May 01, 2015

Texas Dreamers Fight to Keep In-State Tuition

DREAMERS gather in protest at the Border Security Subcommitee Meeting at the Texas State Capitol on April 6th, 2015. The group opposes a recent legislation introduced by Senator Donna Campbell that would disqualify undocumented youth from receiving in-state tuiton at public state universities. Miguel Gutierrez Jr/ Reporting Texas.

Texas Dreamers Jessica Ruvalcaba, left, Ramiro Luna and Maria Yolisma Garcia were among scores of undocumented students who gathered at a legislative hearing in April. They were protesting a bill that would end in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr/ Reporting Texas.

By Lucia Benavides
For Reporting Texas

Karla Perez has always called Texas home.

In 1995, when she was just 2 years old, she and her parents crossed the Mexican desert into Texas, with a group of immigrants and coyotes, or human smugglers, in search of better economic opportunities. For 20 years, Perez and her family have lived here as undocumented immigrants.

Perez, 22,  is a senior at the University of Houston majoring in marketing and has been accepted into its law school. But a legislative effort targeting immigrants such as Perez could disrupt her plans.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, has introduced a bill that would end the practice of allowing undocumented students to pay the lower in-state tuition rate. The bill would repeal the Texas Dream Act, authored by former state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, and signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2001. The act allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they have lived in Texas for at least three years, graduated from high school or received a GED in the state and signed an affidavit affirming they are seeking legal residency. While the cost difference varies among colleges, at the University of Texas at Austin, in-state tuition is about 70 percent less than what outsiders pay for most degree programs.

Perez and other Dreamers, as they’re known, are fighting back. Around 160 signed up to testify against the bill during the Senate border security subcommittee hearing on April 6, which lasted almost 12 hours. Many showed up in caps and gowns. They told their stories with determination, some fighting back tears and others smiling.

All of them were open about their immigration status.

“I know that by me sharing my story, it helps others understand that being undocumented is not a roadblock to education,” Perez said in an interview before her testimony. She is president of the Youth Empowerment Alliance, a UH student group that advocates for immigration rights. “Any old fears that I used to have about being open about my status are so much smaller than my passion for helping all of these students,” she said.

Campbell says the current law lures undocumented youth to Texas, while opponents of her bill say students who have lived in the state for years should be able to pay in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status.

“This is going to hurt young people who have come to this country of no fault of their own and have been here since they were little kids,” said state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. “They don’t know anything about any other country except Texas and the U.S. of A. They pledge allegiance to the flag in our public schools.”

The opponents also contend that the Dream Act makes sense economically: Texas spends millions of dollars to educate Dreamers in public schools, so the state should get a return on its investment once they get degrees, start working higher-paid jobs and contribute more in taxes.

Campbell said it is not a question of whether university graduates – no matter their immigration status – are economically beneficial to the state, but that there is a “finite number of slots at our public universities” and they should be “reserved for U.S. citizens.”

Pat Rubio Goldsmith, an associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, believes Campbell’s effort is largely symbolic.

“The bill is part of a right-wing strategy to get political support by appearing hard on immigrants,”  Goldsmith said. “It’s not about the economics of it. It doesn’t save Texas any money.”

There’s no research that shows that in-state tuition draws young people and their families to Texas, said Néstor Rodriguez, professor of sociology at the University of Texas. There’s a significant population of undocumented young people in the state, he said, and the more educated people are, the more they will pay in taxes.

“People will come, regardless if there’s a law or not,” said Rodriguez. “Is Texas going to be better off if the youth is better educated or less educated?”

As of 2013, roughly two percent of the state’s college students – around 25,000 students – were taking advantage of the law, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization.  The figure includes students in all circumstances, including those who are in the process of becoming citizens.

According to Laura Lavergne, an assistant to the director of UT’s admissions office, the university offers in-state tuition to all qualifying students. Texas law doesn’t require admissions offices to ask about students’ immigration status, so there is no way to tell how many of those who qualify are undocumented, she said.

Diana Morales, 21, a junior majoring in linguistics at UT, said her tuition would triple if she were charged as an out-of-state student.

“Financial aid is very scarce for undocumented students,” she said. “All of my friends were applying for scholarships that I didn’t qualify for. Without in-state tuition, I wouldn’t be here.”

Morales was just 6 in 2000 when she fled Mexico with her mother and younger brother. They had received death threats because of a family situation and feared for their lives. They packed up their things and moved to Texas.

“All this time, we were afraid of one day being deported,” said Morales. “We always tried to keep a low profile. We never said we were undocumented. It was a very tough experience for me, because I didn’t have anyone I could rely on.”

It wasn’t until she found the University Leadership Initiative at UT, a student-led organization that advocates for immigration rights, that she became open about her status.

Only 17 states offer in-state tuition for undocumented students. Texas was the first to adopt such a law when the Legislature passed the bill in a near-unanimous vote in 2001. Since then, some lawmakers have tried repeatedly to repeal it.

“Some senators call us illegal,” said Morales. “The ideas of what they believe are mostly out of misconceptions and maybe a little bit of ignorance.”

Loren Campos, 26, who was an undocumented student when he received a master’s degree in civil engineering from UH, benefited from in-state tuition. He came to Texas in 2000 when he was 11 years old to re-unite with his mother, who had left Mexico four years earlier in search of a better job. She was a single mother who needed to provide for her six children.

“We consider ourselves Texans,” said Campos. “This is our state. We’re not going anywhere, and we want to be able to contribute.”

He received a work permit in 2013, under a special visa program, and is now working for a structural design firm. He says he’s “living the dream.” But it wasn’t always easy.

“There’s always that sense of being stigmatized just because you’re from somewhere else,” said Campos. “We’re letting [politicians] know we’re friends of their children, we go to church together, we share classrooms together. We’re their neighbors.”

Campbell’s bill passed the Senate subcommittee on a 2-1 vote and then cleared the full Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. It has not been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate, but  the students vow to show up once gain, and in large numbers, if needed.

“We are not backing down, no matter how tough the battle is,” said Morales. “It’s disheartening to know that even though we’re Texan, they don’t consider us Texans.”