"This Is My Home" 

An undocumented Richmond teenager shares her higher education dreams.

click to enlarge news04_undocumented_teen.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Legislation under consideration in the General Assembly would allow students who are undocumented but protected from deportation to qualify for in-state tuition rates at Virginia public colleges and universities. Sen. Donald McEachin says about 7,000 young people could directly benefit. One of them, Yanet, tells her story to Style Weekly.

"I'm 18. My family is originally from Puebla, Mexico. I was 8 years old when my parents brought me here. My dad was already here in the USA, and he went back to Puebla, I guess to see how we were, and he decided to bring my mother, sister and me.

"My sister is also undocumented. She was 4 when we came, so she basically grew up here. She's 15 now. She just graduated from eighth grade and she was, like, number one in her school.

"My mother had an aunt in Cali, and so we went there for four months and then my dad said, "It's time to go to Virginia." I was, like, in third grade. I cried because I didn't know any English and I didn't have any friends or anything. Back then, 2003 going on 2004, there wasn't a lot of Hispanic students in Henrico. Now there is, but then there was, like, three in my third-grade class at Skipworth [Elementary]. I met two amazing teachers — Ms. Martin and Ms. Sohn — and they basically taught me everything. They brought me books and because of them I was able to learn English quickly, which was good because my dad, he has this mentality of, "You have a month to learn English."

"I went to Tucker for high school and, honestly, it was really rough and I wasn't really thinking about the future. But when I was a freshman, I was introduced to this program, the Hispanic Youth Symposium. We went to Virginia State University for four days and three nights and I met Hispanic professionals and other kids like me. It opened my eyes and I was, like, education is really what I need. I started doing all these clubs like yearbook and taking AP classes. I thought everything would be set, but it wasn't.

"To tell you honestly, I didn't know not having documents was going to make everything so hard. The realization hit me in my junior year. My friends were applying for all these scholarships and aid, and I couldn't because I don't have a Social Security number.

"I didn't have a Plan B. When I went to school, I didn't think, "Oh, I'm undocumented, I'm not going to be able to do this." I applied to college like everyone else. I got accepted at Sweet Briar College, at Mary Baldwin College and Chowan University. I keep all my letters in a folder. Some of them gave me scholarships, but I still couldn't afford it.

"I'm at J. Sargeant [Reynolds Community College] now. I would have to pay $4,000 for 12 credits for out-of-state tuition. I don't have $4,000, so I pay $2,000 for two classes. Honestly, my parents pay most of it. My dad works in landscaping and my mom cleans houses. I hope to get my associate's degree in social science and transfer to a four-year college. I don't know if I can, but that's my dream.

"I'm in the process of trying to get permission to stay here through deferred action. They tell me I have hope, that I will get it because I'm a student and I was 8 years old when I came. I didn't say, "Oh, I'm going to cross the border." That was my parents' choice. And now I don't see myself going back because I haven't been there for 10 years. If they gave us an opportunity to continue our dream here, then I am going to benefit Virginia and also the nation. This is my home. This is where I'm going to stay."

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About the Legislation

The proposed legislation would allow students living here illegally but granted protection from deportation to qualify for resident college tuition rates. The students must have attended local public or private schools for at least three years and have graduated. They also must show proof that one or more parent or legal guardian has been paying state taxes for at least three years before college enrollment.

Many of the students who would be affected were children when their parents brought them to the United States. For now they pay tuition rates roughly three times more than for residents. Critics say such legislation rewards lawbreakers.

This is at least the third time the General Assembly has taken up legislation that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students. Senate Bill 249, sponsored by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, also requires students to prove they've received temporary protection from prosecution that could result in deportation, known as "deferred action for childhood arrivals."

"I'm hoping over the course of the past year the legislature has been educated a little bit more on this bill," McEachin says. "The bill is really one of fundamental fairness. If you look at the requirements from a taxpayer's perspective, it means [undocumented immigrants] have been contributing to our economy and the welfare of our Commonwealth. They ought to be treated like any other taxpayer.

"It doesn't mean they get a free ride. They still have to get admitted, they still have to meet those standards."

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