San Francisco—When he started high school, Matias Bernal’s English was so limited he stumbled over the words for numbers and colors.
Four years later, he was on the wait list at Princeton.
Bernal is an illegal immigrant from Mexico City. Without access to financial aid, grants and most scholarships, he had to push aside the Ivy League brochures and prepare to attend California State University Fresno, where he can live with family and pay tuition with money from jobs he is not supposed to have.
“I was crushed,” he said.
About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year. With partisan Washington deadlocked over immigration, many states have been taking matters into their own hands.
Legislatures across the nation have passed 56 laws affecting immigrants this year—most of them cracking down on foreigners—but access to higher education seems to be one area where immigrants have been inching forward.
Nebraska recently joined nine other states—including Texas, New York and Illinois—that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at their public institutions.
Although some states, such as Florida, have seen similar laws fail, the majority of undocumented students in the United States can count on paying the same tuition as the citizens who sit next to them in class.
Five years ago, federal legislators first introduced a measure that would have filled in such gaps.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or Dream Act, as it is commonly called, sought to allow illegal immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools to become temporary residents, eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid, as long as they pursued higher education. If they met these requirements, and stayed out of trouble, they could become legal residents.
It never came up for debate. Although it has been reintroduced every year since, the Dream Act inevitably becomes tangled in the politicized immigration debate of Capitol Hill, said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s gotten caught up in the larger immigration debate,” Diaz-Balart said. “It’s unfortunate—this is a fairness issue with regard to hardworking, studious people.”
“There are other victims here,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based organization that seeks to stop illegal immigration. “If we admit someone who is here illegally, we’re saying no to someone else.”
Some universities, including the University of California system, have publicly supported the measure, saying they are interested mainly in getting the best students they can, whatever their immigration status.