Head of the Class
Four high school students in military uniforms were horsing around in a cinderblock corridor deep inside Coors Field. It was fifteen minutes before the Rockies would take on the Phillies, and two decades into the latest surge of immigration into the United States. One of the students was named Pablo. He had pale skin, short dark-brown hair, ears that stuck out a little, and a long face. A ribbon pinned to his green uniform indicated that he was an expert marksman, and another revealed that he was the commander of a company of Junior ROTC students back at West High. Dressed up like a soldier, Pablo looked like a young man who was willing to die for his country.
"One minute to showtime, troops!" barked Sergeant First Class Joseph Damon, a balding Vietnam veteran turned ROTC instructor.
Pablo dove into the women's bathroom, where Sergeant Damon had stashed the cadets' equipment, and emerged with the American flag against his shoulder. The four teens then marched down the long hallway and out onto the vast, emerald expanse of the baseball field. They halted in shortstop territory, where the Wilmot Elementary School chorus was waiting for them. As the pint-sized singers filled the stadium with a warbly, high-pitched version of the national anthem, the student who was carrying the Colorado flag tilted it downward. Pablo, however, continued to hold the American flag absolutely upright. A sudden breeze made the flags snap sharply; the only other movement in the frozen tableau came from Wilmot's chorus leader, who conducted with admirable vigor. When the song ended, the stadium was silent for a moment, and then the fans roared in unison.
It was an American crowd, cheering for what looked like a quintessentially American spectacle. Would the crowd have cheered as loudly if they knew the full story of the teenager holding the American flag? Pablo didn't think so, which was why he typically kept quiet about his past. Nine years earlier, when he was a third-grader living in Chihuahua, Mexico, his parents had applied for tourist visas that would allow them to visit the U.S. temporarily, and they'd driven the family across the border in their dilapidated sedan. They'd never gone back. After spending a lonesome year in Joplin, Missouri, the family moved to Denver, where they had kin. They arrived just in time to help their new home town achieve the status of a "gateway city," in the terminology of the Brookings Institute. Thanks to the torrent of immigrants flowing here over the last decade, the number of foreign-born people living in the metro area increased 178 percent during the 1990s -- a rate exceeded by only a handful of other metropolitan areas in the United States.
When his mother walked him over to his new elementary school, Pablo became one of the thousands of undocumented students flooding into Denver Public Schools. In 1996 there were 13,911 Spanish-speakers in DPS schools; by 2003 that number had doubled, to 27,002. For the most part, these students had been born in Mexico, or their parents had been. It was impossible to say exactly how many of them were undocumented, because nobody tracked the statistic; a Supreme Court decision prohibited school officials from asking students to reveal their immigration status for fear of scaring undocumented families into keeping their children at home. However, knowledgeable principals at several elementary schools with large numbers of Latino students recently estimated that those schools were probably as high as 40 or 50 percent undocumented. Overall, agreed several members of the DPS board, it was reasonable to assume that at least 20 percent of the students the district now served lacked papers -- and a few boardmembers thought that figure too conservative. (Up in the mountains, where ski resorts attracted even higher concentrations of illegals, more than 50 percent of the students in some rural school districts were probably undocumented.)
Not on the periphery of the country, in other words, but somewhere much closer to the heart of it, we were raising an entire generation of young people who would not be deemed American when they came of age, even though they had grown up here. A small but impressive fraction of these students turned out to be like Pablo -- the stars of their high schools, the students adored by all of the teachers. They were graduation speakers at North and they were valedictorians at Manual and they were cheerleaders at West.
Pablo allowed others to mistake him for American whenever possible. Now that he was on the verge of becoming an adult, though, he was finding it harder and harder to avoid the sorts of questions that would reveal his illegal status. He had been treated just like any other American kid in elementary and middle school, and for the first two years of high school as well. But in his junior year, all sorts of people started asking for his Social Security number -- the priest who wanted to hire him for a part-time job, the administrator who hoped to admit him to a prestigious internship program, the college counselor who urged him to compete for full-ride scholarships offered by places like the Daniels Fund -- and, of course, he didn't have one to give. All of a sudden, everywhere he turned, he faced this confounding matter of lacking a nine-digit number that every adult in the United States needs in order to become a fully productive member of society.
