Sunday, November 13, 2011

Undocumented students grateful to Perry for defending in-state tuition law

I do believe in giving credit where credit is due, Governor Rick Perry. The most credit though goes to the students themselves. This is the group that has inherited the social justice agenda, passion, and acumen of the Mexican American Civil Rights struggle. I have said this for a long time. Even if painful, as this struggle frequently is, this is the most hopeful, exciting, and truly promising movimiento in our community. Many of these are my students and they are exceptional. United We Dream!


Undocumented students grateful to Perry for defending in-state tuition law
'DREAMers' at UT have formed a group that fights to keep Texas law intact and pushes for federal Dream Act
By Dave Harmon


Updated: 1:34 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

Published: 9:29 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011

In a nondescript room on the University of Texas campus, about 20 students chattered and laughed before Daniel Olvera called the meeting to order.

One by one, they introduced themselves: the mechanical engineering major who's building a computer program that analyzes MRI images of the heart; the music major who has played his viola in Carnegie Hall; the student who got his engineering degree, then decided to follow his heart and enroll in the School of Social Work.

They are the children of hotel housekeepers, restaurant cooks and construction workers. Some of them already have bachelor's or master's degrees from UT. But they can't legally drive to a job interview, and they couldn't legally accept a job if it were offered.

They are the undocumented students who have become central figures in this year's Republican presidential debates. Brought into the United States as children, they have gone through Texas public schools (a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows them to attend public schools from kindergarten to 12th grade for free) and taken advantage of a state law that lets them attend Texas colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition.

Olvera and the others in the group call themselves DREAMers, named for the 2001 law commonly referred to as the Texas Dream Act that qualifies them for in-state tuition — and for the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the federal bill they hope will one day pass and allow them to legally live and work in the United States. More than 16,000 of them were attending community colleges and universities across the state last year — including 612 at UT — and many of them are flocking to campus groups that have formed a growing national network aimed at fighting for undocumented students.

Gov. Rick Perry's opponents have used the law to slam him, saying he's being soft on illegal immigration. They point to the fact that at UT, non-Texas residents pay about $22,700 per year more than in-state students, or about $91,000 over four years. Perry has defended his record on border security and immigration enforcement but caused a stir among conservatives in one debate when he said that anyone who disagreed with Texas' law was "heartless."

In a Sept. 22 debate in Florida, Perry defended the law by saying: "We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society. This was a state issue, Texans voted on it, and I still support it greatly." Many in the crowd booed. His opponents pounced.

"Why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country?" asked Rick Santorum.

Mitt Romney said: "That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education. It makes no sense."

Perry's defense of the law has made him more popular among undocumented students, who have soured on President Barack Obama because they believe he's broken his promise to pursue immigration reform.

"I may disagree with Rick Perry on a lot of things, but I do want to thank him because he passed (the law) and he's gotten a lot of heat about it and he hasn't backed down," said Olvera, the 22-year-old president of the University Leadership Initiative, a campus group made up of current and former undocumented immigrants.

Qualifying for tuition

Former state Rep. Rick Noriega, who introduced the Texas Dream Act in the state Legislature in 2001, said the idea for the bill grew from a meeting he had with Rosendo Ticas, an undocumented Nicaraguan immigrant who was mowing lawns in Houston but wanted to go to college to become an airline mechanic. Ticas told Noriega he couldn't afford the higher tuition charged to international students.

Noriega, a Houston Democrat, said he asked the University of Houston to do an anonymous survey in his inner-city district to see how many others were in Ticas' situation, and the study found so many of them that Noriega decided to file what would become House Bill 1403.

Noriega said he remembers seeing undocumented students from around Texas descend on the Capitol to testify in favor of the bill at a committee hearing.

"The committee room was packed, and the committee didn't leave until way past midnight to hear every story from every one of these kids," said Noriega, who now heads Avance, a San Antonio nonprofit aimed at helping low-income families prepare their children for school. "And I can tell you there wasn't a dry eye in the committee room. They passed it out of the committee that night on a unanimous vote."

Noriega said the business community helped give the bill the push it needed to reach Perry's desk. Groups such as the Texas Association of Business and the Dallas Chamber of Commerce came out in support, he said, arguing that the bill would help create a better-educated workforce. Only four lawmakers out of 181 voted against it. Noriega said Ticas went to college and is now a mechanic for Continental Airlines. He also became a U.S. citizen, Noriega said.

To qualify for in-state tuition, students have to fill out an affidavit promising to apply to become legal residents as soon as they are able to. They also have to graduate from a Texas high school that they attended for at least three consecutive years before graduation. U.S. citizens, by comparison, can receive in-state tuition after living in Texas for one year.

For the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2010, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board counted 16,476 students who had filled out the affidavits — or about 1 percent of the total enrollment in Texas colleges and universities, said coordinating board spokesman Dominic Chavez. About 12,000 of them attended community college.

Being considered Texas residents by the education system also allows undocumented students to compete for Texas Grant money, the taxpayer-funded awards given to students who show financial need. The state gave out more than 68,000 Texas grants in fiscal year 2010 totaling $274 million; Chavez said 2,156 grants totaling $7.8 million went to undocumented students — about 3 percent of the money. "They're just like any Texas resident. Some get (the grants); some don't," he said.

Chavez said undocumented students paid about $33 million in tuition and fees in 2010. "In-state tuition is not a free ride," he said.

But the idea that undocumented students are taking coveted slots at public universities — and getting taxpayer-funded grants to pay for their schooling — angers people like Maria Martinez, executive director of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas.

