Though she is in between appointments and running behind on an overbooked Friday afternoon, 19-year-old college student Sarahi Hernandez looks anything but overheated or harried on one of Denver’s first sweltering summer days.
As the rising college sophomore apologizes for her tardiness — nearly forty minutes — and takes her seat, she explains that the last two days have been a blur. But, her friendly smile indicates that, as blurs go, this has been a good one.
Hernandez, who carries a 3.8 GPA at Metropolitan State College of Denver, is one of several hundred undocumented — mostly Mexican — Metro students who will benefit from a newly approved tuition schedule voted on last week by the school’s board of trustees.
Beginning this fall, undocumented students enrolled full-time at Metro State will be eligible for a new and lower tuition rate than the one they have been paying. Undocumented immigrant students enrolled for the fall semester will pay slightly more than $6,700 a year to attend the school. The new tuition equals 150 percent of a state resident tuition.
In adopting the new policy, Metro State trustees stressed that no tax dollars would be spent to subsidize the new rates and that they reflect only the cost of educating students. Also, the new policy ensures that undocumented students will remain ineligible for state or financial aid.
If an undocumented student wants to enroll at Metro State and can prove they have attended a Colorado high school for three years and graduated or holds a general equivalency diploma from Colorado they will be eligible for the new rate. They must also prove their illegal status and show they plan to become legal residents when they are eligible.
“This decision was based on common sense,” says Dr. Judi Diaz-Bonaquisti, associate vice president for Enrollment at Metro State. “I think it reinforces that we understand our mission.”
While Metro State is the first state institution to create a separate tuition level for undocumented students, the idea has been around for some time. Making it an official policy, Diaz-Bonaquisti says, was simply a matter of addressing a delicate reality with a common sense solution. But the new policy also comes with an uncertain and potentially challenging long-term foundation.
“These children were not brought to this country by their own accord,” Diaz-Bonaquisti says. If the state recognizes the value of educating undocumented students from kindergarten through high school, why then, she wonders, would post-secondary education be any different?
“With a degree they’re more competitive. Without one, they’ll have no footing.” Their only other hope, says the Metro State executive, is to wait on the passage of comprehensive immigration reform or the Dream Act, legislation that provides a legal pathway to citizenship.
For Metro State students like Hernandez, duel realities — living an American life while hiding in the open — comes with a price; knowing that the nation’s immigration policy — which is clear on undocumented immigrants — could mean an end to the only life she has known if she is ever caught.
“We work, we pay our taxes and we’re involved in our community. We’re good people,” Hernandez says of her family, who brought her here as an infant. “But we don’t have IDs. Without them we live in fear every single day.”
But when she isn’t thinking about the specter of immigration, Hernandez stays busy. “I’m self-employed,” she jokes. Beside baking and babysitting or doing school work — she carries a full load of summer classes — she says she is always trying to maximize use of her time. It is what her parents have always stressed.
“They made sure I got things done,” she says. And when she thought things were too hard, her mother made certain she knew otherwise. Hernandez recalls a time when she confided to her mother that she was just tired. “You think life is hard? Life without an education is when things get really hard,” her mother said.
With her parents’ monitoring and prodding, Hernandez excelled, earning scholarships to Denver’s prestigious St. Mary’s Academy where she was part of the school’s color guard. “I would lead the Pledge of Allegiance — in English and Spanish.”
The new Metro State policy has already come under attack as being soft on immigration. But the school says that is not the case at all.
“We’re not treating them better or different than anyone,” says Metro State trustee, Michelle Lucero. “They are Colorado kids. There’s no illegality and we’re not rewarding any kind of illegal behavior.”
Lucero’s point is accurate that the school has the autonomy to set its own tuition rates for all students, including undocumented students. However, there remains a strong anti-immigrant bloc in the state legislature that sees things differently. In fact, state lawmakers voted — for the sixth time — this past legislative session to kill a measure that would have provided state colleges and universities to set tuition rates.
“If the Republicans take control of the legislature, I can see them looking closely at this new policy,” says a veteran legislative lobbyist. While he doesn’t foresee a reversal of the Metro State board of trustee’s vote, he also doesn’t rule out a move by conservatives to cut funding at Metro State or retaliate in other ways simply to send a message. “I just think they should have waited. It was a clumsy way to do things.”
Whether or not a student graduates from Metro State — Metropolitan State University of Denver after July 1 — they will still face the challenge of finding a job in the workforce without immigration documentation. But that is a separate issue that had nothing to do with the new policy, says the school.
“Obviously it (a college degree) helps them on their path to citizenship,” Lucero says. “At the end of the day it makes us a better educated society and a better one, too. It has so many benefits.”