One day last spring, Pablo took a seat in the front row of his AP calculus class just as a girl named Maria strolled by wearing a hot-pink T-shirt and a pair of skintight, white denim hip-huggers.
"I want some pants like that," Pablo called out.
"You always want my pants!" Maria scolded happily. "You said that about the ones with the flowers on them, too!"
It was the end of the school day, and everybody else seemed weary. As Ms. Shore, the calculus teacher, slogged through a review of derivatives, many of the students drifted off into their own conversations. Above the blackboard, somebody had hung a large foam hand that pointed upward and bore the slogan "Build a better nation -- get an education." As more and more of the kids abandoned any attempt to follow her, Ms. Shore stoically launched into a problem in which the students were supposed to find the volume of a pool, then figure out how long it would take to fill it with water. To illustrate it, Ms. Shore drew a lopsided trapezoid on the blackboard. "Miss, you're very artistic!" Pablo sang out. Ms. Shore shot him a look of mock exasperation that did not conceal her delight.
"I got 144 for the volume of the pool," announced Pablo.
"Let me check," said Ms. Shore, turning to the back of her book. "Yes, that's right."
Pablo had been living in the United States for close to a decade by now, and he'd become an almost-all-American kid. He ranked fifth in his class, and his teachers adored him; besides being smart, he had a mischievous sense of humor that helped alleviate the tedium of the classroom. "He's a good bad kid," teacher Jennifer Portillo said fondly.
An enormous banner in the school's main lobby exhorted students to "THINK COLLEGE," and Pablo did. Most of his classes were advanced-placement courses, and he spent the spring of his junior year preparing for the ACT exam. Pablo's best subjects were physics and calculus. "If you have an x and a y, what famous mathematician comes to mind?" asked Mr. Pomponio, his physics teacher, one morning. "Pythagoras," replied Pablo. During the subsequent review for the AP test, Pablo supplied so many answers to Mr. Pomponio's questions that the teacher finally had to egg on the other students, crying out, "I'm only hearing one voice here!"
Back when he was a promising middle school student, Pablo had been recruited to join West's prestigious magnet program, the Center for International Studies, which emphasized the importance of understanding other cultures. At the last annual CIS fundraiser, director Dan Lutz described how school-sponsored trips to other countries transformed the CIS students. "The experience has changed their lives, " Lutz preached. "Not just because they encountered a different language, a different currency. They're learning how to listen, with the understanding that other people may be seeing the world in a different way." Then Lutz showed a snappy, upbeat video that spoke of the necessity of creating "globally minded students" who could become the leaders of tomorrow's "global society."
Pablo was pretty global-minded already. He soaked up information about other parts of the world, primarily through television. He was especially partial to the Discovery Channel, and each morning when he arrived at school, Pablo laced his conversation with bulletins about what he'd learned from the Discovery Channel the night before. "The I.T. capital of India is this place called Bangalore," Pablo announced one day. "It's creating a lot of problems in India, because the place is Westernizing so quickly. There are people celebrating Valentine's Day there now." But Pablo was never so preoccupied with world affairs that he failed to pay attention to the people around him. He never passed a handicapped student in the hallway without greeting that student by name.
Pablo belonged to an extremely close-knit circle of friends who had known each other since middle school. When we walked into his third-year Japanese class one morning, Pablo took a seat in the front row, turned around and told me, "This is my posse." Andrew and Miguel looked like grown men, and barely fit into their school desks; Uriel and Sergio were still as slight as Pablo. Uriel had blond hair, blue eyes and a narrow, angular face. Sergio had an extraordinary mop of dark curls that he wore in a densely overgrown Afro. The five teenagers frequently snickered together for inexplicable reasons -- all of their jokes were inside jokes, all of their memories shared. When they passed each other in the hall, they slapped hands or reached over to fondle Sergio's wobbly hair. Everybody else in the posse was an American citizen, however, which made Pablo's predicament a lonely one.
