Head of the Class

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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."

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Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist who has written three books of narrative nonfiction about immigrants seeking legal status, veterans returning home from conflict, and refugee families in the midst of resettlement. She has also published a digital only collection of linked personal essays about family, migration, and food.

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