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Greeley teen has the smarts but not the citizenship

Greeley teen has the smarts but not the citizenship

Greeley Central student's illegal immgrant status hinders his hopes to go to college

 

GREEELEY TRIBUNE

Editor’s note: To protect the anonymity of the following Greeley Central student, his name has been changed in the story.

Juan and his youngest brother share a strong, deep bond — one punctuated by their ability to help each other.

It’s Juan’s job to make sure his 16-month-old brother stays upright and out of trouble. The toddler returns the favor by always managing to put a wide smile on Juan’s face.

But the two brothers have very different lives ahead of them — lives defined by the citizenship papers the toddler possesses and the illegal immigrant status that Juan holds.

The difference hit Juan hardest these past two years, he said. Despite superb test scores and aspirations to become a doctor, he realized that attending college would be among the most difficult tasks he has faced.

But Juan’s dream of higher education has failed to fade, despite the failure of a bill in the Colorado Legislature on April 6 that would have allowed illegal immigrants to attend colleges and universities in the state at the same tuition rate in-state residents pay. Currently, illegal immigrants can attend college, but only by paying nonresident tuition rates that can range from 100 percent to 560 percent higher than in-state tuition.

Juan’s dream began to take root nearly 11 years ago when he came to this country illegally.

Hope for a better life

Making only 500 pesos — or $50 — a week at a furniture manufacturing plant in the late 1990s in Mexico City, Juan’s father originally sought to stay in the United States only for two years — long enough to earn the necessary money so that he could return to Mexico and build a house for his family.

Citizenship papers were out of the question, he said, because of the costs. Applications to apply for a work visa cost more than $1,000, according to Jeff Joseph, an immigration lawyer in Denver.

So Juan’s father ventured into the United States through the Arizona desert in May 1997. Fifteen months later, the rest of the family followed — a decision they said was spurred by increasing gang activity in their neighborhood and abusive teachers.

Climbing into a van on Aug. 13, 1998, Juan, then 7, his mother and another little brother, then 3, traveled together through a border checkpoint with nothing but each other.

No visas, no passports, no papers.

It was a strategy that occasionally proved useful at the time. Joseph, a lawyer at Joseph Law Firm, said that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, it was not unheard of for border patrol agents to wave people through the border despite the lack of proper identification.

The only person to be detained by the border patrol agents, Juan said, was his uncle, who was of working age.

“It was just kind of like a rush job,” Juan said.

Debating the legislation

Such instances — illegal immigrants traveling across the border with small children — lie at the heart of the battle over Senate Bill 170.

For some, it is a battle defined by fears for the precedent such legislation could set, said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

“The last thing we need to do is put in place one more government subsidy that would be a greater encouragement for illegal immigrants to come to this country,” said Harvey, dismissing critics who contend failure of such legislation punishes students. “Their parents should have thought about that before they came to the United States and put their children in this precarious situation.”

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, who also opposed the bill, said the failed tuition equity bill and the Federal DREAM Act — currently making its way through Congress — only intensify feelings of discrimination among legal residents of the country, who feel that illegal immigrants are getting a free pass on many issues.

Ultimately, Juan’s parents said they hold no regrets about their decision to come across the border.

“So we know we broke the law, but we’re trying to get an opportunity to better ourselves,” Juan’s mother said. “We’re just trying to have a better life.”

Hitting a bump in the road

Nearly 11 years after making that journey, the Greeley Central senior shifts in the chair he often plants himself in after school, fiddles with the pencil in his hand and stares down at the highlighter-lined Advanced Placement Economics textbook in front of him.

The room is filled with posters of Jesus, Bruce Lee and pictures of his family. It is Juan’s sanctuary, a place where he studies —something he will do a lot of if he wants to reach his goal of becoming a doctor — maybe even one serving here in Greeley at North Colorado Medical Center.

There have been lots of times when the decision to come across the border plagued Juan. He had no papers and no driver’s license — meaning trips to the movies, visits to friends or even to pick up his siblings from school were out of the question.

These moments made him remember that he lived in this country illegally, he said. But other moments took a far heavier toll.

His junior year, the reaction to the rising national debate on illegal immigration, coupled with the realization that college would be a difficult goal considering his immigration status, led him down a path of depression and apathy.

Despite a 3.5 grade-point average his first two years of high school, his grades suddenly dipped when he became a junior. That fall, Juan’s gpa slipped to 2.1. In the spring, it fell even further — to 1.3.

“Maybe that concept of just going back (to Mexico) is a little naive, but sometimes I kind of just do wish I could just go back there,” Juan said. “I mean, here people could just despise me for not being legal. Back in Mexico, they could despise me because they don’t like me.”

And it’s not that Juan didn’t understand the material. In the spring of his junior year, Juan scored a 29 on the ACT.

Andy Hartshorn, Juan’s statistics teacher, didn’t understand the sudden drop in grades. But at the time, he said, he didn’t know Juan was an illegal immigrant.

“It makes sense now,” Harthsorn said. “He’s definitely one of the top 10 percent” in his class.

