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Why I should get in-state tuition as an undocumented student

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New Jersey recently became the latest state to join a movement granting equal tuition for undocumented students. But not all do. East Los Angeles College student Miguel Molina shares how the different rules in different states have separated him from his family.

I am told I crossed the border to the United States when I was 2 years old, sitting in the back of a car. But my earliest memories are of South Los Angeles — of my parents staying up until midnight and then waking up every weekday and on Saturdays at 3 a.m. to check on the tamales and boil water mixed with maizena, blocks of chocolate and cinnamon for champurrado, a traditional Mexican corn-based drink. My dad would load his yellow vendor tricycle with a huge olla, or pot, of tamales, utensils, and the freshly made champurrado. My mom would fill a grocery cart with the prepared foods, which she would push as she walked my sister and me to elementary school.

Miguel Molina

Miguel Molina

That changed the fall of my senior year in high school. My parents told me they were moving because they feared for their lives. They had reported to the police that a gang member was extorting money from them. When the gang member found out, he threatened to kill them. My parents wanted me to move with them, but I chose to stay to finish high school because I believed there were more opportunities for me in California as an undocumented student. The day before I sat for the SAT, I said goodbye to my younger siblings and my parents.  My father started to cry when I hugged him; I think that was the first time I saw him cry — and it made me cry. I then entered my house alone and lay on my bed until I fell asleep.

This November marked two years since my parents stopped making tamales and moved to Indiana. Since then, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has opened up possibilities for me that were unimaginable before, but my future is still in limbo, and I’m still separated from my family since the educational opportunities for undocumented students in other states are not the same as in California.

After my parents left, I went to live at my uncle’s house, where I shared a room with my three younger cousins. I worked hard to graduate from high school, staying up late studying at the kitchen table. I even became school president. At times I really didn’t know why I tried.

Click to read the whole series

Click to read the whole series

My older sister had recently returned to Mexico because my parents didn’t have the $7,000 needed to pay her tuition bill at Northland College in Wisconsin, despite going into debt trying to help her. She hoped she could do work study, but as she applied she noticed that Social Security was required. The same was true of other jobs she applied for.  She looked for alternatives, including private scholarships, to fund her education, but she was still short and left for Mexico to continue her studies. My parents and I have not seen her for two years now.

On my last day of high school, June 15, 2012, the principal told me to follow him to his office. He showed me a news article saying that President Obama had issued a memo that would provide young people like me with an opportunity to stay legally in the United States. My parents drove 16 hours from Indiana with all the documents I needed to prove I was eligible, and I borrowed $465 from my uncle to apply in October. In January, I received my Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) card.

I felt relieved holding it in my hands and thinking of the opportunities that would open up to me. Thanks to DACA, I’m now temporarily protected from deportation, allowed to get a state ID, driver’s license, and a work permit. My prospects are better, but it does not guarantee that I’ll remain legal or guarantee that I will receive equal education opportunities. Many people confuse DACA with the federal Dream Act, legislation that, if passed, would grant permanent residency to young immigrants who meet certain requirements. DACA is helpful because we can work and have access to more private scholarships, but it is not a path to a Green Card or guaranteed access to education.

Miguel parents drove from Indiana to see him graduate in June, 2012.

Miguel’s parents drove from Indiana to see him graduate from high school in June 2012.

When it comes to state tuition and aid, different states still have different rules—and for low-income immigrant students, it’s the cost of college that makes all the difference. A growing number of states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In January 2012, the California Dream Act went into effect, which qualified me for state financial aid. The aid covers all my tuition and fees at my community college, so my parents don’t have to stress to help me pay for my education, and I’m glad because I know my parents can’t afford it.

But in Indiana, I’d have my parents’ support, but I would likely not be able to afford college. Indiana prohibits the payment of in-state rates for incoming students without lawful status and any type of state financial aid. Although Indiana passed a bill in 2013 allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, it only applies to students who were already enrolled at a college in the state before July 1, 2011.

Victoria Padilla, an Indiana resident and DACA recipient, had to drop out of Indiana University before the law was passed under old legislation that prohibited undocumented students from paying in-state tuition. “The price increase was too much for me to finance, and with no scholarships, loans or financial aid, it became impossible for me to continue,” she said.

Padilla excelled in her high school academics and also in college, and she was among the students who fought so she could continue in school. “For me, it was a true victory. The day it passed, I activated my student status and signed up for fall classes,” she said.

My younger siblings, since they were born in the U.S., qualify for in-state tuition and scholarships. My mom will encourage them to continue doing well in school just like she encouraged my older sister and me. With her support and my younger siblings’ hard work, they will obtain opportunities that I and other undocumented students don’t have because of our status.

A chance at a better life through education is, after all, the reason they brought us here. My dad had to drop out of high school because he had to choose between eating or an education. He told me that he had to wrestle mice for food, and that’s not the life he wants for me or my siblings. That’s why I’m here trying to better myself through education, and why I will continue to fight along with other undocumented youth to obtain access to higher education and to change the unjust laws that stand in our way.

This story was produced by Intersections South LA Reporter Corps, of USC Annenberg’s Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative, and The Hechinger Report.

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