When Pablo was not with his posse, he could often be found in the company of a vivacious, stylish student named Blanca. Blanca sometimes appeared at West in outfits like her fetching Chinese silk-blouse-and-trousers ensemble, complete with a pair of chopsticks stuck in her hair; she often looked like she could go straight from school to a cocktail party. Pablo maintained that he and Blanca were just friends, and while their interest in each other never quite seemed to qualify as romantic, other girls often had crushes on Pablo -- and then got confused because he spent all of his time with Blanca.
One morning, Pablo and Blanca and I were having pancakes with strawberry topping and whipped cream at the Denver Diner, not far from where Pablo lives. Pablo was talking about his decision to testify before the Colorado Legislature on a matter of deep importance to him. It took me a while to realize that every time I looked down to write in my notebook, he was flicking spitballs into Blanca's right ear.
Pablo, Blanca and various members of the posse liked to perform in plays. As sophomores, they'd won a national competition for the best History Day skit in the American public school system for an original script about the Sand Creek massacre. This year, they'd decided to perform a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona in the school district's annual Shakespeare Festival. On the day of the performance, Blanca looked radiant in a pink frilly gown, while Pablo looked faintly ridiculous in a floppy woman's hat, a gold-embroidered vest, green velvet bloomers, black dress socks and black dress shoes. It was impossible to understand the inaudible comic asides that Andrew and Sergio made to the audience, but Pablo enunciated his lines clearly as he knelt before Blanca and spent himself in an impassioned plea for her affection. Blanca responded with a fiery diatribe about how lacking she found his suit. "Hie you home to bed!" she ordered, full of disdain. Off-stage, however, Blanca could be just as fiery in expressing her admiration for Pablo. She cited his talent on the stage as proof that he wasn't just another unlettered peasant, that he didn't fit the stereotypical image of an illegal alien. "He's not just somebody who's ignorant!" she fumed.
Blanca was a fervent student activist with leftist leanings who viewed the Junior ROTC as an insidious arm of the military-industrial complex. Pablo, on the other hand, viewed Junior ROTC as a vehicle through which he could learn important skills such as leadership. By his junior year, he was serving as commander of a company of other students, mostly fractious freshmen and sophomores. "Stop flirting!" he instructed members of his unruly company one afternoon in the ROTC building. "Flirt after class!" After leading the group in the Pledge of Allegiance, Pablo pulled a yellow pencil from behind his ear and took roll call. As he called out the names of various cadets, one after another responded, "Here, captain!" Pablo loved the Junior ROTC program and spent all of his spare time in the building. Less patriotic students enjoyed ridiculing those who wore the dress greens. "They call us Œpickles,'" Pablo confessed. He shrugged off the slur; in the chaos of a large public school like West, he found the ROTC program to be an oasis of discipline.
Sergeant Damon was laired up in a tiny cave of an office at the back of the building. He had served 23 years and eleven months in the U.S. Army before joining the faculty at West and had a manner that was equal parts drill sergeant and mother hen. His tour of the facility included a wall-sized display of the chain of command, topped by a grinning, amiable photograph of President George W. Bush. The Junior ROTC motto was painted on another wall: "To motivate young people to become better citizens."
Sergeant Damon said that the staff had known about Pablo's immigration status when they'd picked him to be part of the color guard -- because Pablo himself had volunteered the information. When they asked him to carry the American flag, Pablo reminded them that he wasn't a legal resident, wanting to make sure it was really okay for somebody like him to be the flag-bearer. Sergeant Damon thought it was. "We understand that this country is built on immigrants," he said, "so I have no hangups, so to speak."
