Ana Hernandez has always had big dreams.
In the last week, though, she has seen those dreams nearly crushed by three words inserted into a Missouri budget bill and then revived — at least for a semester — by Kansas City philanthropists.
Now several groups advocating for immigrants in Missouri are gearing up to change the law’s language next year so college students like Hernandez can afford to get their degrees in Missouri.
Hernandez, 21, is a “Dreamer,” a term derived from the failed Dream Act that would have given qualified undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as young children a pathway to citizenship. Since her teens, Hernandez has wanted to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s business school.
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But after she graduated from Bishop Ward High School with a 4.0 GPA, she learned that hope might be out of reach.
It didn’t matter that Hernandez was a Kauffman Scholar, a program that supports low-income, urban students through middle and high school and then pays their tuition and some room and board for up to five years of college.
Kauffman college scholarships are paid only to students who have a Social Security number.
“I didn’t have that little piece of paper. Without it, Kauffman couldn’t help me pay for school,” said Hernandez, of Kansas City, Kan.
On top of that, UMKC at the time did not enroll undocumented students. So Hernandez enrolled at Kansas City Kansas Community College in 2012.
Then President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allows certain undocumented young people to stay in the country temporarily without threat of deportation, but it does not create a path to citizenship.
For Hernandez, DACA meant she could get a Social Security number and Kauffman scholarship money. Even more exciting, she said, UMKC began enrolling DACA students at the in-state tuition rate available to other metro area students.
Everything was great until last week, just over a month before she was to start her senior year at UMKC, when Hernandez and other DACA students learned their tuition for the fall semester would more than double.
Those three words in the Missouri budget bill had thrown Dreamers’ college hopes into question.
The bill’s preamble says schools getting state money must charge students with “unlawful immigration status” the tuition rate that international students pay. It also bars the schools from giving state-funded scholarships to those students.
DACA students do not have lawful immigration status.
Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates estimates that more than 1,200 individuals with DACA credentials live in Missouri, but not all of them are college students. Two are enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia. About 34 are at UMKC.
One of the UMKC students is Alejandra, 21, of Independence. She asked that her last name not be used to protect family members.
She was riding around Kansas City in a car with friends on July 16 when she heard from UMKC about the sudden tuition hike.
“I cried. I couldn’t help it,” said Alejandra, who had spent more than a year bouncing from community college to community college, trying to get the best education her undocumented status would allow.
Alejandra, who is working jobs in retail and a restaurant this summer, was paying nearly $5,000 for 15 credit hours at UMKC. The legislative change would have pushed her tuition to more than $14,000.
“UMKC was the school I wanted to go to,” she said. “When I told my mother about the higher tuition, she said I probably would not be able to go to school for this semester, that I would have to save for it. I was already thinking I would get another job.”
The three words were added to the budget bill by Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican, to prohibit DACA students from receiving in-state tuition or state-funded scholarships, including the A+ program.
“I was not trying to ban them from attending college,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t want their education to be subsidized by Missouri taxpayers.”
But on Thursday, the Missouri Department of Higher Education said Fitzpatrick’s budget bill language “was not binding” and would not prevent the department from awarding A+ scholarships to all qualified students.
It’s the colleges, though, that decide which students pay in-state tuition. And university officials have said they will abide by the budget bill language.
Fitzpatrick said that at the time he added the limiting language, he did not know any Missouri colleges had enrolled DACA students at an in-state tuition rate.
“My intent was not to change the rules on someone already in the system,” he said. If he had known, he said, he would have included language to make it clear that no new DACA students would receive in-state rates.
Students like Juan Sanchez, who was 2 when his undocumented parents emigrated with him from Mexico. This spring, Sanchez, who has lived in Kansas for 12 years, graduated with honors from Kansas City Kansas Community College with his mind set on starting at UMKC in the fall.
“I want to do entrepreneurship and international marketing,” said Sanchez, who has been working two jobs so he could afford in-state tuition at UMKC. “I kind of had it all planned out, and I know I could do the payments for a full-time, in-state student.”
The good news is UMKC was able to secure enough money from private donors to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition charges for all the DACA students enrolled at the university this fall, including 20 newly admitted students like Sanchez.
But that money only accounts for one semester.
Area groups that support Dreamers are planning a gathering in Kansas City to make sure all the DACA students have cleared up disruptions in their college plans. Representatives from Kansas colleges and universities that enroll DACA students at in-state tuition rates will attend.
A GoFundMe.com account was established to raise money to help students pay for college, and an online petition campaign is being organized “to pressure Gov. Nixon to take a strong stance” against the budget bill language, said Jessica Piedra, an immigration attorney and advocate with the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance.
“These students are lawfully present in the country and they are state residents, so they should be treated like every other resident of the state,” said Vanessa Crawford Aragón, executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, at least 20 states, including Kansas, allow DACA students to pay in-state tuition.
“Doing what Missouri is doing makes college less accessible to DACA students, and it is out of the mainstream,” Aragón said.