State News

Undocumented students face challenges without eligibility for in-state tuition

Wisconsin currently does not offer in-state tuition eligibility to undocumented students, which makes access to higher education a much more difficult challenge.

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UW-Madison undergraduate Selina Armenta has lived in Wisconsin for most of her life, moving with family from Mexico during her childhood. She has experienced frigid midwest winters, Packers football and the typical challenges of life as an American teenager.

But Armenta is not from Wisconsin, at least not in the eyes of the state. Her family is undocumented, and undocumented students are ineligible for in-state tuition at any Wisconsin public universities, despite otherwise meeting residency requirements.

Laura P. Minero, an undocumented immigrant and doctoral student in clinical psychology at UW-Madison, said this is not surprising.

“In comparison to other states, I think Wisconsin does very little to support undocumented students,” Minero said. “Undocumented students here navigate K-12 without a problem, like in any other state. But they face this big roadblock when they move on to college.”

The state briefly provided in-state tuition to undocumented students after then-Gov. Jim Doyle approved the action in 2009. The policy was short-lived, however, as Gov. Scott Walker ended it in 2011.

"Individuals who do not reside in our state legally should not be getting taxpayer subsidized tuition,” a spokesperson for Walker said in 2011.

While it was unclear how much the program cost the state, a 2011 report by the Wisconsin State Journal found that only 100 students used the reduced tuition rate at UW System schools. And for students who do need the program, its absence can be especially burdensome.

“There was no way I was going to be able to come up with the $30,000 to pay for this school,” undergraduate student Jazmin Vargas said. “It was very stressful on my parents because our income is so low.”

Activists and Democratic lawmakers lobbied to reinstitute the policy in 2014 under a bill authored by state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa. Voices de la Frontera and Youth Empowered in the Struggle, both Milwaukee-based advocacy groups, organized more than 100 students to march from the Capitol to UW-Madison to support the bill.

“They want to pay in-state tuition if they've lived here for three years and graduated from one of our Wisconsin high schools,” Zamarripa said of the students on the Assembly floor. “They want a fair shot, not a free ride.”

If the law is changed, Wisconsin would join 16 other states who offer undocumented students resident tuition. Six states also offer undocumented students access to financial aid, a boost for young people who may not have a Social Security number to apply for federal financial aid or who are at a disadvantage for receiving private loans.

Minero, a California native, said her home state is at the forefront of offering resources for undocumented students.

The California DREAM Act, which took effect in 2013, allows undocumented students to apply for state-level grant programs, and undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition. All University of California System schools also provide access to legal advocacy to better inform undocumented students of their options under the law.

“That’s really changed the landscape in terms of how far people can go,” Minero said.

In areas where state resources may be lacking, students and administrators are stepping in to fill the void. Joe Maldonado, Student Services Coordinator at UW-Madison, is part of a task force attempting to make the campus more supportive of undocumented students.

“Say if there was a student that needed help navigating the system, we could sort of wrap our arms around them and help them figure it out,” Maldonado said.

One project the task force has been working on is to create resources for undocumented students, including a webpage which will be attached to the Multicultural Student Center’s website.

However, the importance of in-state tuition and financial aid programs is not lost on Maldonado, who said his group was working to push university administration and the state on those issues; he acknowledged the current political climate could pose some barriers.

“Within the UW System, different campuses make different decisions on what they’ll do, and I think because our campus, as the flagship, is under such harsh scrutiny from the state, the administration has decided we will follow the letter of the law,” Maldonado said. “We want any student to come in and have some sort of a pathway to make college more doable for them.”

While bringing back in-state tuition may be difficult given the opposition of Walker and the Republican-controlled state Legislature, Minero said it would be a much needed step in the right direction.

“It would be ideal if that could exist once again,” Minero said. “That would open up the doors for these people who are highly intelligent, very civically engaged and give back to their communities and are just here to make a difference … People don’t really have a good reason for why we can’t have this.”

Beyond the access to higher education in-state tuition can help provide, Armenta says it is part of a larger issue: the lack of recognition for undocumented students.

“I feel like there is a lot more that could be done [by UW-Madison] for undocumented students,” Armenta said. “I kind of get the feeling that people think we’re not here, and we are.”

(The video was produced and edited by Katie Piel and Lisa Milter)

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