Inside the walls of Pablo's school, this accepting attitude was typical. Outside of school, things were different. Pablo's family lived in a cramped brick house that was painted a dull red. A chain-link fence outlined the tiny front yard, which consisted of neatly swept dirt. The first time I visited, Pablo seemed too big a character to fit into such diminished surroundings. Pablo's father, a short, barrel-chested man with a thick mop of black hair, was sitting in the tidy living room before the television set, which was tuned to the Discovery Channel. Pablo's two-year-old brother, who was born in this country (making the family partly legal and partly illegal), kept appearing and disappearing from other rooms. When Pablo's mother arrived home, she just waved and retreated into the kitchen.
The reason for my visit was to discuss with Pablo's parents how I would identify their son; because of virulent anti-immigrant sentiments around the state, my story could put the whole family at risk. Pablo's father looked at his son and said only, "Que t quieres." He left the decision up to his sixteen-year-old.
It seemed extraordinary that this close-mouthed man and his almost invisible wife had produced a son as socially adept as Pablo. About two months later, however, when I returned with a friend from Mexico City, I realized that I'd misread nearly everything about Pablo's family. In the company of my Mexican-born friend, Pablo's parents proved to be completely different people: His mother was an opinionated woman who had completed high school, unlike most undocumented immigrants; his father was an animated man who made wry jokes all the time. Pablo's father was the risk-taker in the family, and it was from him that Pablo had obtained his keen sense of social justice. Pablo looked just like his mother, though. She had given him her pale skin, her long nose and her wavy hair, as well as her aptitude for school. She was also the reason he dressed so smartly -- she was always telling him to tuck in his shirt or to change his pants.
Of course, some of the things that parents pass down to their children do not make their significance clear right away. Back when they'd driven across the border with the wrong kind of visas, Pablo's parents hadn't anticipated how the manner of their crossing would affect the children. The impact of that act was only now being felt.
One Saturday afternoon, Pablo and Blanca and Sergio were over at Pablo's house, slumped in various armchairs. Spring break was one week away, and Blanca couldn't stop talking about the school-sponsored trip she was taking to three European countries.
"Hey, what do you guys want from Europe?" Blanca asked.
"I don't want anything," said Pablo.
"I want a new car," said Sergio.
Blanca nattered on about her trip to China the year before; Sergio said that he wanted to go to Japan. Pablo didn't say anything. He just stared silently at the TV, where a man on the Discovery Channel was demonstrating how to fix a leaky roof. Realizing that his friends were looking at him, Pablo flashed a halfhearted grin. Blanca kicked his foot.
"I can't go," said Pablo.
"I know," said Blanca. "Honestly, what do you want from Europe?"
"Nothing," Pablo said again, and he pulled his T-shirt up over his nose.
From various Internet cafes across Europe, Blanca wrote Pablo long e-mails saying that Paris was filthy, Rome divine. He read them at home on the computer he shared with his two younger brothers. West had a scholarship fund that would have paid his way on the same trip, but he was marooned in the tiny brick house for lack of a passport. He couldn't travel to Europe or Asia -- or even back to Mexico -- without forfeiting his right to come home to Denver.
When he was younger, Pablo had been oblivious to the consequences of his immigration status, because federal law guaranteed his right to attend public school. He was taught as if he was fully American; along with his peers, he learned about the rights and privileges that accompany citizenship, as if someday those rights would be his. Now, in a series of painful revelations, he was discovering that this wasn't really the case. He couldn't travel. Everybody in his posse got their driver's licenses as soon as they turned sixteen, but Pablo still rode the bus. He didn't have any sort of official identification.
Nothing was more painful than the looming question of what was going to happen after Pablo completed four years at West. He knew that a bachelor's degree was the best means of avoiding his father's lifetime of working as a landscape laborer out in the fierce Colorado sun, the best way to fulfill the motto carved on a slab of granite outside of his school, where it said that West was "CREATING THE AMERICAN DREAM." Pablo had those kinds of dreams now: He wanted to become a doctor, and planned on going to medical school after he completed his bachelor's degree.
