Undocumented immigrants further discouraged from attending Missouri colleges

Some say recent legislation is a matter of discrimination, not lack of funding.
Mary Hilleren / Graphic Designer

It’s always a long story when 21-year-old Yara Puente has to face an interviewer for a potential job and explain that she’s not in school right now. This fall is the first time Puente has had to take a semester off from community college after attending part-time for the past three years.

As an undocumented immigrant, Puente came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 3 years old. As a teenager at Van Horn High School in Independence, Puente worked to be eligible for the A+ Scholarship Program by completing the 50 hours of community service necessary in her freshman year.

However, her hard worked proved for naught when Puente learned she wouldn’t be able to use the A+ Scholarship at a Missouri community college, since they don’t accept students who don’t have social security numbers. As a result, Puente attended Johnson County Community College in Kansas part-time while holding two jobs, rather than attending school in Missouri.

After receiving her DACA status in the spring of 2014, Puente returned to Missouri and began school part time at Metropolitan Community College - Penn Valley. She could only afford to take six to nine credit hours at a time along with working. Now Puente has had to take her first semester off this fall due to recently passed Missouri legislation.

Just this summer House Bill 3 was passed, which charges Missouri resident students an international tuition rate based on their immigration status.

Additionally, on Sept. 16, Senate overrode the first bill in their veto session, Senate Bill 224. Sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, the bill requires students to be citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. in order to receive financial aid through the A+ Program to cover the cost of tuition for community college or a vocational/technical school.

The A+ Scholarship Program provides scholarships for students who attended one of the 533 approved high schools and meet certain eligibility requirements that include maintaining a 2.5 GPA, completing 50 hours of community service and having at least 95 percent attendance throughout high school. Previously, the state statute allowed students who were “lawfully present,” to receive scholarship funds. This included Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals per the Obama administration's executive order in 2012.

Puente is just one of many students affected by the Missouri General Assembly’s recent override of Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 224. In a letter to the Missouri secretary of the state, Nixon rebuked SB 224, defending the students it would negatively affect.

“They came to the U.S. through no choice or action of their own,” Nixon wrote. “They arrived as young dependents, in the controlling embrace of an adult who entered the U.S. illegally. They bear no responsibility for this action.”

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, handled the bill in the Missouri House of Representatives and said he felt the bill was necessary because the A+ Scholarship Program was giving funds to students who are in the U.S. illegally in place of students who were U.S. citizens.

“It’s sending a message to people who come here illegally that we will reward you by providing your children with a free higher education, and I just don’t think that’s something that the state would be doing with the tax dollars that we have available,” Fitzpatrick said.

The program has only continued to grow in the past few years. Liz Coleman, spokeswoman for the Department of Higher Education, said in an email that the department predicts that about 14,000 students will receive the A+ Scholarship for the 2015-16 academic year. In the 2014-15 school year, approximately 13,300 students received the scholarship and 12,500 students received the scholarship for the 2013-14 school year Coleman said.

Fitzpatrick also said insufficient funds were part of the reason behind passing SB 224. By making DACA students eligible, there was not sufficient funding in the budget for the DHE to fully reimburse all the students currently in the scholarship program, Fitzpatrick said.

“(For) every student you add to it at that point, you’re spreading those dollars thinner and thinner,” Fitzpatrick said.

Vanessa Aragón, executive director of the statewide coalition Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said the Senate passing SB 224 is not a matter of needing money but solely a matter of discrimination.

“If the state has a revenue problem, it can’t solve it on the backs of immigrant students,” Aragón said. “Excluding non-citizen students from the A+ Scholarship Program isn’t going to put more money into the system.”

For the 2015-16 academic year, the A+ Scholarship program will be funded at $35.1 million.

Fitzpatrick said he would like to see more high schools included in the program, but Puente said she would like to see students like herself given equal opportunity first.

This is a trend Aragón said will become more common in the coming years.

“What’s going to happen, particularly if this tuition increase as a result of HB 3 continues, is that there will be students who never even consider going to school in Missouri even though they’re a Missouri high school graduate,” Aragón said. “They’re just automatically going to look out of state.”

With fewer DACA students attending Missouri community colleges, Aragón said diversity will also decrease as these schools garner a reputation for being less welcoming and accepting to students.

After receiving her DACA status in the spring of 2014, Puente returned to Missouri and began school part time at Metropolitan Community College - Penn Valley. She could only take six to nine credit hours at a time along with working. However, now Puente has had to take her first semester off this fall after her tuition increased this summer because of HB 3 and she learned she would not be able to use her scholarship funds after the passing of SB 224.

Puente said it was hard to hear from legislators that they were going to override something that could help her go to school.

“I kind of feel like they’d rather see me waitressing than getting an education and doing something better for my community or better for the economy,” Puente said. “I feel like it’s damaging a lot of opportunities that are out there, just because they want to give us more obstacles to prevent us from going to school.”

Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, said the benefits of offering access to college are clear. At least 20 states offer in-state tuition rates to students who meet certain criteria regardless of their immigration status, she said.

Citing a study conducted in 2012 by the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, Broder said that for every dollar the state invests in getting students into and through college, it receives a net return on investment of $4.50. The return for those who complete college is twice as high, $4.8, than for those who enter but fail to complete college — $2.40.

“Tuition equity policies have been demonstrated not only to increase potential earnings and economic contributions of these students, but to reduce high school dropout rates among broader groups of students, including citizens — creating a climate of hope for the students and their peers,” Broder said in an email.

Puente said she has already faced many obstacles after coming to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 3 years old. Despite this, she said she has always had a passion for learning and after just two years in an English Second Language program her teachers said she didn’t need it anymore and had adapted well. Often working two jobs, at times as a waitress at Denny’s or a receptionist at a hotel, Puente still prioritizes her education and made an effort to work multiple internships over the years.

Unsure of when she will return to school in the future, Puente said this experience has helped her become closer to the community and made her rethink her major. Puente is also now considering working for a non-profit in the future and has a few words of advice for any students in her situation who are unsure if they can continue their education.

“Any student that is getting discouraged, I would just say to unite,” Puentes said. “We are stronger and more powerful in numbers than alone.”

Both Puente and Aragón will continue their efforts to work with legislators to try and repeal HB 3, as the budget of HB 3 must be renewed every fiscal year. HB 3, “appropriates money for the expenses, grants, refunds, and distributions of the Department of Higher Education,” according to the bill’s text. Although universities cannot be forced to adopt HB 3, many, including MU, are now charging Missouri resident students international tuition rates based on their immigration status.

“We’re not just talking about abstract numbers or possible statistics, we’re talking about real students who you’ve sat next to in high school who are trying to college,” Aragón said. “We’re talking about real students who have been enrolled in the University of Missouri system, who are dropping out or transferring out of state as a result of these policies.”

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