Undocumented Students Fight for an Education

November 11, 2011 by · 1 Comment 


By Essete Workneh

Ramiro Luna gives a talk. (Photo courtesy of Ramiro Luna)

Ramiro Luna was seven years old when he immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents. As an illegal immigrant, Luna’s pathway to the American dream has been marked with struggle. He graduated from Dallas’ El Centro Community College in 2007 with an Associate’s degree in Education. Currently, Luna, 28, is taking online classes and completing a bachelor’s degree in Bilingual Education from Texas Tech University.

Gov. Ricky Perry’s 2001 decision to sign House Bill 1403, which passed virtually unopposed in the Republican controlled legislature, made Texas the first state in the country to offer in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. In order to qualify, students have to graduate from a Texas high school and must have maintained at least three years of residency in the state. The law does not apply only to illegal immigrants: All students can receive in-state tuition if they meet the guidelines.

For Luna, the passage of HB 1403 instilled in him a newfound sense of belonging.

“Living in our situation, at least for myself, there’s a subconscious thought of you being seen as an unwanted dissident,” he said. “First, my immediate reaction was, great, I can go to college and I don’t have to lie, but an undertone that I also felt was that there was somebody out there that said ‘it’s OK you’re not that terrible of people’ because there were times where you do feel almost like a pest.”

Like Luna, Marco Malagon, 29, is an undocumented student. When he was 17 he illegally crossed the Mexican border into Texas in pursuit of an education. He graduated from high school with perfect attendance and received his Associate’s degree in Science from Collin County Community College in 2005. He is now pursuing degrees in Business and Biology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Luna and Malagon are two of the five founding members of the North Texas Dream Team, an umbrella organization for campus groups lobbying for the passage of the federal DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants brought into the country before the age of 16 and who have graduated from high school or earned a GED, been accepted to a college or university, or served in the U.S. military.

Since Malagon does not meet these provisions he would not benefit if the act were to pass. However, he still continues to fight for students who will profit.

“It’s really painful for me because I’m a really big advocate for the DREAM Act, basically I just give all my time to it,” he said. “But since I know how hard it is to go out there and try to get educated and not having anything at the end, that’s what motivates me to go out there.”

While Texas allows undocumented students to attend university and pay in-state tuition, because of their status, many students find it difficult to find a job once they graduate.

“Even with a degree, you’re still invalid in a lot of ways,” said Luna. “It doesn’t matter if you have a doctorate from an Ivy League school, you wouldn’t be legally able to serve burgers at a McDonalds.”

California adopted its own form of the DREAM Act in October. Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates and receive state aid.

The news comes at a time when many states seem to be implementing stricter immigration reform policies. In September, Alabama passed what is considered to be the toughest state immigration law in the nation; provisions include requiring police to demand proof of legal status if they have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally.

In December of 2010 the DREAM Act failed to advance in the Senate. SMU Political Science Professor James Hollifield, a specialist and scholar on immigration, does not foresee the act passing in the near future.

Marco Malagon takes part in a five day fast for the Dream Act. (Photo courtesy of Lupita Murillo Tinnen)

“As long as you’ve got a strong Republican minority or majority, and this is such a hot button issue for Republican voters, that I think Republicans will block it in the Congress,” he said. “Unless you see a big political shift in the Congress, I’m not optimistic that it will get passed anytime soon.”

Malagon believes much of the contention surrounding the DREAM Act is caused by the many misconceptions people have about illegal immigrants.

“We pay taxes as well. The reality is we pay sales taxes, I live in a house I pay property taxes. I worked, doesn’t matter how I worked, but I paid taxes. I paid social security that I’ll never get back. So education is subsidized by taxes, so we’re all contributing our own share,” he said.

Juan Garcia, Vice-President of SMU’s League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), believes the DREAM Act gives everyone an equal opportunity.

“If you already invest in public school education for these students, you pay for them for high school, middle school, and elementary up to college, you might as well keep them here with a degree and make use of it,” he said.

Chad Cohen, President of SMU College Republicans, shares Garcia’s sentiment.

“Personally, I do support the DREAM Act. I support giving worthy students an opportunity to pursue their education at a higher level,” he said.

Perry’s presidential bid has put the illegal immigration dispute at the forefront of the GOP debates, many conservatives view HB 1403 as a sign of Perry’s lax stance on immigration. His primary rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has heavily criticized Perry’s defense that those who are opposed to the bill don’t “have a heart.”

“I fundamentally don’t believe that we should give a break to illegal aliens to go to college in the United States.” Romney said recently on Fox News’ “The Sean Hannity Show.”

Professor Hollifield believes much of the debate rhetoric is purely symbolic.

“Within the Republican Party most of the candidates are staking out a position that they think will appeal to the core voters. And most of them would be against allowing immigrants,” he said. “You can see that all of the candidates feel they have to [appeal to the right-wing constituency] in order to get the nomination, once they get the nomination, they can moderate their position.”

According to Professor Hollifield, the role candidates take on the issue also depends heavily on the role that immigration plays on the economy and in society. So states that have a long history of immigration, like Texas, and that have economies that are heavily dependent on immigrant labor, are less likely to be anti-immigrant than states where immigration is much more recent.

Despite some setbacks, Luna plans to continue to advocate for students and works hard to put a face to the issue.

“This country is big enough for all of us,” Luna said. “I wish they wouldn’t see us as illegal aliens, I wish they would see us as people.”