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Life without papers getting less onerous

For immigrants, more opportunities for education, work

Durango High School senior Alex Rodriguez works at a fast-food restaurant and has a weekly radio show on KDUR on Thursday nights featuring regional Mexican music. He has met the criteria to avoid deportation under new federal rules. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Durango High School senior Alex Rodriguez works at a fast-food restaurant and has a weekly radio show on KDUR on Thursday nights featuring regional Mexican music. He has met the criteria to avoid deportation under new federal rules.

The approval Friday of legislation to allow undocumented students in Colorado to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities signals a new dawn for thousands of young people in the state.

All that Colorado ASSET (Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow) lacks to become law is the signature of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports the bill.

Gerardo Xahuentitla, who was battered so badly by out-of-state tuition that he dropped out of Fort Lewis College after accumulating 2½ years of credits, was all smiles Friday.

“I plan to go back to college,” said Xahuentitla, 25, who was born in Tlaxcala state in Mexico. When he arrived in the United States with his parents in 2002, he was enrolled at Durango High School in a class for youngsters with limited English.

He applied himself – he was particularly good at math – and graduated in 2005.

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is not a matter of pennies. At FLC, non-Colorado residents pay $16,072 a year, while residents pay $5,232. Native Americans have their tuition waived.

Colorado ASSET is one of three efforts to help resolve the fate of students brought to the United States as minors by their parents. The other plans are the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, aimed at giving undocumented students who meet certain criteria a chance to earn legal status, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects eligible students against deportation for two years while they register with the Social Security Administration and find work.

In addition to those measures are the ongoing talks by the “Gang of 8” senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who are trying to find consensus on overall immigration reform. Bennet is a cosponsor of the DREAM Act.

“It’s the most productive set of conversations I’ve had since I’ve been here (in the Senate),” Bennet said Thursday in a telephone interview, speaking of the work of the gang’s four Democrats and four Republicans. “I have to give credit to senators (Marco) Rubio and (John) McCain for moving the matter along.”

Bennet thinks legislation could be introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee by early spring.

The package of programs could lead to the most significant immigration reform in a generation, since the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act that, among other things, legalized the residency of about 3 million people.

“I can’t go back to Mexico,” said Durango resident Fernando Mendoza, 23, who arrived in the country at age 6 with his mother from Guadalajara. “There’s nothing there for me any more.

“We were pretty poor,” said Mendoza said. “My father drove a taxi and my mother made leather wallets to sell.”

Mendoza could typify the young undocumented residents in La Plata County – or elsewhere. They’re high school- and college-aged. They work, go to school or do both. They network socially. They speak English without an accent.

But they have a secret often shared only within a tight circle – they came to the United States, in most cases, without documentation. As they enter their teen years, life becomes crimped because they can’t legally get a Social Security number to work or get a driver’s license. If they reach adulthood, deportation is the penalty they pay if found out.

Immigrant students should have no concern about prying questions in Durango School District 9-R, said Amy Kendziorski, director of student services. The business of schools is education, she said.

“We don’t care about immigration status at all,” Kendziorski said. “We want all kids to be treated in a fair and in a just way. We want them to be involved in school and maximizing learning. We don’t collect data on immigration status, legal or not.”

Compañeros/Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center stands ready to help, said director Nicole Mosher.

“We’re the only free option for help in the application process,” Mosher said. “In fact, we get requests for help on non-immigration issues, including discrimination.”

Mendoza, a 2007 graduate of Durango High School, was accepted at FLC, but, overwhelmed by the cost, he didn’t enroll. He has drifted since, biding his time as a volunteer at nonprofits.

“I’d like to get a degree in sociology, maybe with a minor in business,” Mendoza said. “Ultimately, I’d like to have my own nonprofit that would focus on immigrant and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) rights.”

He’s a candidate for deferred action.

“Deferred action is only limited protection against deportation,” said Beth Padilla, an immigration attorney in Durango. “It’s not law, and it’s not a barrier against deportation if they break the law. Deferred action could be revoked and the person deported.”

Even if DACA applicants qualify in every other respect, the arrival date to qualify – on or before June 15, 2007 – is unbending. No exceptions.

The inflexibility can be heartbreaking, said B. Kent Felty, an immigration lawyer in Littleton.

“There’s a young man in Durango who could be the poster child for this program,” Felty said. “He’s a fine person, a Durango High School graduate with good grades and a hard worker with a clean record.”

The hitch is that he arrived in the country five weeks after the Obama deadline, Felty said. The proof is the tourist visa he was issued.

“There’s absolutely nothing I can do for him,” Felty said. “If he married an American citizen, he wouldn’t have to leave the country to get residency – as a person who arrives illegally does.”

The young man, who turned 19 on Friday, appears to take the situation with equanimity.

“My life is here, and I’d like to go to college,” he said. “But if I have to go, there’s nothing I can do.”

Under DREAM Act guidelines, which require arrival in the U.S. at age 15 or younger, he could qualify for residency.

A Friday story in California’s Oakland Tribune newspaper said that more than 20,000 potential college students are seeking financial aid for the first time under the state’s Dream Act laws. The state will need $65 million a year by 2016-17 to provide benefits for Dream Act and DACA students, the story said.

Alex Rodriguez, 18, is set. Scheduled to graduate from DHS in May, he has received DACA status. He arrived in the U.S. at age 6, then alternated one-year stays in Leadville and Frisco with returns to Mexico before the family settled in Durango, where he began fifth grade.

“I definitely plan to go to college,” Rodriguez said. “I’m interested in architecture, diesel mechanics and business administration.”

Xahuentitla, a 2005 graduate of DHS, said he was slowed by the language barrier at first, but now speaks fluently.

He provides free help with income tax at the Compañeros office in Durango.

He has applied for DACA.

“I’m not sure what I’d like to do,” he said. “Teaching is one obvious career.”

Xahuentitla said some undocumented residents hesitate to talk about their migratory status.

“There’s always a little fear, but it’s not real serious,” he said. “I had a pretty good experience.”

daler@durangoherald.com

Gerardo Xahuentitla works as a DJ during Salsa Night on Thursday evening at the Starlight Lounge. Some undocumented students are hesitant to talk about their private life, he said, but others have been vocal. “There were Dreamers (referring to the Dream Act) coming out, putting a face on the movement,” he said. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Gerardo Xahuentitla works as a DJ during Salsa Night on Thursday evening at the Starlight Lounge. Some undocumented students are hesitant to talk about their private life, he said, but others have been vocal. “There were Dreamers (referring to the Dream Act) coming out, putting a face on the movement,” he said.