Tuition equity for undocumented students continues to be hot topic in Oregon

Recent Mcnary graduate Hugo Nicolas has big plans for his post high school career if Oregon passes a student equity law. An associates degree at Chamakata Community College in Salem is the first step in his planned journey that would take him from majoring in business at University of Oregon to Harvard Law School. (Alex McDougall/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Hugo Nicolas, a 19-year-old graduate of McNary High School in Keizer,@@ is unable to attend college at the University because unlike other Oregon graduates, he would have to pay out-of-state tuition. A standout high school student, Nicolas had hoped to attend college to make a better life for himself and his family. He hopes to run for Congress someday.

Hugo’s story is a common one among undocumented students trying to go to college, a struggle that has lasted for more than a decade as the Oregon State Legislature has continued to consider — and ultimately vote down — the idea of tuition equity, a provision that would allow undocumented students who attended K-12 within the state to pay in-state tuition at Oregon colleges.

Nicolas was born in the Baja region of Mexico and moved to Oregon when he was 11 years old.

“I came here because my parents decided there was no work over there. The drug wars were starting to pick up,” he said. “I walked through the desert and I enrolled in school here.”

Nicolas struggled socially through middle school, often the butt of jokes because he could not speak English. In eighth-grade English he learned about improving himself and becoming something better, which changed his outlook on education. He became an excellent student, achieving over a 100 percent in his math and history classes. Despite his grades, Nicolas became disheartened when he learned he would have to pay out-of-state tuition if he wanted to attend college in Oregon.

“I had to start thinking about college and thinking about becoming more independent, and I realized that wasn’t going to happen for me,” he said. “I dropped out of AP classes and was thinking of dropping out of high school because I knew I had no way to afford college. But I didn’t. I decided I would focus more on being involved in the community.”

Nicolas also wouldn’t be able to receive financial aid to pay the higher out-of-state rates — he doesn’t have a social security number and therefore cannot apply for FAFSA.

Under current federal law, states have the option to enact laws that grant the same access to higher education for undocumented students as their U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident classmates. Thirteen other states, including California, New York and Texas, have passed tuition equity laws. Oregon is currently considering such a law.

The proposed Oregon bill requires that these undocumented students have graduated from an Oregon high school, have been accepted to an Oregon university, have gone to Oregon schools for at least three years and have lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

Rep. Chris Harker@@, a sponsor of the bill, has fought for the issue for the three years he has been in the legislature.

“These students are frequently from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Options for families are pretty scarce,” he said. “Everyone knows the value of a university degree is important, it improves quality of life.”

This bill was not introduced in the 2012 session, but will be introduced again in 2013. Harker was disappointed the bill did not pass in the 2011 session, but said they are doing groundwork to prepare for the 2013 session.

The Oregon Student Association has been lobbying for this issue for many years and vows to continue working on it until a bill is passed.

“We are working toward making higher education accessible and affordable. We want all students across that state to have access to that regardless of socioeconomic status, documentation status and identity,” OSA member Lucero Castaneda said.@@[email protected]@

Oregon immigrant rights group Causa @@ been lobbying for this effort for many years. Spokesperson Reyna Lopez @@she’s cute that the opponents of the bill disagree with allowing immigrants into the University system because they say it would cost the state money and because, according to them, the state should not reward people who broke the [email protected]@That was Ponta, [email protected]@

Nicolas is currently working various jobs around Salem and lobbying for tuition equity. He said finding a job is tough because most require a social security number, and that his current job is in tough conditions where people abuse his labor rights. He hopes to start attending a community college in the fall.

“It’s not a huge number of people who are affects, but it’s a huge issue for each one of them and their families,” Harker said.

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