One afternoon, while talking to her high school counselor about her college opportunities, Abril Marcial suddenly realized her education opportunities were very limited because she is in the country illegally.
“The only thing that says I’m Mexican is the color of my skin and a birth certificate that says I was born there,” said the 17-year-old Mexico native, who has lived in the United States since she was 3.
“Everything was fine until she started looking for college options,” said her mother, Natalia Marcial, speaking Spanish. “We went to see a lawyer, and he basically told us her only option is to return to Mexico before her 18th birthday and try to apply from over there.”
Georgia and Tennessee are among the majority of states nationwide that charge out-of-state tuition to undocumented students and because Abril’s mother is a single-parent, she said she can’t afford paying the higher fees. Her legal status also disqualifies her from getting any state or federal school loans.
Abril is among an estimated 2 million undocumented children in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Each year, 65,000 undocumented children graduate from high school.
Abril, who has been an “A” student and involved in different extracurricular activities, including soccer and Junior ROTC, says her greatest dream is to serve in the military and go to college to study criminal justice.
“I want to serve my country. I would be an excellent soldier,” she said. “The only thing that separates me from an American is a piece of paper.”
Roberta Warmack, president of the Latinos for Education and Justice Organization in Calhoun, Ga. asked, “If we don’t educate our young people, what is our future going to look like?”
“It doesn’t make sense to deny a person an education they want or need,” she said. “They serve as excellent mentors to other students.”
dreaming of change
Since 2005 Congress has introduced several times a federal bill that would help minors like Abril, but so far it hasn’t passed.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow undocumented children who entered the United States before age 16 and lived here at least five years to gain conditional legal status and eventual citizenship if they attend college or join the military for at least two years.
Opponents of the bill say the government shouldn’t reward illegal immigration.
“A lot of people tried to frame it as helping the children when it really is not,” said Bryan Griffith with the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s made for college students and those older than college students. It’s an amnesty for adults, not for children.”
For a lot of undocumented students, the main issue when trying to attend college is the out-of-state tuition fees, local Hispanic advocates say.
“A lot of them say, ‘Why do I even want to finish high school if I know I’m not going to be able to continue my education?’” said America Gruner, founder of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton, Ga.
In 2007, Georgia’s Board of Regents instructed colleges and universities in the state not to give lower in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants to be in compliance with the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act.
In Tennessee, the Board of Regents also has established that undocumented students can’t establish domicile in Tennessee, regardless of how long they’ve lived in the state.
“Anyone, including undocumented aliens may submit an application to attend Chattanooga State,” said Eva Lewis, a spokeswoman at Chattanooga State Technical Community College. “However, before being admitted, they must meet the admission requirements that all U.S. citizens must meet prior to admission.”
Flor, a Calhoun, Ga., resident who also will graduate from high school in May, has decided to start at a community college despite the out-of-state tuition rates.
“I want to be an interior designer and get a degree in business management. I know it’s going to be harder, but I’m going to try my best,” said the Peru native who has lived in the United States nine years. She asked not to be identified by her last name because she’s in the country illegally.
Abril, the first one in her family to finish high school, said she’ll return to Mexico before her birthday in July. Being in the country illegally as an adult potentially could bar her for from the country three or 10 years if there’s a possibility to gain legal status in the future.
“I’m scared to go back,” Abril said with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know anyone over there. What if they don’t give me a visa to come back? What am I going to do?”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...