New group may receive in-state tuition benefit

URBANA - Claudia Blancas figures she wouldn't have had a chance at an education in her native Mexico.

She was born with physical problems that included impaired hearing and weakness in her legs, making it difficult to walk. She found her preschool teachers in Mexico unsympathetic

?The teachers didn't want me because I couldn't hear. I couldn't understand what they said,? Claudia said.

After coming to the United States at age 3, Claudia got hearing aids and she recently had a cochlear implant in her left ear. She received speech therapy and is now fluent in English, Spanish and sign language. She also received physical therapy to strengthen her legs. They are privileges she says her family wouldn't have had access to in Mexico.

Now 17 and a student at an area high school, Claudia is hoping to go to college.

?Back in Mexico, if I didn't have everything that I have now, I would think my life sucks and I would feel sorry for myself every day and ask God why he brought me here,? Claudia said. ?Now, I'm a motivated person who wants to be someone and be successful in life.?

A bill pending before the state Senate could help Claudia and other undocumented immigrants better afford college. The bill would allow students who have attended school in Illinois for at least three years and graduated from an Illinois high school to pay in-state tuition at any public Illinois college or university, regardless of their immigration status.

The bill has already passed the Illinois House and is currently before the Senate's Education Committee, where it is scheduled for hearing on Tuesday.

The University of Illinois supports the bill. It already allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they are deemed to be residents of the state, said Thomas Eakman, executive assistant vice president for academic affairs.

Eakman said taxes paid by Illinois residents help subsidize the cost of college, so if a family lives in Illinois and pays taxes, they ought to have the benefit of in-state tuition.

?We feel when we determine residency for tuition purposes, the real issue is did they come to Illinois to go to school or did they come to Illinois to live,? he said.

Many local immigrant families think they don't have a chance at a college education, said Guadalupe Abreu, a counselor with the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center in Urbana. She said families may struggle to pay for one or two classes at a time, but often they simply don't have the money for their children to attend college.

The cost of going to college is a major barrier to many immigrants who want to continue their education, said Sandra Del Toro, policy and advocacy coordinator for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal aid or many scholarships.

?It's not a free ride, by any means,? Del Toro said of the bill. ?It's really enacting legislation for students to pay the same as their classmates in high school.?

The coalition's position is that the bill would provide an incentive to students to finish high school, especially Latino students who have a high dropout rate. Coalition officials also point out that many undocumented immigrants have lived in Illinois for years, work here and pay taxes here.

?These are some of the brightest students, and they shouldn't have to continue doing only the work that is available to them with a high school degree if they can do more,? said Marissa Graciosa, communications coordinator for the organization.

To determine resident status, UI officials consider such things as where a student votes, has his or her car registered, whether he or she pays Illinois income tax or has an Illinois driver's license. Citizenship is not considered.

That has been the UI's policy since 1987, after it was sued by an undocumented immigrant who had lived in Illinois for 12 years.

?My parents are taxpayers, too. They are paying for other people to go to school,? Claudia said. ?Why shouldn't other people who are taxpayers help to pay for me, too??

State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, a member of the Senate's education committee, opposes the bill.

?I understand what I believe are the good intentions of the sponsors,? he said. ?(But) it's poor public policy at this time to extend very expensive benefits to noncitizens. We're having a difficult time to provide needed services to citizens.?

Winkel said nothing stops undocumented immigrants from attending college, but he believes establishing state residency and paying in-state tuition are benefits that come with citizenship.

Claudia would be the first person in her immediate family to go to college. She has been working hard to try to qualify for a scholarship. After high school, she hopes to attend Parkland College first, then later go to the UI.

She said she was inspired by two college students who once visited one of her classes.

?They talked about how great college is. They talked about getting a higher education and being whoever they want. I want to go to college. I want to be somebody,? Claudia said, her eyes filling with tears. ?I want to do the same thing - I want to influence people's lives like they influenced mine.

?I asked, can you go to college if you're different? Even though you're Mexican, can you go to college and be treated equally? Can you do anything you want? They said yes.?

You can reach Jodi Heckel at (217) 351-5216 or by e-mail at jheckel@news-gazette.com.

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