Thursday, April 13, 2006

This UT student seems to have defied all the odds but one

This story by Carlos Guerra in the San Antonio Express-News is about a student who is the progeny of House Bill 1403, a bill that basically capitalizes on the incredible talent that exists among many of our immigrant youth. The bill was passed during the 2001 legislature and was sponsored by State Rep. Rick Noriega from Houston who like myself in my own work, observed correctly that many of our immigrant youth out perform our U.S.-born youth. I lay all of this out in my book, SUBTRACTIVE SCHOOLING, a three-year study of a Houston, inner-city high school that allowed me to focus on differences in schooling orientations between immigrant Mexican and nonimmigrant U.S.-born, Mexican American youth. I in fact drew from my research to testify on the legislation in 2001. In Houston, what had been observed is that many immigrant youth had excellent and ranked at the top of their class AND these youth had essentially lived their entire lives in the U.S. and so in many ways, they were more Texan and North American than any other identity. All HB 1403 did was it waived the prohibitive out-of-state tuition so that children from these poor, immigrant families could attend college, providing that they signed an affidavit saying that they were on the path to normalizing their status. This was well and good, however, because it takes at least 15 years for this to occur, these students--including the first cohort of this legislation that graduated in May, 2005--are still undocumented. These students and myself and now pushing for the DREAM Act to pass in congress. It is an amendment to the Senate Judiciary bill on immigration (amended by Senator Richard Durbin (IL) and it would allow these students to get on a path to temporary and then permanent legal residence if they've either served in the military for at least 2 years or if they have attended the university or community college for at least 2 years. This complicates support for any legislation that is draconian but is a reality nevertheless. Hope that this provides some additional perspective on Mirla's account below. -Angela

Web Posted: 03/30/2006 12:00 AM CST
by Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News

Now a senior, 21-year-old Mirla López seems like a typical University of Texas at Austin student.

Her life story, however, shows that she is anything but.

"Times were very hard in the Valley, so we became migrant workers when I was 6," she recalls. "We would go to Georgia or Florida and pick strawberries, onions, cucumbers, whatever."

She went into the fields with her mother until she was 12, when her mother started leaving her wherever they were staying to care for the younger kids.

She attended migrant schools and participated in migrant programs, but through her early high school years her schooling was chaotic and disconnected.

"Then, after my sophomore year, I told my mom that I wanted to stay put someplace, so I could finish high school from a certain place," she says. "So I went to Houston to stay with my cousin and to take care of her little daughter, and my mom joined me there later."

In 2000, she enrolled at Houston's highly acclaimed Sánchez Charter High School, in part because it was close to her cousin's apartment. Also, unlike conventional high schools, that charter school recognized all the credits López had earned in migrant programs, so she would not be demoted for a year.

She did well and, in 2002, when she graduated as the school's salutatorian, she made the news, she says. "I guess because I was a migrant and I graduated with such high achievements."

She had considered continuing her studies at a community college, but a visiting recruiter encouraged her to apply to UT, which readily accepted her and awarded her a four-year Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship.

However generous, the scholarship doesn't cover all her expenses in Austin. Every summer, López returns to Houston, where she cleans homes and offices in the mornings, works the lunch rush at a restaurant and baby-sits in the evenings.

She says she already has enough credits to get her bachelor's degree with a major in government and a minor in business. But she wants to earn a second major in history.

And last year, she publicly revealed another reason why she is in no hurry to finish.

"I came out last year at an Immigrants Speak Out (event) at UT," she says, referring to her very public admission that she is an undocumented immigrant.

"There was a lot of hate, and very nasty comments were being made, so I stood up and said, 'You know what, I'm undocumented, and I work just as hard, if not harder, than every one of you.

"'And I am not leaving.'"

Her admission startled many. And it focused attention on an obscure Texas law under which immigrants may enroll in public universities, and pay in-state tuition, if they meet certain criteria.

They must have lived in Texas for three years prior to graduating and have a high school diploma or GED. If they are undocumented, as are an estimated 280 UT students, they also must file an affidavit with the school promising to apply for permanent residence as soon as they are eligible to do so.

"Yes, I could graduate this year," López says, "but then there is nothing I will be able to do because even with a college degree, I won't be able to work legally."

And returning to Mexico isn't really an option either, she says. She hasn't been there since her mother brought her to the Rio Grande Valley at age 6.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail
Online at:

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