By Rebecca Wickel
USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent
By Susan Walsh, AP

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2013.

When Veronica Perez graduated high school in 2010, she thought college was out of her league. It wasn’t the cost of a degree — not entirely. It certainly wasn’t a lack of motivation — she’d like to be a mechanical engineer. It was the country on her birth certificate that kept her out of the classroom.

Perez has no Social Security number, no driver’s license, no vehicle registration. If it weren’t for her marriage to a U.S. citizen, she likely would not have been able to apply to school with the help of United We Dream, the national immigrant-youth led network.

But the sweeping immigration reforms announced Wednesday morning by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., could change that. Part of the bill — which includes a stricter border enforcement plan and other changes that make up the largest overhaul of country’s current immigration laws since 1986 — would allow immigrants to apply for temporary legal status, and eventually let them apply for green cards and U.S. citizenship 10 years later. Currently, there are about 11 million people living in the United States without legal permission.

Perez, who moved with her family from Mexico to the United States when she was 9 years old, is hopeful about the bill. Though she is a community college student in Hillsborough County, Fla., Perez would like to transfer to Polk State College in Winter Haven and earn a bachelor’s degree. But until she can prove her residency, she can not pay in-state tuition. Thirty-six states, including Florida, do not have tuition-equity policies, meaning students who entered the U.S. illegally must pay out-of-state tuition, regardless of how long they’ve lived in the state.

“Since I’m undocumented I can’t prove using bills that have my name, and because my parents are undocumented as well, I can’t use their information,” said Perez, whose husband has petitioned for her green card, which they hope will lead to citizenship in a few years. “If we can have (the bill) maybe we can help some students who are in college pay for school.”

This is a common obstacle for students not legally in the country, said Robert Teranishi, associate professor of higher education at New York University. He said immigration reform could offer its greatest impact to students by granting their parents temporary legal status, opening the doors for federal aid.

It’s not an easy solution, Teranishi said. The suggested reform will mirror the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memo, which requires people who were brought as children to the U.S. illegally to apply for benefits — a scary and sensitive position for many.

“What Rubio’s proposing involves a timeframe, and it basically means that people have to come out of the shadows and they have to reveal themselves, and it puts them somewhat in a state of vulnerability,” Teranishi said.

Despite these efforts, there are other fundamental issues that stand in the way of education access for immigrants. Until they’re resolved, Teranishi thinks true reform will be difficult.

“One thing that prevents people from pursuing DACA is there are still states that are taking proactive steps to block access to students with deferred action,” he said. “Even if students are able to seek temporary legal status, there are states that do not allow them access to certain colleges, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.”

Rectifying this issue is only one stop toward applying immigration reform to students. According to Jill Casner-Lotto, director of the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, immigrants need adequate resources for their successful integration into society. Only when these resources exist will higher education be a valuable option for immigrants.

“Community colleges play a major role in the linguistic, civic and economic integration of immigrants, but it’s important that community colleges and other adult-education providers have adequate funding to deliver programs that include English as a Second Language programs to help students gain English language proficiency, which will be a requirement for citizenship,” Casner-Lotto said. “Programs that integrate ESL, vocational training and career pathways are critical for the successful integration of immigrant students.”

Increased opportunities for integration, coupled with immigration reform, could allow more students like Perez access to education.

“I hope they won’t live in fear anymore, that they’ll come out of the shadows and go to school to better themselves and help their community,” Perez said. “That’s really what we want to do. We want to do the right thing and pay taxes, we want to help the community, but we need an education to do that.”

Rebecca Wickel is a Spring 2013 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about her here.



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