By Tony Parra
Portales residents are using their forces and efforts to try to give undocumented area students an opportunity for a higher education.
The residents believe they should have a chance at a future like any United States citizen. Portales city officials, Somos Un Pueblo Unido (We Are a Town United) Organization members and Portales high school students met on Thursday at the Portales High School auditorium to discuss legislation, which if approved, would allow for undocumented high school students to receive financial aid in New Mexico.
They are supporting a proposal in the 2005 New Mexico legislation which would make an affordable college education accessible to students regardless of immigration status.
Sen. Cynthia Nava (D, Dona Ana County) proposed a bill that would ensure immigrant students, regardless of immigrant status, have access in-state tuition, financial aid and scholarships.
Trina Valdez, Director of Federal Programs for Portales schools, said between 10 to 15 Portales High School seniors would have qualified for the program if it was already in place. Valdez said the impact is much larger in the Portales Schools system because there are many undocumented students in the other grades.
“I’ve had a lot of students disheartened when they get to the 10th or 11th grade,” Valdez said. “They want to go to college, but they realize they can’t go. There’s a glass ceiling for them.”
Valdez said she even saw parents of undocumented students in the third grade attend the workshop on Thursday. Valdez said many of the 112 migrant students are illegal immigrants. According to Valdez, a migrant student is defined as a student whose parents have moved to the district for the purpose of working and will have been in the district less than three years.
“I’m in favor of providing an opportunity for all students,” Valdez said. “This is an opportunity to access an American dream.”
Many immigrant students who graduate from New Mexico high schools, but do not have a social security number or foreign student visas, are significantly restricted in pursuing a college education because they are charged out-of-state tuition and have no access to financial aid.
Nancy Varelas, who works at the office of Hispanic Affairs for Eastern New Mexico University and is a student advisor for student affairs, said she’s heard opposition saying the legislation is costing taxpayers more money and that these students should get a social security number if they want to go to school.
“Illegal immigrants are asked to pay taxes, too,” Varelas said. “Illegal immigrants buy groceries and products from the community. It’s not their (children) fault they have been here all of their lives. They can’t go back to Mexico after they have graduated. They were raised in our system.”
She said she’s heard opposition say the move will allow for students to receive funding through the lottery scholarship program and undocumented students should not have a right to the program.
“I’m not asked for my social security number when I purchase a lottery ticket,” Varelas said. “Illegal immigrants buy lottery tickets, too. They contribute to the fund.”
Geni Flores, an ENMU bilingual instructor, said there is will be an even greater impact in the cities and towns in the southern part of New Mexico, such as Las Cruces, Jal and Hobbs.
“It is a great benefit for the kids,” Flores said. “They (students) have a reason to complete their high school education. Right now there is nothing for them after they graduate high school. They can’t go to college and they can’t get a job.”
Flores said the United States is not using all of its resources. She said this is a way to educate people in the United States instead of seeking workers overseas.
“It’s a great way of empowering the people,” Flores said.
Valdez said there is a myth that if the proposal is approved, it will take lottery ticket scholarship money from citizens and permanent residents. Valdez said that’s simply not true and that Gov. Bill Richardson said there is a surplus in the lottery scholarship fund. She said this is money going unused.
Mayor Orlando Ortega has also stated that the proposal is a great opportunity for the Portales students who would be affected and for the community. He said illegal immigrants are upstanding citizens and important to a community which heavily depends on its agricultural base.