Chavez said she has a daughter at Texas A&M University at Galveston who didn't qualify for Texas Grant money, and some of her daughter's friends are from out of state and are paying significantly more than undocumented students.

"I think that's a travesty, that we have someone who can get a job here, but we favor people who can't work here," Chavez said. "I just think it's backwards."

The bill passed in a different political environment. It came before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought more focus on securing the nation's borders and before the economic meltdown and subsequent recession. Since 2001, opponents have tried to overturn the in-state tuition law during every legislative session — and have failed each time.

Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock , filed a bill to nullify in-state tuition earlier this year. The bill never got out of the House Education Committee, he said, explaining that lawmakers were more focused on the state budget crisis during the session. He said Republicans will file similar legislation when they return in 2013.

Perry, who isn't related to the governor, said that because the law doesn't give students the right to legally work after graduation, the state has "not made a good investment" by giving them a tuition break. He also sees it as a magnet for more illegal immigration.

"If we continue to provide things for noncitizens, ... there's a heck of an incentive to draw folks in," he said.

Rick Perry's defense of the law has drawn the ire of many conservatives, along with groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration.

Perry has called it a states' rights issue, but "when a policy induces illegal immigration, it becomes more than a states' rights issue," said Jon Feere, legal policy analyst at the center. "If Texas lays out the welcome mat for illegal immigrants, it affects the whole country.

"I just don't see why a student from Oklahoma should pay a higher tuition than a student from another country who happens to be in the country illegally," Feere said. "American citizens should come before illegal aliens."

Open about their status

Olvera was 11 when his mother brought him to Texas from Mexico, along with his brother and two sisters. He assimilated quickly in Houston public schools, going from English as a second language classes to regular classes to advanced placement classes. Now he's at UT, studying government and education and hoping to become a social studies teacher and work in underprivileged areas. Like his undocumented friends, Olvera can't get a driver's license and can't legally work to help pay for college. Scholarships and internships are mostly out of reach because of his immigration status.

Most of the UT DREAMers are open about their immigration status. When they speak in public, they often give their full names, followed by "I am undocumented and unafraid." They are politically sophisticated after years of lobbying state lawmakers at the Capitol and members of Congress in Washington. And like their peers, they are fluent in social media and using the Web to promote their cause.

The UT group has 30 to 40 active members, Olvera said. At one of their regular weekly meetings late last month, the 20 or so students and supporters of the group discussed the political ramifications of being used as an attack line by presidential candidates.

Julieta Garibay, the group's 31-year-old founder, warned the group that opponents of the law in the Legislature are likely to have the votes they need to reverse it in 2013.

But they won't let that happen without a struggle, she said.

"We're here for the long fight," Garibay told them. "We're here because we believe in this with all our heart."

Garibay said she was 12 when her mother brought her and her older sister to Austin from Mexico City, fleeing an abusive husband and the city's suffocating pollution. Garibay and her sister both graduated from Anderson High School. It was 1998, three years before the Texas Dream Act passed.

Garibay said she decided to return to Mexico to study nursing. During two years at the University of Guanajuato, she said, she was constantly criticized for being too outspoken, for dressing and talking like an American.

"I realized it wasn't my home anymore. Austin was my home," she said.

When she returned to Texas — she said she was driven across the border in a vehicle that was waved through by customs agents — she heard about a pilot program that allowed undocumented students to attend college, and got her associate degree from Dallas Community College.

The Dream Act allowed Garibay to fulfill her dream of attending UT. She put herself through the nursing program by waiting tables and baby-sitting and went on to get her master's in nursing.

The knowledge that she couldn't work as a nurse in the United States because of her undocumented status was a big part of her decision to start the University Leadership Initiative in 2005. Garibay, her sister and her mother were the first members. An additional 10 or 12 people joined the effort after they sent a message to other groups that had immigrant members, she said.

They met every week or two, she said, and started with a petition urging members of Congress to support a federal DREAM Act. And she and other members decided they could only be effective if they were open about the fact that they were undocumented. "There was a lot of fear," she said, but her mother supported her. "She said, 'You have to fight for what you believe in. Nobody else will do it for you.'"

The UT group is now part of a national network — called United We Dream — that emerged from the early battles for in-state tuition a decade ago.

Undocumented students in California, New York and other states began organizing to push for access to higher education, and those groups began connecting and supporting each other as each state debated the issue. Today, Texas is one of 12 states that give in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

In 2003, the groups organized under a new banner, the United We Dream Coalition, to push for a federal DREAM Act. Each time the legislation was introduced, students from across the country would descend on Washington to lobby Congress. But year after year, they've watched it fall short. One year, Garibay said, she left all three of her degrees at Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's office in protest.

The trips to Washington led to more cross-pollination and a realization by the far-flung groups that they needed a national organization.

United We Dream launched in 2008, and Carlos Saavedra, who said he was brought to Massachusetts from Peru at age 12 and obtained legal residency a few years ago, became its first staffer.

Today, United We Dream has eight staff members and relies on donations from individuals and foundations to finance its work — which largely consists of supporting and organizing a national network that has grown to about 40 groups with 5,000 to 6,000 members, said Saavedra, the group's national coordinator.

DREAMers from around the country are gathering in Dallas for their national congress, which ends today . During the two-day gathering, Saavedra said, they will elect new leaders, attend panel discussions, decide what next year's campaign will be and attend training sessions on such topics as building new groups and media relations.

"Our theme for this year is Dream Nation, because we're growing so much," Saavedra said. "It's a good problem to have."; 445-3645

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