Under Prop. 300, college just a dream for many illegal immigrants
Published: May 3, 2011 at 6:14 pm
A 4.2 grade-point average and participation in activities such as Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps make Carina Montes an attractive candidate for scholarships as she plans to attend Arizona State University.
But scholarships may not be enough for Montes, a junior at Trevor G. Browne High School in west Phoenix: She faces having to pay out-of-state tuition and won’t be eligible to receive state or federal financial aid because her parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 2. As a result, she’s scrambling to come up with money and private scholarships.
“Without a job, without scholarships and with my parents’ poor economic salary … it’s going to be a very complicated thing to do,” she said.
Montes’ uncertainty stems from Proposition 300, a voter-approved law requiring students who can’t prove citizenship to pay out-of-state tuition and denying them access to state and federal financial aid.
Nearly five years after Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, Claudia Gonzalez, whose mother brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 8, is struggling to complete her associate degree at Mesa Community College because she wasn’t able to come up with enough private scholarships to pay out-of-state tuition at a university. She has been limiting herself to six credits or fewer each semester to avoid a steep increase in community college out-of-state tuition that begins at seven credits.
“I want to climb the ladder and I want to be at the top, but it’s going to take me longer,” said Gonzalez, who is studying to become a dental hygienist.
Now Maricopa Community Colleges is changing the way it handles out-of-state tuition for part-time students. This fall, Gonzalez will have to pay $317 per credit rather than the $96 she pays now.
Christian Lira of Phoenix, who came to the U.S. with a tourist visa when he was 10 and stayed illegally, earned a private scholarship that has helped him pay out-of-state tuition at ASU to pursue a degree in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in design and architecture. But a year away from graduating, that scholarship fund has dried up, and he’s uncertain whether he can afford to finish.
“I seriously don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t get the funding for next semester,” he said.
Since the state began keeping such records in 2007, after Proposition 300 passed, the number of illegal immigrants attending state universities has fallen. At community colleges, enrollment of such students spiked initially but has dropped sharply since.
According to Joint Legislative Budget Committee records, the number of public university students who couldn’t prove citizenship in spring 2007 was 1,524. But that number had dropped to 106 by the fall 2010 semester.
There were 1,470 students attending the state’s community colleges couldn’t prove citizenship in spring 2007. The number soared to 4,922 in spring 2008, but by fall 2010 it had dropped to 2,186.
Behind those numbers are stories of students such as Montes, Gonzalez and Lira, who, if they don’t give up, struggle to cover out-of-state tuition at universities, head to community colleges or attend schools elsewhere.
Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina have gone further than Arizona, banning undocumented students from public universities and community colleges. State Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, pushed unsuccessfully this year for a bill that would have had Arizona follow suit.
“If you’re ever going to stop that invasion across that border, and it is an invasion, you’re going to have to quit rewarding people for breaking those laws,” he said during a hearing on SB 1611.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who this year sponsored an unsuccessful resolution calling for voters to decide whether to repeal Proposition 300, said that because these students were brought to the U.S. as children they didn’t break any laws and shouldn’t be punished for something in which they had no say. Instead, he said, those who excel in high school should be rewarded for their efforts.
“If someone has been here for a long time and has been working hard, paying taxes and paying into the state university system, then I think they are entitled to in-state tuition just as state residents,” he said.
When Proposition 300 took effect, ASU officials raised $6 million and formed a private scholarship through the ASU Foundation to help those affected. About 200 students who couldn’t prove citizenship received the Sunburst Scholarship before it ran out of funds a year later.
Chicanos Por La Causa, a nonprofit that serves Arizona’s Hispanic community, then stepped in to create the American Dream Fund, which raised $5 million to provide scholarships for Sunburst Scholarship recipients. But as those funds dwindled, fewer and fewer undocumented students were able to receive those scholarships.
One of about 20 students receiving the last of the scholarships in spring 2011 was Angelica Hernandez, who is scheduled to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Having graduated from Carl Hayden High School in 2007 with a 4.5 grade-point average, her high honors would have earned her a President’s Scholarship from ASU providing full tuition and a stipend to help with other expenses, but because she came to the U.S. illegally as a child she wasn’t able to do so.
“Year after year, it was that uncertainty of not knowing if I was going to be able to make it through the next year,” Hernandez said.
Attending a university was out of reach for Maxima Guerrero, who has been in Arizona illegally since she was 5. After graduating from South Mountain High School in 2008 with a 3.7 grade-point average, she found private scholarships and raised enough money to start at Phoenix College.
Like many other undocumented students, she has attended part time, paying about $600 for two classes to avoid having to pay about $1,600 more in out-of-state tuition if she takes just one more credit. Attending full time would cost over $4,000 a semester.
But even community college may now be out of reach for Guerrero. A recent vote by the Maricopa Community Colleges governing board requires out-of-students to pay $317 a credit regardless of how few credits they take.
“I am barely making ends meet and being able to afford $600 for both of the classes,” she said. “Now, paying almost $1,000 (for one class), I’m probably not going to be able to come back.”
Jose Rodrigo Dorado Madrigal, who came to the U.S. illegally as a child and from Brophy College Preparatory in 2008, decided that he’d be better off attending Santa Clara University in California, where a private scholarship covers his tuition.
“I saw that my options in Arizona were limited because of Prop. 300, so I chose to leave the state and go to a school that was willing to focus on my academic achievement rather than my legal status,” he said.
Viridiana Hernandez, who was brought to the U.S. illegally when she was 1, was accepted to all three state universities but wound up at private
Grand Canyon University, where a combination of scholarships from the school and private groups covers her tuition of $16,500 a year.
