July 15, 2009
Victory for Undocumented Wisc. Students
As a public high school teacher, there are the challenges you expect, and then the ones you don’t. One of the most painful parts about being a teacher in Milwaukee, Wis., was seeing the feelings of despair and powerlessness caused by laws that demonize youth who didn’t have a social security number.
And make no mistake – their despair was real. As a teacher I witnessed countless tragedies suffered by students and their families as they navigated the vulnerable and often scary world of an undocumented person. I still wonder what else I could have done for the student who feared his mother would be deported after being wrongly accused of shoplifting; another, despite my pleadings, joined the military instead of fulfilling his dream to become a math teacher because he was undocumented.
I remember a staff member from an area high school telling me that of the previous five years, four of the valedictorians were undocumented. She was unsure whether two of them had even gone on to any further schooling.
The good news for immigrant youth is that on June 29, Wisconsin became the 11th state in the nation to allow undocumented students to pay the same in-state tuition rates as other students. Although students without a social security number were technically allowed to attend public universities before the law, the provision got rid of the non-resident tuition price tag that was often $10,000 higher than in-state tuition.
Until recently, there were several obstacles standing between undocumented high school seniors and Wisconsin public universities. First, taking the ACT or applying to a public university usually required giving your social security number. If you didn’t have one, that was it. Your K-12 education – all the homework, hours of class, exams and studying – was over.
By far the largest problem, however, was the higher tuition rate charged to undocumented students. Young people that could not prove that they were “official” residents of Wisconsin were charged non-resident tuition.
To be clear, students who had lived in Wisconsin for 17 years, some of whom did not even speak Spanish or remember living in México, would be classified as “non-residents” and forced to pay higher tuition.
However, in light of this latest victory, thanks and gratitude are being showered upon Wis. Governor Jim Doyle and fellow Democrats, but the provision’s true champions are undocumented students and their friends.
With the support of local immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, students organized themselves into two student-led bodies that agitated, educated and pushed for change.
It was members of Students United for Immigrant Rights (SUFRIR) and Students United in the Struggle (SUITS) who organized rallies, wrote letters, and lobbied Wisconsin legislators to do the right thing by thousands of young people. In the process, these students are also laying the foundation for passage the DREAM Act at the federal level. If passed, DREAM will open the door to a college education and citizenship for 65,000 undocumented students every year.