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By Melanie Asmar
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Before Donald Young was shot, before suspect Raul Garcia-Gomez got his job at the Cherry Cricket, before John Hickenlooper was elected mayor, even before Tom Tancredo was elected to Congress, Pablo came to Denver.
He grew up in this city, attending elementary school here, then middle school and finally West High School, where the words "Creating the American Dream" are carved in stone outside the door. Pablo has a dream, all right, but also a dilemma: He's not an American. Not officially.
When Pablo was in the third grade, his parents packed the family into their old car and left Chihuahua, Mexico, entering this country on tourist visas. They never went back. Instead, they settled in Denver, where they worked hard and raised three boys, one born here. Pablo's parents have tried to become legal; six years ago, they applied for residency. The immigration lawyer they hired took their money and later closed her practice; they've never heard from her or the U.S. Immigration Service.
Pablo worked hard, too. At West he entered the Center for International Studies magnet program and began taking Advanced Placement classes. He became a leader in the Junior ROTC, whose motto is "to motivate young people to become better citizens." While he wasn't a citizen, Pablo was certainly motivated. He wanted to go to college and then medical school, with the goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But as an undocumented kid, he didn't qualify for in-state tuition -- despite having lived in this state for close to a decade. His only options were trying to get a scholarship, or scrimping to pay for Metro or a community college, or lying about his immigration status -- or changing the law.
In the spring of 2004, Pablo testified before the Colorado Legislature, where Senate president John Andrews was pushing a bill designed to strengthen the state's stance on illegals. "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," Andrews pronounced. "The argument has been made that there are outstanding high school students whose parents are here illegally, and that it's not the fault of that boy or girl. Names and faces have been put on these types of stories that are very touching. My response is that at eighteen, a person is hardly too young to receive the clear message that the law is to be taken seriously."
Pablo was just sixteen, but he was already taking the law very seriously. He hadn't gotten a driver's license because he knew he would have to lie to get it. He hadn't been able to take a paid internship at a local hospital because he would have had to give a phony Social Security number. And he wasn't about to fake his testimony now. "I am opposed to this bill," he told lawmakers. "The reason is that most of the students who would be affected have been living here for half of their lives. I mean, they don't know anything about their home country, or anything like that.
"If they don't go to college," he continued, "they will have to take low-paying jobs. I believe it will hurt the state economy, because they have the potential to do the higher-paying jobs. Also, their parents are working. They are working illegally, but they are still paying taxes. Their parents are taxpayers, too. So I don't see how you can say that it's fair not to give these students in-state tuition."
Andrews's bill died, and in the most recent session, state representative Val Vigil introduced a proposal to allow qualified illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Pablo wrote a letter in support, and he and his friends collected over 1,500 signatures. But by the time they delivered it to Vigil, he'd pulled his bill.
Although Pablo didn't win his fight at the Statehouse, his involvement there caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which in February awarded him the Richard Hershcopf prize, "an award that we also call the Civil Rights in Action award," says ACLU director Cathryn Hazouri. "Pablo was selected because of his courage in taking a stance openly about kids like him, kids in the same situation, and advocating for in-state tuitions. He stood up for civil liberties and the civil rights of a group of people being treated badly by the government."
Pablo didn't want to accept the prize -- he thought others deserved it more -- but Sergeant Joseph Damon, his mentor at Junior ROTC, convinced him that he should. "He gave a very gracious speech," Hazouri remembers. "He honored the many people who had come before him in advocating for in-state tuition. He said the honor should be shared. It fit with what I'd heard of him."
At the ceremony, Pablo was introduced by his first name, and only his first name is engraved on the ACLU award. When he testified before the legislature, he went by his first name. And when we published Helen Thorpe's "College Material," her profile of Pablo in the December 2, 2004, issue, we used only his first name. Andrews is right that putting "names and faces" to these stories makes them very touching. But as the last two weeks have made extremely clear, the debate over illegal immigration is so hot that Pablo could easily get burned.
His full name was read when he graduated from West High School last Thursday -- seventh in his class, down from fifth last fall. Pablo had been taking a heavy load, including four college-level courses, but his overall record was still good enough to earn him the Center for International Studies Department Award, as well as a place in the National Honor Society. And late last month, he learned that he'd also been awarded a rare full scholarship that will pay his way at a prestigious private school in Colorado -- the next step toward his American dream.
Pablo is the first child in his extended family to go to college. His grandmother came from Mexico to watch him graduate. Pablo hadn't seen her in years. He can't leave the country -- not to visit relatives, not to travel to Europe on school trips -- for fear that he won't be able to get back in. The West ceremony was at the Colorado Convention Center, where orange flowers lined the stage. After the school board and faculty entered, the graduating students marched to the stage. Pablo and his closest friends, all honor students, wore white gowns. The salutatorian gave half of her speech in English and half in Spanish. Two of the other students' speeches were in English, two in Spanish. "Being mostly Latinos, being here shows our strong will and the greatness of each one of us," said one. "We have all faced different challenges. Among them, the most difficult is to recognize what has been done for us, the risks that our families have faced so that we could have a better life in this country that is not our own."
City councilwoman Judy Montero helped hand out the diplomas. "It was heart-wrenching to see them get those pieces of paper," she says. "To think about their stories, how much they'd struggled. To see the promise in all of the kids."
Pablo sees the promise -- and the problem that these kids have inherited. His was solved with a scholarship, but he knows he was lucky. "You have the students -- and they're not going to go away -- and they've created their own lifestyle here," he says. "They're pretty much basically American. They've gone through the whole school system and done all that's required of them. In school, we're encouraged to go on with our education, and our teachers talk to us about how it's important to go to college. But then when we try, we find all these roadblocks in our way because we're illegal. Your options start winding down. Most of the undocumented kids end up working jobs like the jobs my parents are doing. And that's an education gone to waste."
Before he continues his own education, Pablo wants to earn some money this summer. "I'm going to look for a job, but I don't know how hard it's going to be because of that guy who shot the cop," he says. "My dad says there's going to be a crackdown on illegals now."