If stars align 

A young local woman, and other would-be college students, hope to escape limbo

Nearly five years ago, she graduated near the top of her class from a Colorado Springs high school.

Though she didn't know her next step, a slew of acceptance letters from top colleges in Colorado and elsewhere seemed to put her dream of studying astronomy within reach.

"I've always been fascinated with stars and constellations," she says.

But now her dream is almost as distant as the objects of her fascination. She turned down a full scholarship at a college in the Midwest, reasoning that traveling there by bus her only option, given she carries an expired South American passport as her sole form of ID would put her too far from her parents, who are undocumented immigrants.

After a proposed Colorado law to let children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition failed, and with federal and state financial aid off-limits for her and other students in her situation, attending a state university seemed equally implausible. She found odd jobs and took classes at Pikes Peak Community College, but cringed when she got a $1,500 bill for only two classes, an amount three or four times that charged to other residents.

"I just couldn't afford it for out-of-state," she says.

Now 21, the aspiring astronomer is in a holding pattern: She works as a babysitter, gets around by walking or taking buses, and tries to escape any notice that could endanger people who have helped her or her family. She spoke with the Independent on the condition that any identifying information be omitted.

"I feel that my talent is being wasted," she says. "I feel very, very stuck."

Rays of hope

There's renewed talk of national legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented workers. And in Colorado, legislators likely will consider a bill from Sen. Chris Romer, a Denver Democrat, that would allow anyone who attended a Colorado high school for three years or more and graduated to qualify for in-state college tuition.

Asked what she'll do if these proposals fail, the local graduate smiles and laughs bitterly. After nine years in Colorado, she feels at home, and shudders at the thought of returning to a country where she remembers civil unrest and where her family had to go outside to fetch water.

"Do I stay here and live the way I've been living," she asks, "or do I go back and get a horrible reality check?"

Ten states now offer all graduating high school students the same price tag to attend local public universities. Proposals to do likewise in Colorado failed repeatedly between 2002 and 2005.

Carlos Valverde, co-executive director of Colorado Progressive Coalition, says Romer's bill is similar to those proposals, just focusing a bit more on tuition equity. Even in today's Democrat-dominated Legislature, there's no guarantee it will pass; Valverde points out that Democrats were in charge in 2006, when wide-ranging anti-immigrant legislation got approved.

The high school dropout rate for undocumented students is often reported around 50 percent. Valverde suggests that many of these students see little point in finishing high school when college is off-limits. But three years after New Mexico granted these students in-state tuition, he points out, about 10 percent are going to college.

"As a society," he says, "we need more educated people."

Finding poster-children for tuition equity will be a challenge. Valverde recalls what happened in 2002 after the Denver Post detailed the struggles of 18-year-old Jesus Apodaca, who graduated with honors from an Aurora high school but was forced to pay out-of-state tuition to attend the University of Colorado. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo called on immigration officials to have Apodaca and his family deported.

Apodaca went on to graduate from a private college, but the attacks his family faced provide one more reason to be fearful.

"These kids live in the shadows," Valverde says.

Legal obstacles

In addition to New Mexico, the neighboring states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Utah have passed tuition equity laws, as has Texas.

Nationally, the debate about how these state laws fit with federal legislation is ongoing. Kris Kobach, a Kansas law professor and frequent guest on The O'Reilly Factor, argues they are essentially breaking a provision of the law that says no undocumented student should be given any tuition benefit not available to U.S. citizens from other states.

Michael Olivas, a Texas law professor who describes himself as Kobach's mirror image, counters that the 1982 Supreme Court Plyler v. Doe decision, which gave undocumented students the right to public education, extends to university education.

The decision reads, in part: "These children can neither affect their parents' conduct nor their own undocumented status," and, "the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the ... well-being of the individual."

For now, the local 21-year-old is doing her best to stay afloat. She pays taxes on her babysitting earnings and avoids fake documents or anything that could threaten her chances at citizenship if and when the law changes.

Her only shot at citizenship today would be marriage to a citizen, but she says it's hard meeting people, given her state of limbo.

"I feel like a little bit of a failure," she says. "It's a little hard to talk to people."


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