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Students pursue the American dream

Immigrants try to overcome high costs, legal obstacles to attend college in hopes of a better life

POSTED: May 30, 2009 11:51 p.m.

Angel Terrón

Watch North Georgia College & State University graduate Angel Terrón explain why he wanted a four-year college degree and hear about his plans now that he has one.

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SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Lanier Technical College student Luis Perez, 25, works on putting together conveyer program, which includes basic wiring for an assembly line March 16. Perez came to the United States from Mexico when he was 15.

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When Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa spoke at Gainesville State College on April 3, more than 400 students came to the Oakwood campus to hear the formerly illegal migrant worker speak of his climb to the pinnacle of American success as an award-winning neurosurgeon.

Teachers from Cobb and Gwinnett counties brought students to the lecture by the busload. Others came in taxis or carpooled with friends.

The teens and 20-somethings who filled the auditorium listened as Quiñones struggled to explain exactly what moved him to abandon work in the California fields and set his sights on medical school.

Years later, Quiñones graduated from Harvard Medical School with honors and became a U.S. citizen in 1997. He is an associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins and serves as the director of the brain tumor program at The Johns Hopkins Bayview campus in Baltimore.

While his story is unique, many immigrants in the U.S., legal and illegal, are showing increased value in education by enrolling more of their children in schools and colleges. Yet they still encounter obstacles, first in paying for college, then in finding high-paying jobs afterward.

Educators nationwide have branded Quiñones the poster child of immigrant success. Between late night life-saving surgeries, he fervently tours the country speaking to communities that include many immigrants.

“It gives me great pride and joy to be part of this celebration and this future of America,” Quiñones told the crowd in Oakwood. “... I never thought about my life being hard. I never thought about all the challenges. We need to think about opportunities rather than obstacles.”

Growing numbers, growing needs
The U.S. Census reported in March that Hispanics were 12 percent of America’s full-time college students in 2007, a 2 percent increase from 2006. Hispanics are 15 percent of the nation’s population, the report said.

The census reported 53 percent of Hispanic 4-year-olds were enrolled in nursery school, up from 43 percent in 1997 and 21 percent in 1987.

While it’s difficult to tell how many undocumented students make up these figures, 18 percent of Hall County school students were English-language learners in the 2007-08 school year. Twenty-nine percent of Gainesville students did not speak English as a native language that year, according to the state Department of Education.

Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said the state spent nearly $7 million this year on English-language learner services alone in Hall County schools, $1.6 million in Gainesville.

The federal government requires states to educate all children in K-12 public schools, but it’s up to states to determine whether they will offer in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students.

In 2006, the state legislature passed a law the University System of Georgia Board of Regents interpreted to mean college presidents could no longer grant out-of-state tuition waivers for up to 2 percent of undocumented students. Despite the law that became effective in July 2007, more local Hispanics are enrolling in college.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said Gainesville High School has held several college fairs to encourage students to attend college regardless of their immigration status. Dyer said 85 percent of Gainesville High’s 211 graduates this year are going to two- or four-year colleges this fall.

College is key for improving lives
Gainesville State College President Martha Nesbitt said there’s no doubt many more Hispanics have attended since she took over the school 12 years ago.

The out-of-state tuition law requires undocumented students to pay about $6,000 more in annual tuition to attend North Georgia College & State University and $4,000 more to attend Gainesville State College than a resident receiving in-state tuition. Yet the Hispanic presence on campuses continues to grow.

The Board of Regents reports there were 257 more Hispanics enrolled at Gainesville State College this spring compared to 2006.

The 521 Hispanic students on campus were 6.8 percent of the school’s student body this spring, a 2 percent increase over 2006.

“I attribute that to the fact that a lot of Latinos or Hispanics in our community are second generation, and they really know the value of education and their parents really want them to get an education,” Nesbitt said. “The longer they’re here, the more they appreciate what education can do for their careers and for their jobs and so forth.”

Nesbitt said also the college’s Summer Scholars and Steps to College outreach programs have encouraged more Hispanics to enroll at Gainesville State.

Doug Bachtel, demographer and University of Georgia family and consumer sciences professor, said education is one of the most expensive public services to which illegal immigrants have access, and is a prime motivation for many to cross the border.

“They don’t necessarily want to let their kids grow up to do yard work, or work in a poultry factory,” he said. “And basically, the immigrant population has always historically pushed their kids to get an education in American society, which is why they came here.”

Trading factory jobs for a career
Luis Perez, 25, is enrolled in Lanier Technical College’s individual systems technology program. He came to the U.S. from Mexico with his brother and mother in 1999 in search of a better life..

