Juan crossed the border from Mexico with his uncle when he was 13 years old. Now graduated from Eagle Point High School, Juan’s lack of citizenship keeps him from getting a job, a driver’s license or an affordable college education. - Bob Pennell

Graduates with no future

When Juan was 2 years old, his parents left him with his grandmother in the beach town of Acapulco, Mexico, and crossed the U.S. border to pursue a new life in Oregon.

His parents worked manual jobs in construction and agriculture in Jackson County — anything that didn't require proof of citizenship, said Juan, who shared his story on the condition that his last name be withheld. They had two more children. Both were born on U.S. soil and won the birthright of citizenship.

Juan came to Oregon at age 13 with his uncle, hopping a truck to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. By that time he had forgotten his parents' faces, except for a few photographs, and was yearning to reunite with them and meet his brother and sister.

After settling in Oregon with his family, he attended McLoughlin Middle School, then graduated from Eagle Point High School with hopes of studying to become an attorney. Yet, unlike his siblings, Juan can't access in-state tuition at local universities, receive federal financial aid or obtain an Oregon driver's license. Instead, he works illegally earning minimum wage at temporary agriculture jobs and lives in fear of being caught and deported.

"It's not his fault, and the government treats him like he did something wrong," said Juan's girlfriend, Amber, who has written to federal lawmakers about Juan's story.

Nationally, about 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high school each year. They are barred from working legally and often are unable to afford college with out-of-state tuition, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group based in Washington, D.C.

Since 2000, the Dream Act has sought to change their fates, to give them a legal avenue to citizenship by earning a postsecondary diploma or serving in the military.

"If the Dream Act passed, I would go back to college," said Juan, who took a few classes at Rogue Community College after high school.

The federal bill and legislation in Oregon to give illegal immigrants who graduate from Oregon high schools in-state tuition have been defeated year after year.

Juan and others who are in the same situation are hopeful the outcome will be different this year, in part because President Barack Obama has expressed support for the Dream Act.

Authored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-California, the bill is expected to be filed again this year.

"I don't have a timeline yet, except to say it'll be soon," said a spokesperson in Berman's office in Washington, D.C.

While some opponents acknowledge that illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children are innocent, they say passing the Dream Act would provide yet another incentive for illegal immigration.

"In any other situation, there are inevitably consequences for breaking the law," said Ira Mehlman, a Seattle spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Here, somehow, it becomes everyone else's responsibility."

School employees who work with some of these students, however, say it's unfair to penalize them, and they worry that the students' potential will be wasted because of a legal quagmire.

Oregon House Bill 2939, now pending in the House Education Committee, would give in-state tuition to students who graduated from an Oregon high school and attended an Oregon high school for at least three years prior to graduation, regardless of documentation.

State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, whose father immigrated legally from Mexico, said while he supports providing an avenue to citizenship for undocumented migrants who were brought to the United States as children, he opposes giving privileges to illegal immigrants.

"That means an Afghanistan or Iraq war veteran who was raised in Idaho would pay more (in Oregon) than someone who is illegal," Esquivel said. "I don't think that's fair."

Proponents of the bill point out that the vast difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition can make or break a would-be college student.

"All Oregon high school graduates should be treated the same," said Tom Hojem, legislative director for the Oregon Student Association. "These are students who grew up here, they went to Oregon high schools, almost without any say. They have been brought to Oregon, and we want to make sure they become fully productive Oregonians."

Southern Oregon University's in-state students this year paid $1,906 per term for 15 credits, including fees. Out-of-state students paid more than three times as much: $6,088. Eastern Oregon University is the only school in the Oregon University System that charges in-state tuition for all students, regardless of residency, in hopes of increasing enrollment. Other Oregon universities require a Social Security number to qualify for in-state tuition.

It's easier for illegal immigrants at Rogue Community College, where a student needs only to give a verbal statement confirming at least three months' Oregon residency to access in-state tuition. In-state is about $68 per credit compared to $83 for out-of-state and $227 for international.

Federal financial aid is unavailable to illegal immigrants, and even some private scholarships require government-issued identification.

There are a few exceptions, such as the Chamber Latino Network Scholarship through the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

Ana, a senior at a Jackson County high school who spoke on condition of anonymity, came to Oregon illegally at age 13 with her parents and sisters. On the cusp of graduating, she hopes to go to the University of Oregon to study business administration, but won't be able to afford the tuition as long as she doesn't have access to in-state rates.

"I have had obstacles to overcome, but this is the hardest," Ana said. "I am about to graduate, but what then?"

Sandra, who spoke on condition on anonymity, was valedictorian of her high school and salutatorian of her community college in the Portland area. She wants to go on to a four-year college but can't afford out-of-state tuition. She has lobbied state legislators for more than a year to pass House Bill 2939.

"I'd like to be a contributor to our society," said Sandra, a Mexican immigrant who was brought to the Portland area illegally as a 1-month-old infant. "I could be doing a lot more, but I'm kind of being priced out."

Illegal immigrants can't even obtain their GED without a government-issued identification card, said Phil Ortega, truancy officer at the Eagle Point School District. Ortega is looking into whether the school district can issue identification cards that would be accepted for the GED.

"A lot of the kids come at age 3 or 5 years old," Ortega said. "The kids are groomed in our schools. They are assimilated in all facets of school and life, and then, their options are limited."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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