Obama backs bilingual literacy, college for undocumented

In a state with some of the toughest immigration laws in the country and at an urban school that serves a large population of low-income and immigrant students, Sen. Barack Obama laid out his plans for education reform at the Denver-based Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA) on Wednesday.

Speaking to a packed auditorium at MESA, the Democratic presidential candidate voiced his support of bilingual education and a path to citizenship for undocumented students. Before that, he toured the building and observed classes with Michael Johnston, the principal of the school and one of the senator’s top education advisers.

When MESA student Lorenzo Sanchez asked how young people without Social Security numbers could attend college, Obama noted that he was in favor of giving undocumented immigrant students federal financial aid dollars, saying that “it’s not like [immigrants] are gonna leave, they’re going to be here … they should be educated!”

Obama also cited his support for the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would allow undocumented high school students who have been in the United States for at least five consecutive years to attend college, apply for student loans and eventually obtain citizenship. The act was defeated last year in the Senate, with both Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton supporting the proposal. Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain did not vote on the legislation.

The visiting presidential hopeful took time to praise bilingual speakers and teachers, saying that “everybody should be bilingual” and that it was important for students to be proficient in English while retaining their native language.

Obama’s support of college and citizenship for immigrants was voiced in a state that is home to some of the strictest immigration statues in the country after Colorado legislators enacted a flurry of laws targeting the undocumented during a “special session” meeting in the summer of 2006. In August, because of a law passed during special session that says taxpayer money cannot benefit undocumented immigrants, public colleges and universities in the state started to deny in-state tuition to students who were citizens because their parents were undocumented. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers later decided that such students were legally able to receive in-state tuition.

Along with advocating federal scholarships to encourage aspiring teachers to work in low-income and rural areas, Obama also said that as president he would create tax credits to make community college programs free and to make it easier for students to apply for federal financial aid.

MESA is a small college preparatory high school and the first public school in the state to have 100 percent of its senior class admitted to four-year colleges. The school is part of the Mapleton public school district.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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