, too. Job, a former sprinter who twice qualified for the Olympic trials, had hoped his son would win an athletic scholarship to college. But that hasn't happened. A veteran, he feels citizenship means something.

JOB MELTON, Parent: My grandfather was born and raised in this country. My father was born and raised in this country. I was born and raised in this country. All four of my boys were born and raised in this country. But we still haven't got our 40 acres and a mule, but at least I would like for my son to have the opportunity to go to college.

LEE HOCHBERG: And Adante, who hopes to study sports management, says offering benefits to undocumented students isn't how he understands the American dream.

ADANTE MELTON: Those are two strong words. And you have to qualify for both. And if you -- if you don't qualify for the first one, you're not going to get to the second one.

We have gone through the American dream. And we're at the dream part now, and I'm dreaming. And I want to be given my benefits. They deserve to start at the A in America, and work their way all the way to the end.

LEE HOCHBERG: Last year, the Washington State legislature considered a bill to allow financial aid for undocumented students. It died in committee.

Travis Reindl, of the Jobs for the Future research organization, thinks states should realize both tuition subsidies and financial aid are worth it in the long run.

TRAVIS REINDL, Education Analyst: When you consider that states spend collectively $80 billion on higher education, we're really not talking about a big dollar figure here.

LEE HOCHBERG: New Mexico and Texas are now funding such financial aid. For Texas, it's less than 1 percent of its overall expenditures on student aid, but it's still a hard sell for most states.

TRAVIS REINDL: It is difficult enough to make the argument for eligibility for in-state tuition. To say that aid dollars go directly to the student on top of that for undocumented students is virtually politically radioactive.

LEE HOCHBERG: It's a hard sell with Washington State Representative Glenn Anderson.

GLENN ANDERSON (R), Washington State Representative: It is a circumstance that, from a compassionate point of view, you can understand. Doesn't make them legal. Doesn't make them Americans.

Private aid to fill the gaps

LEE HOCHBERG: Without state aid, students like Jesus Lopez are left vying for private scholarships.

GOV. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (D), WASHINGTON: We will be a great nation if we take every single child and say, you will succeed. We will give you the education that you deserve.

LEE HOCHBERG: At an awards ceremony attended by Washington's governor, Chris Gregoire, Lopez won a $5,000 scholarship in January, enough money to help him chase his dream at the University of Washington.

WOMAN: He was one of the only ELL students who met proficiency in writing, reading, and math on the first try.

WOMAN: He now has a 3.7 GPA. He now knows he is capable of college.

LEE HOCHBERG: The next morning, Jesus, Gabe, and dozens of other Latino students met with their state legislators, lobbying them to support aid for undocumented students.

JESUS LOPEZ: We just want to see if you support them. And we just want to see -- we're really interested. We support them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Their legislators, though, say in-state tuition goes far enough and a bill providing financial aid has no future this year.