Felipe Mancera graduated from Highland Park Senior High in 2004 with hopes of attending college in the fall. He applied at the University of St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota and Century College in White Bear Lake. They all told him the same thing: He was not accepted because of his immigration status.
Mancera, 19, moved to Minnesota from Mexico City in 1996 when he was 9 years old with his two brothers and mother. His father was already here. None of them has yet obtained legal status. The process is often difficult, costly and time-consuming, and his father is afraid of deportation.
“My dad has a lot of fear toward the system and said it_s difficult [to obtain legal status],” Mancera said.
The 19-year-old St. Paul man is now thinking of applying for legal status. He thinks if he is the first to do it in his family, then maybe they will follow.
Under the proposed DREAM Act, which is short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, children of illegal immigrants will be allowed to pay in-state tuition at Minnesota public colleges and universities if they went to Minnesota high schools for three or more years and graduated and pledge to apply for legal residence in the United States.
A Minnesota House committee overwhelmingly approved the bill on April 19 as part of the higher education finance bill. However, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has opposed the DREAM Act in past years and House leaders may pull the provision from the finance bill, which would stall its progress through the Minnesota House.
Mancera lives in St. Paul with his family and has been volunteering at the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to change the nation’s immigration system. The network focuses on family unification, workplace rights, civil liberties and legalization for citizenship.
Mancera hopes to attend Rochester Community and Technical College in the fall. He knows some undocumented immigrants who already go there and said they are charged in-state tuition, so he is confident he will get in.
“A lot of community colleges have a don’task, don’t tell policy,” Mancera said. Although he will not be able to get any scholarships at a community college, because they are not offered, he will be able to apply for financial aid.
Some Minnesota colleges charge a flat rate for all students and others charge out-of-state rates for students who indicate on their applications that they are not U.S. citizens. Right now, undocumented students are not eligible to pay in-state tuition unless they attend a college that does not charge a different rate for out-of-state students.
Undocumented students are not able to receive federal and state financial aid,. They are also ineligible for merit-based scholarships because they require proof of citizenship.
Of the 32 schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU), 11 charge a flat rate for all students. The others generally charge out-of-state students twice as much in tuition and fees as Minnesota students.
Mancera encountered problems at St. Thomas when he was asked by an admissions counselor why he did not have a social security number. He told her he was undocumented and found out he would not be able to be accepted. At Century College he went to take the placement test and didn_t have a state I.D., which is required, so he never went back.
He received a full scholarship to go to the U, but came across the same problem he had at St. Thomas. He was accepted, but the scholarship committee asked why he marked international student instead of giving a social security number, and he never called them back because he knew he had no chance.
Mancera has friends from high school who had similar problems. He said some didn’t even apply for college because they knew they wouldn’t be accepted because of their immigration status.
“I was being naive at some point,” Mancera said. “I had hope. I’m a good student and an athlete and thought maybe I could get in.”
Last year a DREAM Act proposal was dropped in legislative conference committee when Gov. Pawlenty threatened to veto the higher education bill over the issue. He also threatened to veto funding bills for the University of Minnesota and the MnSCU system if the provision was included.
Pawlenty argues that it’s wrong for illegal immigrants to pay lower tuition rates while legal Americans from other states pay higher rates. He said this is not appropriate and potentially violates federal law. Although Pawlenty’s intentions for this year aren’t clear, he has suggested that might be willing to accept the provision if his proposals for stricter enforcement of immigration laws were included.
Right now, at least nine other states allow their undocumented high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year in the United States.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee are torn by the tuition provision.
“The kids who are raised here are not at fault,” said Rep. Barb Sykora (R.-Excelsior), who voted for the bill in committee. “But on the other hand, they’re still illegal.”
Rep. Denny McNamara (R.-Hastings) also voted for the bill.
“Philosophically, you can understand where [Pawlenty’s] coming from,” he said. “But I think you want to encourage these kids to get their college education. … These are kids who have potentially been here a long time. I don’t know if we should hold them responsible for decisions their parents made.”
Mancera would like to go to school to become a high school English teacher, specifically with the English as a Second Language program so he can teach new students who arrive in the States. Mancera points out that it is somewhat ironic that he would like to teach English to others when it’s not his first language, but he really enjoys it.
“English is my best subject and I love it,” Mancera said.