“In high school, I didn’t know anyone who was undocumented and had gone to college, so to me it seemed impossible to go to college,” she said. “But eventually I found GCU and saw that I could go to college and get scholarships to help me pay for tuition.”
Daniel Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, a group that advocates for a federal law granting young illegal immigrants with no criminal records a pathway to citizenship through higher education or military service, said Proposition 300 makes it almost impossible for such students to attain a college education.
“For these students, making them pay out-of-state tuition is the same thing as taking their education away because they are low income; they don’t have three times as much to pay in tuition,” he said.
Dean Martin, who as a state senator authored the legislation referring Proposition 300 to the ballot, said the law is having its intended effect by keeping taxpayers from having to invest money in students who aren’t eligible to work in the U.S.
“If you’re not here legally, the state shouldn’t be spending resources that it doesn’t have to subsidize your tuition because it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to use that degree to do anything anyway.”
Many students in the U.S. illegally are hoping that Congress will pass legislation that would create a path to citizenship. But in December the so-called DREAM Act fell five votes short in the U.S. Senate after clearing the House, and with Republicans now a majority in the House prospects for such legislation are dim.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group pushing for a moratorium on all immigration, said Proposition 300 is preventing illegal immigrants from taking seats from legal students.
“The fact that those seats are occupied by someone who is here illegally means that there are other people in Arizona who are going uneducated and are not being given a chance,” he said.
But James Rund, senior vice president for educational outreach and student services at ASU, said the notion that illegal immigrants were pushing out legal students is incorrect.
“We’ve made a commitment to the citizens of the state of Arizona that we will enroll all college-eligible students at the university,” Rund said. “Space or constraints on space has not been an issue for us.”
William Perez, who researches the social and psychological development of immigrant and Latino students as a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, said that as fewer illegal immigrants pursue higher education the state’s universities and community colleges are losing out on tuition they could be paying.
“Arizona is completely ignoring the fact that the state benefits from educating undocumented students,” he said.
Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, an ASU professor and founding director of the School of Transborder Studies, said Proposition 300 is about more than taxpayers and classroom space. He said it’s aimed at keeping the illegal immigrant population uneducated and unable to stand up for itself.
“It is a part of the general strategy of keeping people dumb and keeping people fearful,” he said.
While the stated intent of Proposition 300 is saving taxpayers money, it will lead to social and economic costs later, said Roberto Gonzales, who conducts research on young illegal immigrants as an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. He said the law is creating a class of uneducated young people.
“This law is doing nothing more than creating an underclass of disenfranchised young people,” he said. “It’s economically unsound to put those barriers for students who have been through the education system and want to pursue higher education.”
Making it difficult for students to attain higher education leads to them not being as motivated to do well in high school and potentially dropping out and blending into the larger workforce of illegal immigrants, he said.
“These young people have been American-raised, have levels of education and English skills that far surpass their parents, yet they find themselves in the same narrowly circumscribed range of options as their parents,” Gonzales said. “These students could be making significant contributions but are instead living in the shadows and working minimum wage jobs.”
States that promote education for students in the U.S. illegally will fare better than Arizona if the federal government eventually offers them a path to citizenship, Gonzales said.
“They’ll have the necessary structure via lower tuition and more opportunities to successfully push their students through college and graduate their students who then go into the high-skilled labor force, make more contributions and fill labor shortages,” he said.
Vélez-Ibáñez said that in the long run, assuming that comprehensive immigration reform is coming, Proposition 300 will make it difficult for students who are in the U.S. illegally to get educated and be able to become high-earning taxpayers and contributors to society.
“If you keep people ignorant and uneducated and only are able to make what a high school graduate makes, which at the max is maybe $30,000 a year, then your tax base remains flat or is reduced,” he said.
For now, Vélez-Ibáñez said, investing in the education of students in the U.S. illegally isn’t a waste because even without a legal status there are ways they can still use their college degrees.
“There are areas of the private enterprise arena that don’t require the kind of documentation that a lot of people need, so there are areas where people can work,” he said. “The tragedy is the limitations set up in this state.”
Celso Mireles, who was brought to the U.S. illegally when he was 3, has been able to use the business management degree he earned from ASU in 2009 to start businesses in which he repairs computers and gives guitar lessons.
“I’m trying to make it work and use what I learned,” he said.
The future is uncertain, but Claudia Gonzalez said she not only will graduate from Mesa Community College but move on to Northern Arizona University.
“It’s going to be really really hard, but I have a goal and it doesn’t matter how much it’s going to cost me to get to that goal,” she said. “I have to get there.”
With one year to go to receive his degree from ASU, Christian Lira said he’s determined to find private scholarships and raise money on his own.
“There’s always a way for something, and I’m going to find a way to finish,” he said.
While she’s still deciding whether to major in justice studies or engineering after graduating from high school next year, Carina Montes said she won’t give up on her dream of a bachelor’s degree.
“My parents said that if I ever wanted to be anyone or do anything, I had to work for it,” she said. “I think I’ve put a lot of work and effort to the stuff I’m doing, and I have hopes that someday all that will count.”
Unable to prove citizenship:
• Spring 2007: 1,524
• Fall 2007: 406
• Spring 2008: 198
• Fall 2008: 368
• Spring 2009: 304
• Fall 2009: 304
• Spring 2010: 248
• Fall 2010: 106
Source: Joint Legislative Budget Committee
Unable to prove citizenship:
• Spring 2007: 1,470
• Fall 2007: 3,504
• Spring 2008: 4,922
• Fall 2008: 2,981
• Spring 2009: 3,420
• Fall 2009: 3,982
• Spring 2010: 1,962
• Fall 2010: 2,186
Source: Joint Legislative Budget Committee