Give students a chance to step out of the shadows
Ruben Rosario, Pioneer Press Commentary, April 2, 2013 – By their presence alone, the group of about 60 fresh-faced, well-dressed young folks who assembled in Room 500 South at the State Office Building easily lowered by at least two decades the median age of the lobbyists scurrying about in that building on this morning.
They had just finished hearing moving testimonials from some of their peers. Now, charged up and ready to go, they listened intently as Jose Luis Villasenor related last-minute instructions before they departed and began to navigate the corridors and legislative offices throughout the building and the nearby state Capitol.
“Practice your visits with legislators this afternoon,” Villasenor, who runs a Minneapolis-based environmental and civic group named Tamales y Bicicletas (Tamales and Bicycles), told the gathering.
“There are those of you who have scheduled meetings, and those who don’t,” he added. “Now, you might be in the bathroom and there might be a legislator there, so you might want to talk to them about supporting the bill. Some of you might have pictures of who they are. Talk to them wherever they are.”
These were not hotshot reps from 3M, the Mayo Clinic or Honeywell International. They were high school and college students, children brought to this country by undocumented immigrants who continue to live in the shadows. Now, these young men and women found themselves stepping into the public spotlight, trying to convince legislators that their future is partly in their hands through the proposed Prosperity Act.
The bill, which if passed will likely be rolled into omnibus higher-education legislation toward the end of the session, would allow them for the first time to apply for in-state tuition or state aid grants at public state colleges and universities. Those in public colleges currently pay out-of-state tuition rates and are ineligible for state financial aid. The bill also would let institutions use private funding as aid for all students, regardless of immigration status.
In order to receive such benefits, eligible students of all stripes must be state residents, attend a Minnesota high school for at least three years, receive their diploma or equivalent and obtain an affidavit from an institution of higher learning stating that they will apply for an immigration status change.
HELPING ‘BEST AND BRIGHTEST’
“I came here when I was 2,” said Maria Medina, a high school student from Austin who pretty much echoed the experience of others who spoke. “I grew up here. I always considered America my home. I said the Pledge of Allegiance every single morning in elementary. We have the capacity to contribute so much to our state and nation; now we just need the tools to do so.”
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Citizens League and a host of faith-based, business and civic groups are backing passage for reasons that range from simple business economics to doing the right thing for kids with promise who were raised here but never had a say in coming here.
According to the Center for American Progress, the bill’s passage would create more than 1,600 jobs and add $359 million to Minnesota’s economy over the next decade. Nationally, the number of jobs would rise to 1.4 million and help provide a $359 billion boost to the economy by 2030. In contrast, deporting such kids would cost the U.S. $48 billion, according to the group.
“Probably the biggest public misconception is that these kids are not our kids,’ said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, chief author of the House bill. “The bottom line is that they are.”
He and others say that society already has invested in these children from kindergarten through senior year of high school because of the constitutionally guaranteed right of a public education regardless of status. Mariani said it doesn’t make sense to stop investing in the best and brightest who want to pursue post-secondary education.
“These kids not only want to go to college but have the academic credentials to do so, and help feed our economy and our society,” he said. “We need their skills and talents, and they are willing to give it. For legislators, particularly Democrats, not to support this bill would frankly be embarrassing.”
‘DREAMERS, NOT CRIMINALS’
The Senate version has sailed through two committees in recent weeks and passage is likely.
The House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing and possibly vote on the bill Wednesday afternoon, April 3.
Villasenor said he believes supporters have six votes in the committee and spent the day before the hearing trying to meet with the other nine members. Given that most Republicans were not likely to back the bill, they concentrated on four key DFLers they said were sitting on the fence, among them the committee’s chair, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. I wanted to find out which way Pelowski is leaning, but he did not return a phone call before press time. Perhaps we’ll find out where he lands by the end of the hearing.
Jocelyn Hernandez was among the youths who pressed the flesh. She is 15 years old, a freshman at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope. She has never had a GPA lower than 3.5. Her father works at a car wash. She dreamed of going to Yale, Harvard or Stanford until she learned of her status as well as the family’s meager financial situation.
So, two days after we Christians celebrated the resurrection of a man who most likely would champion kids like Hernandez rather than cast stones at them, Hernandez took to the mic in Room 500 South in front of the other kids. She paused a bit, a typewritten letter in front of her. But she then decided to publicly “out” herself as a “Dreamer” — the term used to describe the estimated 1.2 million undocumented youths like her living in the U.S.
“There are points where you want to give up in school and everything,” she said, choking back tears. “You feel like you are worthless. I was raised here, and to know that I’m denied a simple education is really hard. We dreamers are not criminals. We are just honors students who want an education.”