Four years ago state lawmakers – and the governor – created a law to help undocumented children follow their American dreams. They allowed them to pay the significantly cheaper in-state tuition to go to state colleges instead of higher out-of-state prices. The requirements: They must graduate from a Colorado high school that they’ve attended for three years and promise to pursue citizenship.
Above Image: Isaias Vasquez is undocumented and pays in-state tuition to attend college part-time. — BENTE BIRKELAND / CAPITOL COVERAGE
“This is an issue that has been a challenge in our state and our country for many years,” said Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, one of the main sponsors of Senate Bill 33.
Undocumented students said if they could no longer work in the country legally it would be difficult to afford in-state tuition rates at Colorado colleges and universities.
The bill took seven tries before it finally passed. The debate was heated and contentious. Opponents said they had sympathy for students who arrived as children, but they worried the effort would circumvent federal immigration laws.
But in 2012 President Obama signed the executive order implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Undocumented immigrants who came as young children could get a temporary work card and social security number.
“The fact that the president implemented this and enabled students to be able to be here, get a social security card and go to school — it was a great boost,” said Duran.
Changes to federal immigration policy have left the future of the state law uncertain. It would remain on the books but would it be effective?
In September President Trump ordered an end to DACA. He asked Congress to come up with a permanent fix. That worries DACA students who benefit from Colorado’s in-state tuition rates.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education says that during the spring 2017 semester, about 1,000 undocumented students across the state benefited from the law – students like 25-year-old Isaias Vasquez. He worries about paying for school if he can’t work legally.
“We have to pay out-of-pocket. It would be difficult to have a job to sustain my education,” said Vasquez. “Not having a job would mean struggling a lot more.”
Vasquez came to the U.S. when he was 8 and is now pursuing a degree in social work at Metropolitan State University of Denver in the evenings. He says without a legal path to stay, students like him may not even want to go to college.
“They’re going to be wondering what’s going to happen after they’re done,” he said. “Are they going to work in the field they’re studying?”
The national immigration debate is very much on the radar for school officials at Bruce Randolph High School in Denver. Forty percent of the students there are undocumented. Principal Cesar Cedillo said the in-state tuition law provides hope for many.
“They see themselves with actual hands-on ability to attend a college or university,” Cedillo said. “At our school, our attendance rate is great and we don’t have many behavior incidents.”
With the federal law’s future in question, Cedillo said that could change. He has first-hand experience with uncertainty: He arrived at age 8 and didn’t become a citizen until he was 15 and feels like he embodies the American dream.
“I’m living proof that with an opportunity you can change the world,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old high school junior Claudia Hurtado wants to do just that.
She’s undocumented and hopes to attend the University of Colorado. But if the federal law changes, she doesn’t know how she’ll pay for it. Without a social security number, she said she doesn’t have access to most scholarships.
“So it’s hard to get a legal job here and harder to get my savings for college,” Hurtado said.
She said her father’s deportation case — which he ultimately won — has inspired her to become an attorney. While eyes turn to Congress and the debate over federal immigration policies, Hurtado’s are on the future.
“I hope nobody gives up on their dreams,” she said.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.