In one-on-one conversations with trusted teachers, however, Pablo had learned that he did not qualify for federal aid programs such as Pell grants, which were available to Blanca and Sergio and Andrew. Nor was he eligible for in-state tuition at any public university or college in the state of Colorado. One day, while we were walking to a class at West, Pablo pointed out a fellow student. "Elena applied for the Boettcher, and she won," he said in an admiring tone. Pablo wasn't eligible for a Boettcher, or a Daniels Fund scholarship, or a Gates Millennium scholarship.
Before 9/11, undocumented kids used to slip into state schools relatively easily if they had graduated from a local high school. After 9/11, all that changed. Now every public institution of higher education kept extensive files, with copies of multiple forms of identification. Students who couldn't produce an American birth certificate or a green card were classified as "international students," even if they lived just down the road. This status meant that the University of Colorado had to charge them five times more than it charged a legal resident of Colorado. As a result, the flow of undocumented students into the more expensive state schools had slowed to a trickle. In Denver, about the only affordable options left for a student like Pablo were Metropolitan State College and the Community College of Denver. But CCD only offered an associate's degree, and Pablo had hoped to go to a college that had a medical school, unlike Metro.
Nobody could tell Pablo how he could pay for the kind of education he wanted, unless he was willing to break the law. As one well-meaning mentor pointed out, Pablo could use a fake Social Security number to apply for federal aid -- commit a felony, in other words -- or he could lie about his status to request in-state tuition. Some undocumented students did this, but Pablo was not looking for lessons in subterfuge; he liked to follow the rules. "The thing I hate is that if you want to do anything, you have to break the law," he said once. "If you want to work, you have to break the law. If you want to drive, you have to break the law." He opted instead to hope for a miracle: Maybe the federal government would pass an immigration reform bill known as the DREAM Act; maybe Colorado would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students; maybe he could attract the attention of one of the few private benefactors who were giving scholarships to students who lacked Social Security numbers.
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.
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.
The undocumented students who would be adversely affected by the bill had moving personal stories, Andrews said, warning his audience to steel itself against the power of such narratives. "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," he observed. "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."
During the question-and-answer period that followed, a fellow senator asked Andrews what other states were doing. "I haven't done a lot of research into this subject, and I don't have all the statistics, but my impression is that there is a movement in other states, driven by the sympathy angle that I just described, to provide in-state tuition," he replied. "And I think that is absolutely the wrong way to go."
Pablo was the first speaker to oppose Andrews. After giving the matter a lot of consideration, he'd decided to testify because he felt that he could say something on behalf of all the other undocumented students who were too wary to come forward. He knew he was taking a risk -- Tancredo had tried to deport the last undocumented student who'd surfaced to talk about his plight -- but Pablo was tired of feeling that students didn't have a voice. "My name is Pablo, and I go to West High School, and I am opposed to this bill," he told the lawmakers, with a self-possessed shyness. "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."
Without revealing his own status, Pablo told the assembled senators that many of his fellow students at West were illegal. "If they don't go to college, they will have to take low-paying jobs," he pointed out. "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 was clearly impressed with his sixteen-year-old adversary.
"Pablo, you did that very well, much better than I would have at your age," he said in an avuncular tone. "What grade are you in?"
"Eleventh grade," replied Pablo.
"Do you have a career goal?" asked Andrews.
"I want to be an orthopedic surgeon," Pablo said.
Andrews assured Pablo that some private benefactor would almost certainly step forward to help a good student. Pablo already knew that a couple of the very brightest undocumented kids in Denver managed to get into local colleges each year with the help of private benefactors. He wasn't at the Capitol looking for private money for himself, though; he was looking for public money for all of the undocumented students -- including the ones who were never going to attract the attention of a philanthropist. But his time was up, and Andrews had the microphone again.
"There is scholarship money, and there are organizations," Andrews told his fellow lawmakers.
One asked Andrews to be more specific.
"I don't know exactly," Andrews replied. "I just know that America's progress in raising individuals up to higher levels has been substantially made possible by private dollars."
