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

Obama offered me protection from deportation and the chance to get a job — But what about my education?

My Graduation

Miguel pictured with family at his high school graduation in June 2012

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 3:00 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.

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 will mark two years since my parents stopped making tamales and moved to Indiana. Since then, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action 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.

Miguel's sister, Yarisell Molina, high school graduation | June 2010

Miguel’s sister, Yarisell Molina, at her high school graduation in June 2010

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.

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.

My parents used to warn me about going to college in the United States. They told me that they would be disappointed to see me struggling, working like them selling tamales or cleaning a McDonald’s toilet, because my degree would be useless without permission to work “in the way that I wanted.” They suggested I follow my sister to Mexico so I wouldn’t have to suffer like most undocumented students they heard about, who graduated from college unable to use their degree. But they always left the decision up to me.

On my last day of high school, June 15, 2012, the principal, with a huge smile on his face, 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 (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. Just over half of the roughly 500,000 immigrants who have applied have received cards—the rest are still waiting, according to Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institute. In California, according to Singer as of March, 132,195 young immigrants have applied and 71,507 have been approved.

My prospects are better, but even Deferred Action 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 pictured with family in Indiana

Miguel pictured with family in Indiana

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. Sixteen states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, including California, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last January, 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. Instead, they help me with the little they can provide: cash for bus fare for my daily three-hour round trip commute, food, and unexpected expenses.

In Indiana, I’d have my parents’ loving support, but I would not be able to afford college. Indiana is one of three states that prohibit the payment of in-state rates for 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.

If I had followed my parents to Indiana, my tuition at one of the least expensive community colleges there would cost more than $7,000 a year. 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 elder 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.

miguelA 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 Reporter Corps, part of USC Annenberg’s Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-newsoutlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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