The situation finally came to a head, Juan said, when his father was arrested in November 2008 as a part of Operation Number Games. The operation was an investigation into identity theft by more than 1,000 illegal immigrant who were using a Greeley tax firm to file taxes. The arrest made Juan — the same teenager who often greeted classmates with a smile and a hint to solving last night’s calculus homework — “numb” inside.

After his father was released and fears of being immediately deported were relieved, his parents encouraged him to continue to seek a college education — despite the prospect of having to pay out-of-state tuition in Colorado. If anything, his parents said, they would pick up an extra shift at their work to pay tuition wherever he went to college.

To date, Juan has received acceptance letters to several schools — one of those being the University of Northern Colorado — though he will not attend as it is very tough to provide proof of residency and the cost of out-of-state tuition is too high.

Exploring other options

New Mexico Highlands University sits on a list kept by Central career counselor Carol St. Jean — one that she refers to whenever students come into her office and tell her the secret of their citizenship status.

It is an admission, she said, that often makes her want to cry.

“They graduate from high school and what can they do? Nothing. They can go find an American citizen to marry — that’s their options. Really, what have we left them?”

“That’s sad to me,” said St. Jean, letting out a loud sigh. “It just breaks my heart. ... It’s like, what are we going to do for this kid?”

But the situation is not entirely hopeless. With the St. Jean’s help, the citizenship status of the students simply means sacrificing a little more to pursue higher education.

A number of colleges in Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico are more accepting of illegal immigrants, St. Jean said, as their admissions process is more forgiving when the question of residency comes up. In some cases, out-of-state tuition in those states actually cost less than in-state tuition in Greeley.

At New Mexico Highlands University, out-of-state tuition for students taking 18 credits is $2,016 — while in-state tuition at the University of Northern Colorado costs $2,668.50 per semester. In-district tuition at Aims Community College — which both legal and illegal residents of Weld County and the surrounding area already would pay — is $1,116, while out-of-district/in-state tuition is $1,476.

Those numbers still pale in comparison to out-of-state tuition, which costs $8,153 at UNC for 18 credit hours and $6,498 at Aims.

Several scholarships are available to illegal immigrants, including the International Scholarship Fund and the Community College of Denver, which offers the Stephenson Opportunity Scholarship.

Bruce Broderius, president of the Greeley-Evans School District 6 school board, said the prospect of losing students to colleges in other states, however, troubles him because of the economic ramifications for the state and Greeley. He invoked memories of a student he knew was an illegal immigrant but who was presented with the opportunity to attend college at an out-of-state school. He questions why Greeley and the state of Colorado would want to send its best and brightest to other states.

“I’m selfish for saying ”˜Hey, this is a stand-up, can-do person — why can’t he go to UNC?’” Broderius said. “Why can’t he remain in our community? Why can’t he be used as an example, and if you work and work hard and do a good job, you can improve yourself?”

The District 6 school board did not take a position on the bill that failed in the Colorado Legislature, but several organizations across the state did, including UNC’s board of trustees, making UNC the first higher education institution to support the bill in Colorado. UNC trustees also cited the potential for the bill to build a stronger work force.

The possibility of a decrease in dropout rates among undocumented students has also been cited by supporters of the legislation. No one knows for sure how many of District 6’s dropouts are illegal immigrants — the district doesn’t ask its students if they are legal or not — but school counselors and principals say they certainly notice a drop in motivation among students who find out early in their high school years that they likely won’t be able to attend college.

School officials hope that might change, however, if legislation is introduced again next year.

At a crossroads

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, has already pledged to re-introduce the bill in 2010 in the hopes that public opinion for the bill will shift from the fierce public opposition he experienced this year. Many of the roughly 10,000 messages he received were opposed to the measure, he said.

Romer will still face stiff opposition, such as that from Sen. Ted Harvey.

“I will still be here to fight for the taxpayers and the citizens of Colorado,” Harvey said.

Juan, though, sits nervously in his quiet bedroom and waits for word on if his father will be deported.

On Monday, a Larimer County judge ruled that an investigation into Amalia’s Tax and Translation Service to obtain identification numbers of more than 1,000 illegal immigrants was illegal — leaving the entire prosecution of these illegal immigrants in limbo. Weld District Attorney Ken Buck has appealed the decision.

Juan said the uncertainty of the case means the family is preparing for all scenarios, including being deported or having the charges dropped. Trials on the matter are set for this summer and fall — and the battle over the legality of the investigation is still underway.

Even if Juan’s father is deported, Juan’s mother said he could stay in the country to go to school should the DREAM Act pass.

The bill would offer illegal immigrants who were younger than 16 when they entered the country the chance to be a permanent resident — so long as they complete two years of college or vocational studies or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. Versions of the bill have failed every year since being introduced in 2001 — leaving Juan to speculate about the future.

Whether he stays in the country or follows his family back to Mexico, Juan said he is glad his youngest brother’s life will differ from his in one profound way — that of not facing the challenges of an illegal immigrant.

“I’m just glad he doesn’t have to go through it,” Juan said. “They say childhood trauma builds character. Well, hopefully he can get his character in a different way.”