DPS counselors were aware of only two private benefactors who subsidized local, undocumented students. Both were from the pro-voucher, opportunity-minded wing of the Republican Party. Alex Cranberg, an oil-and-gas baron, gave scholarships to needy Denver students, documented or not, who wanted to go to Metro. And Ralph Nagel, who operates high-end retirement homes, had picked half a dozen particularly outstanding students who lacked papers and sent them to the University of Denver. So extremely limited private funds were available, but nowhere near all the worthy students were getting scholarships -- and those who did had little choice in where they went to school.
Nevertheless, the lawmakers seemed reassured by the vague vision of extensive private philanthropy that Andrews painted for them, and they voted unanimously to move the Harvey bill to the floor of the Senate. There, a Democrat tacked on an amendment that turned the measure inside out -- it changed the bill into one that would have granted in-state tuition to most undocumented students in Colorado -- and the proposal soon died.
Val Vigil, the legislator who'd fought to expand in-state tuition, figured that the battle in the Statehouse was over and started talking to state education officials in hopes of an administrative fix. Last month, however, he received a pleasant surprise when Democrats regained control of the state legislature for the first time in forty years. As a result, he planned to push an in-state tuition bill in the upcoming session. "I want legislation," he said. "Now we have the opportunity to change the statute, period, and allow these kids some opportunity."
Not every Democrat lined up solidly with Vigil on this subject, though, and the state's Latino community remained divided, with plenty of U.S.-born Hispanics privately expressing views that sounded just as anti-immigrant as those held by conservative Anglos. In California and Texas, the Latino community had to coalesce around in-state tuition before any legislation could be passed -- and that has not happened in Colorado. None of this deterred Vigil. He'd heard the arguments against in-state tuition -- that students will take advantage of the beneficence of Colorado and then hightail it back to Mexico -- and found them divorced from reality. "These kids are not going back!" he scoffed. "They are completely out of touch with Mexico."
At the beginning of the summer, soon-to-be high school seniors from around Colorado gathered on the DU campus for the weekend-long College Summit. The selected students had achieved promising grades despite growing up in tough circumstances, and now they'd been invited to try out college life. They were going to stay on campus for three nights and tour both DU and Metro. Pablo arrived wearing shorts, a black T-shirt and a New York Yankees cap. He found Blanca in a cotton poncho and blue jeans, sucking on a cherry lollipop.
"Check it out, man!" Blanca said to Pablo. "Look at rule number three!"
She handed him a sheet of paper with the weekend's rules printed on it. The rule that had caught her attention, "No Sex," spelled out in forthright language exactly what the participants were expected not to do with each other. Blanca chortled at the specific prohibitions. Pablo's cheeks blushed faintly.
Pablo had come to DU from Children's Hospital, where he was working as an intern. He was immensely pleased that the hospital had accepted him into its summer-long program, although the registration process had been a little awkward. On the first day, a hospital staffer had read every intern's name but his. When Pablo had pointed this out, the staff member said that he was going to be classified differently than the rest: He was a volunteer, while the other interns were employees. Then everybody but Pablo got welcome packets and hospital ID cards. By now, other students were asking Pablo why he'd been singled out. "I'll explain to you later," he'd answered. The reason was his immigration status: Since Pablo didn't have a Social Security number, the hospital couldn't legally hire him. Pablo had known that he was going to be the only unpaid student in the program, but he hadn't anticipated that the matter would be handled so clumsily.
