Head of the Class

With his grades and high school activities, Pablo is an ideal candidate for college, except for one hitch: He's illegal.

Once the full extent of his predicament dawned on him, Pablo formed an e-mail network to update other undocumented students on the progress of legislation that would affect their situation. His list included a sunny girl on the cheerleading squad, a quiet girl who dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, athletes, fellow CIS students and more. Few of the others had grades as good as his, which meant that their chances of attracting a private benefactor were close to nil. "What about all the other kids who worked their butts off and have only a B average or a C average?" asked teacher Jennifer Portillo. "I can come up with two handfuls of kids who are like that in our program." To Portillo, who had already invested so much in these students, failing to make sure that they, too, could continue their education seemed like an enormous waste of human potential. "It's not like those kids are going to disappear," she said.

Of course, Pablo would have loved to resolve his dilemma by becoming an American citizen. His parents had applied for residency five years earlier but still hadn't heard back from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Meanwhile, the lawyer they'd hired had closed her practice after pocketing several thousand dollars. Pablo feared that the attorney had ripped them off, though his father liked to hope otherwise. Pablo regularly watched a television show called "Ask an Immigration Lawyer." On one episode, somebody had called to inquire how long the citizenship process takes if a person applied with the sponsorship of a legal sibling, as Pablo's parents had done. The immigration lawyer said it took about fourteen years. "I don't have fourteen years!" cried Pablo.

James Glader
All in la familia: Pablo works on the computer he 
shares with his two brothers.
James Glader
All in la familia: Pablo works on the computer he shares with his two brothers.

As his junior year drew to a close, Pablo realized that he was not likely to get help at either the federal or the state level -- not in time to affect where he went to school, at any rate. Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Durbin of Illinois have both been strong proponents of providing Pell grants to undocumented students through the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. "Each year, about 50,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school in the United States," Hatch testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary late last year. "Most of them came to this country with their parents as small children and have been raised here just like their U.S. citizen classmates. Many of them view themselves as Americans and are loyal to our country." Hatch pointed out that these students had not made the initial decision to enter the United States illegally, yet now found themselves stuck in limbo. "They cannot work legally," he continued. "They are also effectively barred from developing academically beyond high school because of the high cost of pursuing higher education. We have a choice either to keep these talented young people underground or give them a chance to contribute to the United States."

Despite sustained efforts by both Hatch and Durbin, the DREAM Act never made it to a vote during the last legislative session. After Bush was re-elected, he signaled that his second term may include immigration reform, and Durbin and Hatch are now planning to reintroduce the DREAM Act, most likely as part of an omnibus bill. It will be a tough fight, but one they could win: While there is growing anti-immigrant sentiment in some quarters, there is also an emerging consensus that immigration reform is necessary.

A handful of states have passed laws that allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition. But last spring, Colorado's legislature seemed poised to do exactly the opposite. After state representative Val Vigil, a Democrat from Thornton, proposed a bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, representative Ted Harvey, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, introduced an opposing measure that would ban that kind of tuition break. Vigil thought Colorado should follow the example of states such as California and Texas, which had been among the first to embrace more flexible tuition policies; Harvey wanted Colorado to become known for the kind of hard-line anti-immigrant stance espoused by leaders like U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo.

To the political conservatives who controlled Colorado's purse strings, the idea of subsidizing the education of illegal aliens was anathema. Perhaps the most articulate opponent of offering tuition breaks to undocumented students was state senator John Andrews, then the leader of the Senate, who served as the co-sponsor of Harvey's bill. In March, when Harvey's bill came up for consideration by the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, Andrews introduced it. (Vigil's bill never made it out of the House.) Pablo and Blanca left West in the middle of the day to attend the hearing and showed up carrying their schoolbooks.

"I bring you House Bill 1187, concerning an illegal alien's right to establish a Colorado domicile with regards to in-state tuition," pronounced Andrews. "The only effect that the bill before us would have is to make clear that if someone is unlawfully residing in the state of Colorado, he or she may not have recourse to the huge taxpayer subsidy that would come with attending one of our public institutions as a resident of the state." Providing this subsidy to "a lawbreaker" would be "terribly unfair," he said, both to the taxpayer and to the out-of-state student from, say, Kansas.

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