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Advocates push for access to higher education

Nationwide, the children of illegal immigrants are allowed to attend public elementary and secondary schools regardless of their parentsí residency status ó a situation that has raised concern about English-only education and overcrowding in classrooms. Now a new front in the debate has opened up as immigrant advocacy groups focus on higher education, working to ease the barriers that preclude undocumented children attending college.

In Rhode Island, the advocacy groups English for Action and Immigrant Students in Action have teamed up with state legislators to support a bill that would allow undocumented students who fulfill certain residency conditions to pay the same tuition fees as Rhode Island residents. The bill, H-6184, which is sponsored by Representatives Grace Diaz (D-Providence) and Thomas Slater (D-Providence), is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

Much of the opposition to these kinds of bills ó a similar one appeared in the House last year ó stems from post-September 11 concerns about relaxing regulations on immigration into the US.

"Weíre dealing in a very sort of controversial immigrant time [so] that itís very difficult to pass anything that favors immigrants," says Josselyn Velásquez of English for Action, which offers educational programs to help immigrants.

Other opposition concerns the possible financial drain on the state and the rights of adult immigrants to continue to receive educational benefits. In a recent op-ed in the Providence Journal, David A. Mittell writes, "At age 18, those children cease to be minor dependents. If we donít ask them to take responsibility for their status then, at what point in their lives will we ask them to do so?"

Advocates counter that these students are Rhode Island residents and should be given the same opportunities as their classmates. Velásquez says she thinks the bill has a good chance of passing because of its focus on education: "We are so very close . . . I think itís very probable that it will pass." Currently, nine states have passed similar laws allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

Although many children of illegal immigrants enter the country at a very early age and go through the school system in Rhode Island, if they want to attend a public college or university in the state, they must pay out-of-state fees, which can be two to three times the resident fees.

"If you want to carry a full course youíre talking about thousands and thousands of dollars for tuition for one semester, which is unrealistic for a lot of these students to pay," Velásquez says. Once students reach 12th grade, they are "stuck," she says. "Itís a really sad situation because along with not being able to go to college because of their undocumented status, they canít get jobs, they canít work ó they are not able to live normal teenage lives."

Although English for Action and Immigrant Students in Action are Providence-based groups, they are working to change the laws not only in Rhode Island. They also want to create a support network for undocumented students throughout the state. The ability of immigrants to contribute to society is closely linked to their educational opportunities. "Itís something that affects all of us, something that we all need to be involved in," Velásquez says. "Weíre talking about kids and the future, and weíre talking about your neighbors and the kids that you grew up with."

Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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