Undocumented students get help into college

6:38 AM, Jul 16, 2007   |    comments
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Poudre High School counselor Isabel Thacker found a way around that, and this fall will be the second year that some of the high school's undocumented students will participate in a program that allows them to attend college at the University of New Mexico - many without paying for tuition and books.

"The neat thing about the program at Poudre is that we have been able to open the door of opportunity for these students," said Thacker, a Cuban-born citizen who immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was 9. "These kids and their parents are outstanding. Whether people want to hear it or not, they are great citizens. These are not gang members; they aren't dropouts, pregnant, drug involved. I demand excellence out of them, and they achieve it."

The four students who attended UNM through the program last year all earned between a 3.0 and 4.0 grade-point average, Thacker said. Students going into the program have an average grade-point average of 3.5, have taken advanced placement classes and were "very involved" in student council and extracurricular activities, Thacker said.

Nine undocumented students from Poudre High and one from Fort Collins High School will attend UNM in the fall through the program Thacker has helped develop. In most states, such an opportunity for undocumented students is not available.

"Before this, there were no options," Thacker said. "Like anything, you have to know how the system works."

For the undocumented students in the program, the chance at a college education in their adopted country is too good to pass up.

Jonathan, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his identity, immigrated to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his family when he was 9. His parents entered the country legally with work visas but decided never to return and their visas expired. Knowing only Spanish when he arrived, Jonathan said it took him four years to become comfortable in class.

This spring, nine years later, Jonathan graduated from Poudre near the top of his class with a grade-point average well above 3. His hope is to attend UNM and one day become a teacher like those who have helped him.

Jonathan has applied for citizenship numerous times but knows the pitfalls that face him if one day he gets caught without permission to be in the country. He also realizes there are no guarantees once he graduates from college.

"If I get pulled over or something, I could get deported," Jonathan said. "I am going to study to be a teacher. But if my status doesn't get any better, I guess I am stuck again."

Not everyone, however, agrees that helping undocumented students continue their education once they have completed high school is the moral, much less legally correct, thing to do.

"Now that a high school graduate is of age, they are recognized as young adults and they become responsible for their own action," said John Andrews, president of the Colorado Senate from 2003 through 2005 and now a fellow of the Claremont Institute, a self-described constitutional think tank. "The only law abiding choice that a young person like this can make is to return to their country of origin after graduating high school. I don't think that we are doing a high school graduate any favors by sending him or her the message that breaking the law benefits themselves. I believe in the letter of the law, and I am deeply troubled by this program."

Legislature opens door

A bill passed in New Mexico in 2005 prohibited the state from denying education benefits based in immigration status, said Terry Babbitt, director of admissions for the University of New Mexico.

"We have to offer state financial aid to any student, regardless of their immigration status," he said.

New Mexico's state financial aid, however, is intended for residents. Despite the apparent obstacle, a loophole in UNM's residency requirements was discovered that allows the undocumented students from Fort Collins to receive in-state tuition in New Mexico as well as an institutional scholarship that covers completely the cost of their tuition.

"Students can enroll for up to six credit hours and get the in-state rate (at UNM)," said Alex Gonzalez, associate director of the scholarship office at UNM. "They can then go across the street to Central New Mexico Community College and enroll for another six hours and continue to pay the UNM in-state tuition rate. They then are counted as full-time UNM students."

A full year of tuition at UNM - at 12 credit hours per semester for in-state students - costs $4,570.80, Gonzalez said. Through an institutional scholarship made available to the undocumented students, $5,000 of their tuition and book expenses can be covered. This essentially leaves the undocumented students from PSD with only a fraction of their books and their total living expenses to cover out-of-pocket.

"To be able to have this program to help students achieve is pretty awesome," Thacker said. "Because it is really easy for them to give up and drop out, they feel, 'Why should I study when I have no where to go?'"

Thacker developed the program last year after being approached by Miguel, an undocumented student.

"Miguel, being such a high achiever, especially in science and math, came to me, wanting to go to Colorado State University," Thacker said. "The state of Colorado requires students to prove citizenship documentation. Miguel didn't have that information. He doesn't have legal status; he is here on his own. But Miguel wasn't going to give up, and neither was I."

To Thacker's dismay, she found that options for her undocumented students in Colorado were limited at best. For one, they would have to pay out-of-state tuition at state schools. A Colorado bill passed during a special Legislative session last year prohibits the state from providing public benefits - including in-state tuition, which is subsidized by state taxpayers - to undocumented immigrants.

"They are allowed into the institution. But in essence, it essentially precludes them from attending college unless they have significant resources of their own," said Sandy Calhoun, director of student financial services at CSU.

Thacker did her research and discovered New Mexico was one of the states without restrictions on undocumented students. About the same time, during one of Poudre's college fairs, she met a representative from UNM and the program was born.

'Moral obligation'

Sandra Lundt, principal at Poudre High School, said the district's responsibility to its students doesn't end after the senior year of high school.

"Our goal is to educate every child and to help prepare them for life after high school," Lundt said. "It's not just about getting these kids across the stage and then it's over. It's our job to prepare these kids, should they choose to pursue a college education."

Unlike Colorado's post-secondary institutions, school districts like PSD can't withhold an education based on citizenship.

"When we see a student come in the door, we don't see a student who is documented or undocumented," said Manny Ortega, PSD's executive director of secondary schools. "A child doesn't pick who their parents are. We have a moral obligation to help anyone who is out there."

A college diploma won't mean the end of difficulty for the undocumented students, said Babbitt, the New Mexico admissions director.

"The biggest problem with these students is they have been here their whole lives and even after they get a college degree they may not be able to get licensure for their degrees," Babbitt said.

Thacker returned last week from orientation at UNM with the students, who are ready to start classes, she said.

"They all have their orientation certificates, their identification and they can all sing the Lobo (fight) song," Thacker said.

(Copyright Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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