Perez, a 2003 Chestatee High School graduate, and his brother were the first in his family to graduate from high school. They are also the first to go to college.

“In our country, it’s hard to just survive. In our country, you work all day ... for 100 pesos, which is $10, and a pack of tortillas,” he said. “So you work all day just to feed your family. And sometimes you don’t have food.

“We know this is a big country. There are a lot of opportunities. We don’t want to be here illegally. We want to be here for a better life.”

Perez said he gained a work permit in 2003 and residency in 2005. He held many jobs in nearby factories, making car wheels and tools and welding doors and windows.

“When I graduated from high school, I never thought about going to college” he said. “... Right after I started working, I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere with only a high school education.”

At the prodding of his younger brother, Perez decided to enroll at Lanier Tech with him in March 2007. During the week, Perez attended school until 2 p.m., then worked at Peachtree Doors and Windows as a welder until 2 a.m. before he was laid off last July.

He said whenever it gets tough, his parents tell him, “don’t quit on me now.” Perez now is focusing on his studies and will graduate next year.

Sam Ajlani, the individual systems technology instructor at Lanier Tech, said with the mechanical, electrical and computer programming skills Perez learns, he could make up to $30 an hour working in Atlanta.

“They’ll make as much as any engineer coming out of school, if they play their cards right,” he said. “And that’s a lot better than McDonald’s.”

Overcoming financial hurdles
Nesbitt said while there’s clearly more Hispanic students on the Gainesville State campus, there probably are fewer undocumented students than before tuition rates changed in 2007. She said it’s not easy for colleges to determine an exact numbers of undocumented students, but they’re there.

“My perception is we’ve probably seen a decline in undocumented students,” she said. “They can’t afford it.”

She said there were 47 applicants for six Goizueta Leadership Scholarship positions this year, the most the school has had. The program was funded by former Coca-Cola Chairman Robert Goizueta. Scholarship winners earn money for full tuition, books and a stipend for living expenses, and is available to Hispanic students who have stellar grades and have completed a leadership course.

Applicants must also demonstrate that they’ve spent time volunteering in the community.

Dyer and Nesbitt said it’s been difficult for educators to see students dismiss their dreams of college because they can’t afford it.

“It’s a state decision that they don’t want to invest in their higher education,” Nesbitt said. “I don’t know what the legislature sees as the long term solution because they’re not saying, ‘We’re not doing this so this will happen.’ They’re just not doing it and not worrying about what these students will do. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Johnson High School graduate Liliam Ramos, 20, was one of this year’s Goizueta scholars.

She came to the U.S. from Honduras at age 14. Ramos has a work permit and driver’s license, but still seeks residency.

She graduated from Johnson High School in 2007 with a 3.99 grade-point average. That fall, she began at Gainesville State.

After her first semester, she got a job at a legal notary office to begin saving $5,000 to finance her second semester of school. But her three youngest siblings, all born in the U.S., watched as Ramos and her 19-year-old brother’s lives were interrupted that spring by legal issues surrounding their immigration status.

Nearly a year later, Ramos is working at a Norcross immigration attorney’s office as a translator and is saving money for school. On Thursday, she found out she won the Goizueta scholarship and may realize her dreams of becoming a business administrator, attorney or educator.

“I always knew that I wanted to go to college. Knowing that in four years you’re going to graduate and be someone ... it’s changed my life,” Ramos said. “... Nobody in my house went to college. My grandmother barely knows how to write and to read and she encouraged me to go to school. She would wake me up everyday and say, ‘Go to school.’”

Ramos said without residency papers, there weren’t many scholarship opportunities for her. This year marks the fourth she applied for the Goizueta scholarship.

Ramos’ mother works in a Hall County poultry plant. Her father died of cancer when she was 16. She said her grandmother, mother and four younger siblings consider her the family “hero.”

“Even my 9-year-old sister wants to go to Gainesville State College now,” Ramos said.

Now Ramos’ mother, who supports her five children on her meager salary, tells her oldest child to keep her eye on the prize.

“My mom, she tells me, ‘You don’t worry for anything, your job is to go to school,’” Ramos said. “... Then I’m going to have a job doing something I really like. If I can graduate from college in four years, I can get a better job and help my siblings who are growing up.”

Unwanted: College grad seeking job
Angel Terrón, 24, is a proud graduate of North Georgia College & State University.

In May he earned papers declaring him a studio art major. But the Mexican immigrant still lacks papers declaring him a legal resident.

After graduating from Johnson High in 2003, Terrón enrolled at Gainesville State. He worked at a restaurant between classes to pay for school and paid $20 each day to take a taxi to the Oakwood campus four days a week.