Now he and Blanca had been invited to this dress rehearsal for college. Both of them had stayed overnight on the DU campus before, which made them feel like old hands. Blanca said DU was her first choice; Pablo hadn't made his yet. "I've been getting all this stuff from colleges in the mail," said Pablo. "Colleges like Vanderbilt and Loyola. My first reaction is, I wonder what it would be like to go there, and then my second reaction is that I probably can't go, given my situation." In his heart of hearts, Pablo wanted to go to Boston University, because he'd heard that it had relationships with all of the famous hospitals in Boston -- heaven for a prospective medical student. But without the DREAM Act, he knew that a college like BU was out of reach. As a backup, he liked the idea of the University of Colorado at Denver, because CU had a good medical school -- but since he didn't qualify for in-state tuition, that, too, seemed beyond his grasp. When he was being realistic, he knew that the best he could hope for was that one of Denver's private benefactors might somehow notice him. Otherwise, he'd try to scrape together enough money to pay the international-student fee at the local community college, in which case his dream of going to medical school was almost certain to wither.
"Hey, what did you get on your ACTs?" Blanca asked.
Pablo didn't want to answer. "I'm not happy with my score," he said. "I'm going to take the test again."
"I got a 27," Blanca said proudly.
Pablo pulled out the white plastic card that he'd finally gotten from Children's Hospital. Without saying a word, he handed it to Blanca. Outside of his high school identification card, it was the first real ID he'd ever had.
"Cool!" Blanca affirmed.
By Thanksgiving, Pablo was almost halfway through his senior year and had inched up to number three in his class. Blanca was number two. Pablo wasn't carrying the American flag in the color guard anymore, because the ROTC faculty had appointed him captain of the drill and rifle teams instead.
Pablo and his posse had had a blast at West's Homecoming football game: Despite the cold weather, they'd taken off their shirts to reveal the letters of their school's name painted on their chests. Pablo was W, Andrew was E, Miguel was S, and a friend named David was T. Sergio had dressed up like the barrel guy at the Broncos games, with a cardboard barrel hanging over his shoulders. "We lasted until halftime, and then we were like, 'No! No more!'" Pablo recalled. "It was freezing. We were surprised we didn't get sick."
One night soon after the game, Pablo was at home eating beans and tortillas when the phone rang. It was a freshman member of ROTC who didn't understand what was involved in a parent-teacher conference. "You just have to take your parents, " Pablo explained. "Or your parents can go without you, if you don't want to go." He elaborated on the subject with his habitual kindness; it was easy to imagine how he'd reassured the confused freshman on the other end of the line. It was also obvious that Pablo had become a leader, an example of the best kind of young person that West High could produce.
Just the day before, Pablo had represented his school at a speech contest held by the Windsor Gardens Breakfast Optimists Club. In his speech, Pablo had glorified his parents. "I love my dad because of what I learned from him just by watching him," Pablo said. "The quality that stood out the most was his inner strength and his ability to just keep on keeping on. My father is a very frugal man, because he has had to work very hard for every dollar he has ever earned by performing manual labor in a variety of industries. The greatest gift my father has given me is the appreciation of getting a good education so that I will not have to work as hard as he has had to. It is no wonder that my parents' dream is for me to be the first person in our family ever to graduate from college."
Pablo had finished his very first college application that week, applying to DU early decision. He was planning to apply to Boston University, Loyola and Metro, as well. As he sat at the kitchen table, he riffled through a stack of mail beside his plate. There was a letter from DU. He raised his eyebrows; it seemed too soon to hear back from the school. Pablo ripped open the envelope and scanned the letter, which was two sentences long. A counselor had advised him to assert that he was a resident of the United States on the DU application form and simply leave the Social Security box blank. He'd done exactly as she'd advised. "Your application states that you are a permanent resident of the United States," the letter read. "In order to confirm this, please submit a copy of your alien registration or 'green card' as soon as possible."
"That's weird," Pablo said. Since he didn't have a green card, he decided to take the letter to school, where he could show it to a recruiter from DU. "She's inside the system," Pablo said.
Maybe she could help him figure out what to do next.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Anti-Pot Group Prediction Coming True?: Illegal Grow Bust of 10 Foreign Nationals
Sat., Oct. 10, 5:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 7:05pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00pm
- Reader: Broncos Fans Are So Frickin' Spoiled!
- West 32nd Avenue Restaurants Are Booming — And We Pick Our Ten Faves