As a bill to make college tuition more affordable for Colorado’s undocumented immigrant students makes its way though the Legislature, some local students are making themselves heard amid the din of debate among educators, legislators and advocacy groups.
In recent months, students potentially affected by the ASSET bill have been working diligently to make sure their perspectives are part of the debate. For many, fighting for the bill has pushed them to make their first venture into the sphere of politics.
The students hope to spread awareness and correct inaccurate information about the bill. But more importantly, they are stepping forward to put a face behind an issue that tends to become a politicized, impersonal battle.
“People don’t realize that there are students here that contribute to this community who want to have a good future,” said Abel Garcia, a senior at Durango High School.
Garcia is part of a group of about 15 teens, both documented and undocumented immigrants, who make up the Durango Dream Team. The group gives presentations around the community to spread awareness and garner support for the ASSET bill.
Senate Bill 15, otherwise known as ASSET, creates a new tuition category for undocumented students at Colorado’s colleges. The rate is higher than in-state tuition but much lower than out-of-state tuition, which those students currently are required to pay. Students who attend three years of high school in Colorado before graduation and who apply for legal status would be eligible for the proposed tuition category.
After passing in the Senate, the bill has been assigned to the Republican-controlled Education and Appropriations committees in the House of Representatives. The Education Committee is expected to vote on it Monday.
Local students who have decided to speak out say the bill gives them a chance to create a future for themselves that currently isn’t possible.
“You have these dreams in your head, but the reality is you won’t reach those dreams,” said Leslie Villalobos, a junior at Durango High School who will be the first in her family to get a high school diploma.
Finances are the primary obstacle to getting a college degree, the students said. And without the possibility of college, it’s hard to muster the motivation to excel in high school, said Garcia, who plans to continue working after graduation until he can save enough to go back to Mexico and get a college degree there.
“Students live here and go to school here, but then right after high school, it’s like they get dropped off a cliff,” said Alex Rodriguez, a DHS junior.
Both Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, have maintained their opposition to the bill, saying that immigration issues should be addressed at the federal level, not through individual state reforms.
But the only way national reform will ever happen is if it starts with the states, Rodriguez said.
Roberts also has argued that the bill doesn’t change the fact that it is illegal to employ an undocumented worker, with or without a college education.
It is better to be educated than not, no matter what path a student takes after college, said Gerardo, who dropped out of college two years after enrolling because he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition. He did not want to provide his last name because he is an undocumented immigrant.
Gerardo was working 40 hours a week and taking a full courseload to try to afford tuition costs at Fort Lewis College.
“I feel like I’m in limbo,” he said. “I can see (a college degree), but I can’t touch it.”
Now he is working at a restaurant.
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life cooking,” he said.