Terrón, son of a physician, knew he must graduate from college to be successful in America. But the 2007 out-of-state tuition change required of undocumented students put a kink in his plans.

“That was a big setback for a lot of Latino students,” he said. “After that, the prices were ridiculous, especially when you’re making $6 to $7 an hour.”

Terrón said the move made him feel as if the state was building barriers to him earning an education. It sent a message to immigrants that the state wants to keep them in poultry plants and low-paying jobs, he said.

But he continued to wait tables to pay for school and taxis as he lived with his parents in their tidy, art-adorned South Hall home.

In 2007, he transferred to NGCSU to earn a bachelor’s degree. He awoke early each morning to take a $50 taxi ride to the Dahlonega campus four days a week. After class, he often worked late at the restaurant.

This month, Terrón graduated from North Georgia magna cum laude. But his immigration status continues to hinder his job search.

“There’s a lot of students in my same position,” he said. “I’m hoping the DREAM Act passes. ... I just want to be an educated person, to grow as a person, and to have a stable job and be part of the community.”

Dream a little DREAM
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was most recently introduced to March 26 in Congress. It would permit certain immigrant students who have grown up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and become eligible for citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military. Only students who do not have criminal records and avoid lengthy trips abroad would be eligible.

The act also proposes to eliminate a federal provision which penalizes states that provide in-state tuition without regard to immigration status.

Paul Matthews, assistant director and outreach coordinator for the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education at the University of Georgia, said if passed, the DREAM Act would allow students like Terrón to legally work in the U.S.

Terrón said he wants to become a legal resident, but there is not a pathway for him to do so.

“There’s no form. There’s pretty much no way,” he said.

Matthews said educators are concerned the state’s K-12 investment in these students won’t translate to jobs for undocumented college graduates.

“That’s a definite concern,” he said. “At the same time, there are usually with higher levels of education there are more opportunities for being able to find employment even if there doesn’t end up being employment in the United States and even if that doesn’t end up being right away.”

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he believes the DREAM Act would cash in on the state’s investment in its undocumented students.

“Fundamentally these students were brought here when they were very young through no fault of their own,” he said. “And ultimately we need to make sure that we can harness as much human potential out of people that we’ve already invested significantly into education in K-12, so it makes sense for us to ensure that they can be productive members to society, so that’s why the DREAM Act is so critical.”

Matthews said a college graduate typically earns about $1 million more in a lifetime compared to a high school dropout. Gonzalez said if the DREAM Act were passed, undocumented college graduates would be able to work legally and pay taxes.

President Barack Obama said recently he supports the DREAM Act “100 percent.” Gonzalez said the president is scheduled to speak about it on June 8. And Gonzalez said his association will be joining 195 other groups nationwide in rallies Monday on state capitol steps to express support for the legislation.

Educators, legislators square off
While many educators said they would like to decree education for all, legislators said they have concerns about undocumented students holding college degrees.

State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, said illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to push a legal citizen’s rights aside.

“Don’t force your way to the front of the line and don’t eliminate some legal, taxpaying citizens from being able to take some math class or science class because we have some people who entered this country illegally,” he said. “And now they’ve filled up a classroom and thus eliminated someone else from having a seat in the classroom.”

Mills said he supports higher education, but only for legal citizens.

“I think if you are here illegally, you should go back to your country or wherever you came from and come here legally. Otherwise you put legal citizens at a disadvantage,” he said.

State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he’s concerned about undocumented college graduates competing with legal citizens for scarce jobs in a recession.

“I do have a concern that it affects our job pool,” Collins said. “It’s hard enough in this economy being born and raised in Hall County with parents who’ve been here for four generations.”

Collins said the state isn’t denying undocumented students an education, but as the state’s budget “is decreasing every day, things like that become very, very real.”

Bachtel argues the cost of educating illegal immigrants now will be less expensive than the financial and social burden they could create in the future. He said some immigrants are returning back to their native lands, but most are staying put.

“If you don’t have an educated population, that means you’re going to have all sorts of dysfunctional behavior,” he said. “You’re going to have problems with people with no health insurance. You’re going to have people engaging in risky behavior, doing crime and doing all sorts of weird stuff. And that’s expensive. As a result, the education is cheaper in the long run.”

Terrón said he doesn’t know where his college education will take him. But as politicians in Atlanta and Washington debate his fate, he knows one thing for sure.

“I wanted to go against all those stereotypes and make someone of myself,” he said. “Wherever I go, I know the education stays with me, and they can’t take that away.”

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.



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