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Between state and national policy, undocumented students brace for uncertain future

Areli Muñoz Reyes, who is enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, attends St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Areli Muñoz Reyes, who is enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, attends St. Louis Community College at Forest Park."

For the past two years Missouri legislators in Jefferson City have sent a strong message to undocumented students in the region: you can go to college in Missouri, but we won’t make it easy.

That's what it looks like, at least, to Areli Muñoz Reyes a student  St. Louis Community College at Forest Park who started in the fall of 2015. Already worried about what will happen to undocumented students under the administration of Donald Trump, she’s also facing steep tuition rates without the state-funded scholarship she worked hard for.

Missouri Legislators

Missouri’s A+ Scholarship promises high school students across the state to cover the cost of community college for two years. During her time at University City High School, Reyes met all the requirements and earned the scholarship based on her almost perfect attendance record, dozens of volunteer hours spent tutoring with other students and a strong GPA.

But after just one semester in community college, she was shocked to learn from the school’s financial aid office that she would no longer receive the free tuition she had worked for throughout high school.

That was because of a Senate measure passed by the Missouri legislature in 2015 that year required A+ scholarship recipients to be citizens or legal permanent residents. Born in Mexico, Reyes is an undocumented student who has been in St. Louis since third grade and went to the same public schools as her citizen peers.

Losing her scholarship was the first blow.

“Then, they were like, oh, we are also charging out-of-state tuition,” Reyes said.

She saw the cost of her classes jump from zero to more than double what other St. Louis County residents pay. That was because of a second measure: new language inserted into the preamble to the state’s higher education budget bill for 2015. It told public colleges that they must charge undocumented students the highest rate of tuition and withhold state funded scholarships. Colleges that defied those rules would risk losing their public funding.  

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, the Republican chair of the budget committee, crafted the language in the bill. Hearing that some public colleges were offering students tuition based on where they lived, rather than their immigration status, struck him as unfair.

What is “fair”?

“In some cases that could mean that a student living in St. Louis County who was in the country illegally would be receiving a lower rate of tuition than a Missouri citizen who didn’t live in the region surrounding St. Louis Community College,” explained Fitzpatrick  of Shell Knob.

It was an issue of conscience, said Fitzpatrick, who also supported the change to the A+ Scholarship program.

“To me," he said, "it wouldn’t be right to reward illegal immigration by saying, 'Hey, parents, if you want to bring your kids to Missouri illegally, not only will we give them the benefit of a free public education, but we will charge them less than other citizens who don’t live in Missouri.'”

Fitzpatrick said the budget doesn’t keep undocumented immigrants from going to college. But he said he can’t support a policy position that uses state funds to treat them the same or better than citizens.

Felipe Martinez, the immigrant student advisor at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, couldn’t agree less.

“In this situation, it doesn’t matter how much good an individual does. Iit comes down to one question: where were you born?” Martinez said.

Where a person is born shouldn’t determine their access to higher education he said.

“Students are equally fed the same messages that if you work hard, you’ll be successful,” Martinez said. “They do that for K-12, and then they’re told, ‘All right, we’re all going to college — oh, but not you.’ If we’re supportive of people for a time, we have to be supportive of them always.”

Students are leaving Missouri

Because undocumented students haven’t been able to find that support in Missouri, Martinez said many of the students he works with are leaving the state.

That’s a major problem for Missouri and its economy, said Karissa Anderson, head of policy research for the Scholarship Foundation.

"We’re missing out on people that are going into jobs that we need, and we know that Missouri is suffering from population loss,” Anderson said. “So no matter if you view it from a business perspective, from a moral perspective, it doesn’t make sense on any sort of level to price these students out of college.”

But for many undocumented students, leaving is not an option. Many come from mixed-status homes, where their contributions are critical to the whole family.

Reyes and her relatives haven’t decided if they’ll stay. But in the meantime, she’s focusing on her classes.

“I want a better future for myself,” Reyes said. “I want a better future to give back to my family because they worked so hard to get where I am now, I’m never going to give up on my education even if they put up these barriers, I’m never going to give up.”  

Even so, it won’t be easy. Missouri legislators will have to pass a higher education budget in May. Kansas City Democrat state Rep. Judy Morgan has introduced the Missouri Tuition Equity Act, which would penalize public colleges for basing tuition on immigration status. If passed, it would make Fitzpatrick's budget bill language against the law. But absent any action on that bill, Fitzpatrick has said as long as he’s in office, he plans to keep the language that limits in-state tuition and state scholarships to citizens.

Wary of Trump

Aside from the obstacles undocumented students face on the state level, on the morning of the inauguration, young, undocumented immigrants and their allies still have a lot of questions for President Donald Trump. Topping their concerns is what will happen to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Enacted by President Barack Obama through executive order in 2012, it offers those who qualify temporary reprieve from deportation, a work permit, a Social Security number and endless chances for renewal.

Trump campaigned on promises to end the program, but hasn’t made clear what closing it out would mean.

“The word that we use is uncertainty because we’re in his hands,” said Brayan Mejia, a DACA recipient who lives in southern Illinois. “All I can do is try to work as hard as I can to be a little bit more prepared, if he decides to end it and just see what happens next. It’s hard to prepare for something like that.”

Trump’s administration could do anything from letting the measure expire, to using the registry of DACA recipients to deport them and their families, St. Louis immigration attorney Nicole Cortés said.   

Missouri is home to almost 4,000 DACA holders, including Reyes, the student at St. Louis Community College.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s even possible to deport that many people right away," Reyes said. "But if he does take DACA away, we’re back to square one."

Cortés and other local advocates expect Trump to act soon after taking office.

“I don’t know that anyone has a good idea of how to advise people to prepare,” said Cortés, co-director of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project. “Right now it’s a lot of just curling up and kind of bracing and hoping that the storm passes.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn

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