Migrants get tuition break from new law
Students can pay resident rates, even if undocumented.
January 12, 2002
By MARIA SACCHETTI The Orange County Register
In Santa Ana, word is passing from student to student - a college education for many undocumented immigrants just became a lot cheaper under a controversial new law. Five students asked about it this week at Valencia High School in Placentia. Anaheim officials are putting it in the parent handbook.
The law allows immigrants to pay resident tuition at California State University and community colleges. In a community college, for instance, that's the difference between paying $660 and $9,000 for a degree. At Cal State, tuition would average $1,876 a year - nonresidents pay nearly five times as much. The law took effect Jan. 1, and University of California regents may decide to follow suit Wednesday.
Advocates say the new law could open the door to thousands of Hispanic students, who are the majority of undocumented students in California. Hispanics also are the largest ethnic group in the state's public schools, but underrepresented at state universities.
Opponents say the law is unfair to residents of other states who must still pay out-of-state tuition. And they note that undocumented immigrants still cannot work here legally.
"I think it's great for them that they're able to pay cheaper fees ... but what about the rest of us?" said Patricia Rodrigues, 34, a recent graduate of Cal State Fullerton who had to pay out-of-state tuition for a year after she moved here from another state.
In Orange County, many counselors are quietly getting the word out about the new law at student conferences and college nights. Estancia High in Costa Mesa is putting high school seniors on alert. At Orange High, career adviser Mindy McNew scoured the Internet with an anxious student to show her that the law had passed.
"She said, 'OK! I'm going to school,'" McNew said. "I said, 'Which one?' She said, 'I don't know, but I'm going.'"
Counselors warn that students and parents must take the initiative to get the lower rate. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, plans to publicize the law, but at many schools the news is just trickling in.
Immigration is often an awkward subject for schools. Many teachers avoid it because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling guarantees students a basic education, regardless of their status.
"Since this is so new, I think we're all kind of treading on thin ice and making sure we don't do and say the wrong thing," said Valencia High Principal Armando Marentes.
And students are embarrassed to discuss it, partly because they fear deportation, though many have lived here for years, studying hard and joining clubs and sports at school.
Yuri, 18, a Santa Ana high school senior, was brought here illegally from Mexico at age 5, but now is a typical teen who reads Chaucer, watches "Gilmore Girls" and surfs the Internet. She takes college-prep classes and dreamed of getting a degree, though until now, it seemed daunting financially. Her family of six shares a one-bedroom apartment, and her parents work minimum-wage jobs.
Still, she said, they encouraged her to study. They bought a computer for her homework and a set of encyclopedias that took three years to pay off.
"I wanted to go to college," Yuri said, speaking on condition that her last name not be used. "I never gave up hope."
Cal State and community colleges say they are enforcing the law starting this semester, but they expect to see more interest in the fall. Students can claim the lower rate if they attended a California high school for three years and earned a diploma or its equivalent. They also must fill out a confidential affidavit at the college certifying they are undocumented.
The number of students who may take advantage of the law is unclear. A Santa Ana counselor alone estimates that hundreds of students could qualify.
"We would have people from the UCs and the Cal States saying, 'Why aren't more of your students applying?'" said Lynne Kramer, an adviser at Valley High School. "It's staggering, the number of undocumented students."
The University of California, which is the only system to estimate the financial effect of the law, said 200 to 400 students a year could now pay in-state tuition, at a cost of $2 million to $4 million a year. UC tuition is about $3,859 a year, while nonresidents pay $14,933.
Ironically, many who will benefit may not be immigrants at all. More than 150 students could qualify because they went to high school here and then moved out of state, said UC spokesman Brad Hayward.
The education of undocumented immigrants has become a nationwide concern, with an estimated 50,000 such students graduating every year, according to one estimate. Texas passed a similar law last year, and federal legislation is pending.
But the law remains controversial in California, where voters in 1994 passed Proposition 187, which sought to deny public schooling and other benefits to illegal immigrants. A court later overturned much of the initiative as unconstitutional.
Proponents of the law say the state will benefit from a more educated work force, and they point out that many students have applied for legal residency and are waiting for the government to sort through its backlog.
"I work with them. I see the potential," said Kramer, the counselor. "This is not giving a free ride to kids who don't deserve it."
Immigrant advocates say the law was a major hurdle for students but that many others remain. Hispanics still have the highest dropout rates in Orange County, and undocumented students are ineligible for government financial aid, though many are poor. MALDEF, based in Los Angeles, is making a list of scholarships that do not require legal residency.
"(The law) is a big step," said Salvador Sarmiento, a UC Irvine junior. "But at the same time, without financial aid, it only deals with half of the problem."