Voters to decide if in-state tuition will apply
Whose responsibility are they?
Children who were brought into the United States illegally, grew up in Tucson, graduated from public schools and aspire to attend college would no longer qualify for in-state tuition at Arizona's colleges and universities if Proposition 300 passes in November.
Some say taxpayers should not subsidize students who have no legal standing in this country, regardless of their culpability.
Others believe taxpayers should invest in these students, many of whom have never known a home other than Tucson.
For 19-year-old Alex, it's not a philosophical debate. The cost to attend Pima Community College full time would jump from $528 per semester to $2,652.
"That would do it for me," said Alex, whose parents brought him to Tucson from Agua Prieta, Son., when he was 9 years old. "I couldn't go to school anymore. There's no way I could make that kind of money."
The Tucson Citizen's policy is to name sources when possible. However, to fully tell this story and give the public a chance to hear from the subjects of the debate, editors agreed to identify two students by first name only.
Each year, at least 65,000 students without immigration papers graduate from U.S. high schools, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group in Washington, D.C.
In Arizona, students without immigration papers are ineligible for most financial assistance and scholarships, but they qualify for in-state resident tuition as long as they have lived in the state for the past year.
Proposition 300 would change that and protect taxpayers, supporters say.
"I don't think it's fair that we should be giving benefits to anyone that's broken the law when we won't give the same benefit to a U.S. citizen," said state Rep. Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, a Proposition 300 supporter. "If you're a U.S. citizen from California or Texas and come to Arizona, you have to pay the full cost of tuition, but if you're a citizen of a foreign country and you break the law, whether it was your choice or your parents' choice, you're in the country illegally, and the state's giving you a break to the tune of thousands of dollars per person."
Martin said students in the state illegally should return to their country of origin and apply to re-enter the United States legally.
Fat chance, say opponents.
"Those young people have been living in Arizona their entire lives," said former University of Arizona President Peter Likins, "and they will continue to live here. So the question is, 'Will they be productive citizens, making a good living, paying taxes all their lives or will they be a drag on the economy all their lives?' It's wise for us as a society to bring every one of our permanent residents to the highest level of education that can be achieved. It's wise for our sake. Not just for theirs."
A 2006 graduate of Pueblo High School, Noé, 18, cleaned houses, fixed coolers and tended gardens throughout high school.
It's not what he envisions for his future.
"I want to own my own computer business," said the dimple-faced teen, who helped Pueblo High School to two championships at the national Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement competition.
"Computers are the future," he said.
Noé's mother brought him to Tucson from Nogales, Son., when he was a year old. She died when he was a sophomore in high school. Since then, he's made it through school with help from Youth on Their Own, a nonprofit group that works with homeless or at-risk children.
He figures owning his own business is the best way he could earn money and give back those who helped him.
"If you're the boss, you can donate to whoever you want to," Noé said.
Throughout high school, he dreamed of studying business at UA's Eller School of Business and Public Administration.
"It's the best in the country," Noé said.
Then reality hit.
UA costs $2,382 per semester and doesn't give financial aid to students without immigration papers. Passage of Proposition 300 would mean Noé would have to pay the nonresident tuition of $7,485.
For now, he is planning to take one or two classes at PCC when classes begin Tuesday.
A growing number of Tucsonans are working to help students such as Alex and Noé by creating scholarships that are not dependent on immigration status.
Videographer David Valdez is working with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to establish scholarships worth $2,500 to $5,550 for undergraduate students.
"We want to make sure they can finish school, not just start it," Valdez said.
Florencio Zaragoza, a UA graduate and founder of the educational Fundación Mexico, is working through UA's alumni association to create a scholarship specifically for students in immigration limbo who qualify to attend UA.
Until then, Alex and Noé are doing what they can to move forward on their own.
Alex is working full time, earning $7 an hour at a dry-cleaning job to pay for classes at Pima.
The straight-A student said he's confident he will get through college.
He said it's ironic that his education is in question, but he was aggressively recruited to join the military when he was in high school.
"They're happy to stick me on the front line, but don't want me to go to college," Alex said.
Noé has his hopes pinned on passage of the Dream Act, which the U.S. Senate approved in May as part of its border security and guest worker bill. The act would give students without immigration papers permanent residency status contingent upon completion of two years of college or military service.
While few believe Congress will pass an immigration bill this year, Josh Bernstein of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Law Center said the Dream Act stands a chance of passing on its own.
"There's a lot of support for it on both sides of the aisle," he said.
The Dream Act would largely undo the impact of Proposition 300 because it would legalize a student's status.
Noé said he's keeping his fingers crossed.
"I'm not giving up," he said. "This is the only country I know."