DACA might spice up the mix
Youth for Youth founder Patricio Gonzalez backs the DREAM Act, which could help young illegal immigrants gain residency in the United States. photo courtesy of Brandon Dill | Commercial Appeal
Statistics show Hispanic students are underrepresented at the University of Memphis; the percentage of Hispanics in the city is 6.5 percent, while they constitute less than three percent of the student body, according to the Office of Institutional Research's 2013 statistics. Their representation lags 30 percent behind African-American students, and 74 percent behind Caucasians.
"Their immigration status is the main problem," Abigal Diaz, the vice president of the Hispanic student association said.
Indeed, many of the Hispanic students who graduated from Memphis and Shelby County high schools had no legal foundations to be in the U.S., and were subject to forcible removal (deportation) before President Barack Obama issued Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Last June, Obama issued a memorandum that directed the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration procedures, to pause (or defer) immigration prosecution of individuals under 31 years of age, who came to the country before the age of 16 and had graduated from school or are currently enrolled in a learning institution. The memorandum also applies to honorably discharged veterans.
The memorandum legalized qualified immigrants, who have to apply and pay a fee of $465, but it did not make them eligible for federal financial aid for higher education.
Hispanic students, who constitute the majority of DACA beneficiaries, have a 38 percent graduation rate at the U of M, compared to 25 percent for African-Americans, and 44 percent for Caucasians, according to the latest statistics from Forbes. But despite their high graduation rates, the state of Tennessee does not offer them the help they need to attain higher education.
"Immigrants do not get any financial aid. In fact, they must pay out of state tuition ... I don't see any type of changes that will make it more affordable for the aliens to go to school," immigration attorney Mona Mansour said.
The memorandum, however, might encourage benefiting students to strive harder for education, since it enables them to work in the US legally and thus benefit from a college degree.
Lack of federal financial aid, state aid and out of state tuition fees, however, all form a defacto barrier to the higher education of those who committed the crime of crossing the border or overstaying their visa when they were infants or children.
In 1975, Texas legislature authorized local school districts to deny undocumented students enrollment in their public schools. A class action lawsuit was filed against the superintendant of Tyler school district in 1977, and the case (Plyer vs. Doe) reached the ears of the Supreme Court in 1982. The Court held that denying such an education would punish children for the acts of their parents and would perpetuate the formation of an underclass of citizens. This decision, however, did not address college education.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, would have provided a path to citizenship for students who came here when they were children, but the act never made it through both chambers of Congress despite its multiple mutations and reintroductions to Congress since 2001.
States vary in their treatment of undocumented students. South Carolina bars undocumented students from enrollment in universities and community colleges, Alabama bars them from enrollment in its community colleges and while North Carolina has allowed them, it only came after a rollercoaster with its community college admission policies. In 2001, it barred them. In 2004, it allowed different community colleges to make their own decisions. In 2008, it barred them again, and allowed them in 2009.
Georgia bans undocumented immigrants from its top five universities and is proposing a bill that could weed out all undocumented immigrants from Georgia's universities and colleges. The bill has passed Georgia's Senate and is being reviewed by the state's Judicial Committee. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana and Oklahoma have state laws that prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.
Other states have made friendly steps. The states of California and Texas have granted undocumented students in state tuition since 2001. New York, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Maryland and Connecticut have all followed.
DACA has led some states and cities to undertake friendlier policies toward the previously undocumented students. California has opened the door for student state financial aid applications and is expecting around 20,000 DACA beneficiaries to apply. On the other hand, the act was received with fury in states and local governments that have practiced notorious immigration law enforcement. Despite the fact that the Homeland Security Department issued a statement that clarified DACA students are legal in the United States, Arizona and Michigan still deny them state benefits such as a driver's license.
Steve McKellips, the director of admissions at the University of Memphis, said that soon after the DACA was issued, Tennessee's legislature issued a law mandating that state benefits (including in state tuition) may only be given to those who are present legally in the state. The law defined 'legally' in 10 categories or required proofs, "and the group you're talking about (DACA beneficiaries) is just not one of them," he said.
In Nashville, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition 'TIRRC' has organized rallies and campaigns to get DACA beneficiaries - or the "DACAmented students" as they describe themselves-the benefit of in-state tuition. They launched the campaign of 'Tuition Equality Now' or 'TEN' last May, before the DACA was issued.
"Considering how hostile the south has been to immigrants, all we try to achieve is in state tuition for students who graduated from Tennessee high schools. State aid - we can't think about it," Carla Chavez, the youth organizing fellow at TIRRC said.
"Other states are more welcoming to immigrants, and we end up losing our brightest students to other states" she said.
Chavez said the campaign is going to be directed at Tennessee legislature, because attempts to make changes through the board of education have failed.
Many students who qualify for DACA are disappointed with what little relief it provides them and little consideration it treats them with.
Patricio Gonzalez, 22, came here from Argentina when he was five.
"I qualify for DACA but I am not going to apply. After all these years of effort, the minimum we deserve is the DREAM Act," he said.
"Immigrants are used for political agendas, drives and cheap labor. That's how they think about us. It's like the times of Tammany Hall, when the Irish came hungry on boats and found Boss Tweed giving them soup. At what price? Their vote," he said.
He said it is unfair to treat people who have lived here since they were children, and have no other home, as if they came yesterday. He said he thought about going back to Argentina, but all his friends are here, and he loves it here.
"It was too much risk to go back" he said.
Gonzalez had put together an organization three years ago; he named it Youth For Youth. He plans to organize workshops on an immigration proposal that facilitates education for immigrants like him, and will not settle for DACA.
"DACA is going to create a generation of uneducated work force for this country. Is that what they want us here for? That's not what we are here for," he said.
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