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Inequitable Tuition Places College Out of Reach for Some Dreamers

Jose Patiño (Phoenix ’14) has watched undocumented high school students seemingly do everything right, only to learn they are ineligible for in-state tuition and financial aid. He was also one of them.

June 10, 2022
Jose Patiño headshot

Jose Patiño

VP of Education and External Affairs at Aliento

Jose Patiño headshot

Jose Patiño

VP of Education and External Affairs at Aliento

My parents migrated to the U.S. because they wanted the American dream.

In America, they believe, it doesn’t matter where you are born, your background, or your legal status. In the U.S., the sun shines on everyone.

Back home in Mexico, we endured periods of darkness. When my older brother was 5 months old, he became seriously ill. My mom sold everything she owned that had value and asked family and friends for loans to pay for his treatment. The emergency would deplete our savings for years. 

The next crisis occurred about two years later. I was a year old when I became ill with the measles, and the doctors feared the worst. My mom didn’t have money to pay for my treatment, so the doctors gave her general medicine, sent us home, and prayed for the best. I recovered, but four children in town died from the outbreak.

After my brother and I narrowly survived those illnesses, my mom grew desperate. She didn't believe we could thrive in Mexico. Faced with the uncertainty of an economic recession in late 1994 and the fear of not being able to afford healthcare, my parents made the courageous decision to go north.

In 1995, I migrated to the U.S. with my mom and three older siblings. Two college students helped us journey through the border at Nogales, Arizona. We eventually joined my father, who had already spent much of his adult life working in the U.S. to support our family. 

As I grew up, college became part of my American dream. Education meant a way out of the cycle of poverty. Education was the key to a better life. My father and mother’s education ended after the first grade. They had to work in the fields as children to support my grandparents and their younger siblings. 

I always knew I was undocumented, but my legal status didn’t directly affect me until I was 16. I couldn’t get a driver's license or work with my friends. In the early 2000s, when then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration raids became daily news, my fear of deportation increased. Arpaio’s deputies arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants during the early 2000s—a campaign that involved systemic racial profiling of Latinx people and violated the Constitution and federal law, according to findings the Justice Department released in 2011.

Despite those concerns, I always believed that I could find a way to go to college when the time came. I did well academically. In high school, I worked hard, staying after school and spending long nights studying for exams and writing essays. I was accepted to Arizona State University on a full scholarship based on my grades and community involvement. 

My mother cried tears of joy when she opened ASU's acceptance letter with the scholarship news in December 2006. I would be the first in the family to have a college degree. 

The following year, in January 2007, my mother cried again over another letter from ASU—this time because of sadness. The letter said my tuition had tripled and I was no longer eligible for the scholarship. This was the result of Proposition 300, a state statute voters had recently approved that prohibits people who are not U.S. citizens or who lack legal residential status from receiving in-state college tuition or publicly funded financial aid.

“I felt like giving up, but I could never do that to my mom. Because of her sacrifices, I had all these opportunities, and I was not going to let them go to waste.”

Jose Patiño

VP of Education and External Affairs, Aliento

Phoenix '14

I told her, with tears in my eyes, that I would figure it out. If she believed in me, there was nothing I couldn't accomplish. She just replied, “Te amo, mijo.” I love you, son.

I had no clue what I was going to do.

I felt that all of my hard work as a student was for nothing. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter if I had taken honors classes. I felt hopeless. All the sacrifices my parents made were for naught. 

I asked my teachers, advisors, principal, college reps, nonprofits, and friends for help, and no one knew how to support me. I felt like giving up, but I could never do that to my mom. Because of her sacrifices, I had all these opportunities, and I was not going to let them go to waste. The more I asked, the more I found out that there were thousands of students in similar situations—and that’s just in Arizona. Researchers estimate that about 2% of students—around 427,000 people—enrolled at institutions of higher learning in the U.S. are undocumented. That’s a fraction of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are 18 to 24 years old, according to the Migration Policy Institute. 

In May 2007, I was one of hundreds of these young people who made our voices heard during a march for tuition equity that was organized by Arizona Rep. Ben Miranda, a Democrat. We dressed in caps and gowns and marched from the Arizona State Fairgrounds to the state capitol asking for support. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just knew we needed to do something. 

Meanwhile, after months of asking around, one of my friends shared a phone number for information about a potential scholarship. She said some wealthy individuals heard about the march, and they wanted us to go to college. They created a scholarship for us. I met with the advisors at ASU. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones to be chosen for the scholarship. Many of my peers who were just as deserving did not have this opportunity. It all felt very unfair.

I studied mechanical engineering at ASU, and then I joined Teach For America. I taught high school math in Arizona and, like me, some of my students were undocumented and DACAmented—otherwise known as Dreamers. 

I remember how the light faded from their eyes when I would tell them they did not qualify for in-state tuition or scholarships. The experience took me back to when a teacher told me, “I am sorry, Jose, but you are not eligible. It's not your fault. It’s the law, and you can’t do anything to change it.”

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Each year, more than 2,000 Dreamers graduate from Arizona high schools. These young people are navigating an uncertain world, and with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they haven’t had a normal day in more than two years. It’s no wonder anxiety and depression are on the rise for undocumented and DACAmented youths. At a critical time in their lives, they are told that they don’t belong in the only country they know. 

In many ways, undocumented Generation Z youth—those born after 1996—have a rougher road ahead than previous generations. Due to myriad requirements, including how long they’ve been in the country, some may not be eligible for the DACA program or the latest version of the DREAM Act, which requires they be in the country for at least four years and has been making the rounds in the House and Senate for 20-plus years. My familiarity with these programs comes not just from my own experience, but also through my advocacy work with Aliento, an organization I co-lead that serves undocumented, DACA, and mixed immigration status families to transform trauma into hope and action. 

The young people I speak with through Aliento often tell me that it's not fair. They have worked hard, yet they are never enough. They ask, why keep working if it won't matter? They say it feels like the world is closing in on them. 

Nineteen states have provisions for in-state tuition for students who are undocumented. But in Arizona, as well as Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri, students who are undocumented are ineligible for in-state college tuition rates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama and South Carolina took the policy a step further, prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling at any public institution of higher education. 

Arizona can do better for its students. Dreamers are Arizona students. In-state tuition for Dreamers is a question of fairness. Many Dreamers had no choice in coming to this country, and they have done everything in their power to do well in school. Arizona has a golden opportunity to increase postsecondary degree completion, provide opportunities to marginalized communities, and provide hope for immigrants who love the state. 

Last year, thanks to years of advocacy by students, educators, business and faith leaders aligned with Aliento, the state legislature passed SCR 1044 with bipartisan support. The bill, which will be on the ballot in November, would essentially reverse Proposition 300 to provide tuition equity for Arizona students who are undocumented or DACAmented. 

I have lived in the United States for more than 27 years. I learned to read and write, and how to ride a bicycle here. I taught teenagers math and helped prepare them for college. Everything I am today is because of the opportunities I have had in this great country. And yet I can’t vote; none of the thousands of Dreamers like me can vote. But hope remains with the residents of Arizona: they can remove a key obstacle that unlocks the American dream that we, too, deserve to achieve. They can remove a tuition barrier in higher education that would allow the sun to truly shine on all students in America.

Jose Patiño's graduation from Arizona State University. Courtesy of Jose Patiño

The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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