The Texas “DREAM Act” offering in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants has drawn constant criticism to Gov. Rick Perry in his presidential bid, even from some in Texas who, till recently, had been quiet about it.
But while politicians go back and forth on the question, students in Texas who’ve benefited from the law are hoping to change the conversation, and put a face on this suddenly controversial issue.
Texas A&M University student Adan Torres was born in Monterey, Mexico but he grew up in Cleveland, Texas. When he was eight years old Torres came to the United States with his family, and lived with relatives. His father worked as a laborer, and then in a lumber yard, before starting his own contracting business.
When his family moved, they were following the immigration of much of his father’s family who had already come to the United States. Most of his mother’s family still lives in Mexico, and because of their immigration status he has only seen that side of his family a few times since he left Monterey.
In 2000, his family applied to have their immigration status regularized, and since then they have been stuck in limbo, their case held up in a backlogged immigration system. Torres says that there is no real network of support for undocumented immigrants, outside of churches and religious organizations.
Jose Luis, a fellow Aggie, was born in Honduras, where he grew up in poverty and hardship with an abusive father. His brother died when he was just five years old, and their home was destroyed in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. His mother fled her dangerous marriage in 2000, moving to the U.S. with his sister.
Luis was left with his father in a poverty and gang-ridden neighborhood. After being shot in both arms during a drive-by and having neighbors save him, his grandmother made the decision to take him out of the country.
In a 45-day journey that began in Guatemala, Luis saw the hardships that immigrants must endure to come to the United States. He saw a 12-year-old girl raped by the coyotes paid to smuggle her to safety. He saw an elderly couple left behind in the desert.
Luis was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol attempting to cross from Mexico, and his case slowly worked its way through the immigration system. So far, his application for political asylum has been denied, in part, he said, because the hurricane that destroyed his childhood home also took the medical and police records he’d need for his case. Today, he describes his immigration status as “frustrated.”
These two undocumented immigrants took very different paths to the United States. However, they are both currently fighting the same battle. Both worked hard despite their circumstances and graduated from high school in Texas, and were able to go to college where they faced new struggles.
In high school Torres was in a military style band which led him to want to come to Texas A&M, despite family and friends telling him that he wouldn’t be able to go to college because of his immigration status. However, he said he did his own research, and learned that S.B. 538 entitled him to register as an in-state student.
The process of applying for college wasn’t much different for Torres than it was for any other high school student. The only real difference was that he had to fill out an affidavit stating that he would pursue citizenship and have it notarized.
“It’s also a lot more common to find people [who] are trying to assimilate and work than people who are not.” Torres said that this is especially true among undocumented college students because college is “about opening up your mind.”
Critics who say undocumented students are getting an unfair tuition break are operating with “skewed logic,” Torres said. He has lived in Texas since he was eight years old, he said, and that if any other student had lived in Texas that long, they would pay in-state tuition too. “We’ve contributed to paying taxes here. Sales taxes, property taxes, school taxes — all that we’ve paid too,” said Torres.
Luis echoed those sentiments. “I don’t know any other home,” he said. “We aren’t taking resources away from other Americans, because we are Americans.”
“It doesn’t make sense for the government to invest so much education in undocumented students in grade school, and then not allow them to go to college,” he said. Preventing undocumented students from going to college has an economic cost, he said. Torres said it’s wrong to suggest that undocumented students are taking spots in college that should have gone to citizens.
Torres said he thinks the driving force behind the recent criticism is political. “It’s people trying to hold their Republican and ideological views against immigration, and then coming up with arguments trying to justify their positions.”
The public’s negative image of undocumented immigrants has also contributed to the criticism, and Luis said the media has played a major role in demonizing undocumented immigrants.
Most people, Luis said, “think of an undocumented immigrant as someone who is in jail.” He criticized Fox News for only focusing on stories about undocumented immigrants who commit crimes, and ignoring stories like his.
‘It’s like Jim Crow’
Once both students graduate, despite their degrees they will not be able to legally work in the country they call home. Torres talked about the importance of passing a national DREAM Act, because unlike the law in Texas, it provides a path to citizenship. Undocumented students like Torres who are about to graduate worry about this because since their immigration status is not regularized they cannot work in the field that they have gotten their degree in.
“It’s like the Jim Crow laws that were ignored at first,” Torres said, “but then more and more people protested against it.” He said he’s speaking out now, like other undocumented students and activists, because the issue can no longer be ignored.
Growing up in poverty, Luis said that you are trained to only know that there is one type of life, and that is “a life of suffering.” His and Torres and many others journeys have brought them to this country to seek a better life. However, the immigration process has left them wondering if there is a place for them in the land that they call home. “The same flag that I pledge my allegiance to is the same flag that doesn’t give me freedom,” said Luis. “Isn’t this the land of opportunity?”