Higher Education
7:57 am
Wed September 25, 2013

In-state Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants Begins in Oregon

Hugo Nicolas spoke to lawmakers during the legislative session on the tuition equity bill.
Credit Jacob Lewin

Classes begin next week at state universities around Oregon. This year Oregon becomes one of 15 states with a tuition equity program. That means some young undocumented immigrants will be paying in-state tuition rates rather than out-of-state rates that are three to
four times higher.
 

Hugo Nicolas’s dream came true just last Wednesday afternoon when he unlocked the mail box at his apartment complex,
 
Nicolas: “It’s a letter.  I’m gonna go ahead and open it......Dear Hugo, I am pleased to offer you admission to the University of Oregon for the fall
2013 term...”
 
Hugo, who’s from Salem, will be going to the U of O.  He is one of the first in the state to take advantage of the new tuition equity law.
Young undocumented immigrants who graduate from Oregon high schools can now pay in-state tuition for the first time if they show intent to become citizens.  A year ago, Hugo became part of the federal deferred action program under which some young immigrants can’t be deported. That also shows his intent to become a citizen.  But the five-hundred-dollars to enter the program wasn’t easy to find,
 
Nicolas: “The only way we could afford it—my parents worked minimum wage jobs—what they did was that they sold their car.”
 
Hugo is the kind of kid you’d expect to go to a four-year college. A police and fire cadet, three-point-six grade point average, ROTC  commander, he even won a high school essay contest.  But his parents brought him here from Veracruz, Mexico when he was 11.  In high school, he didn’t think he would be able to make it past community college.  U of O in-state tuition is eighty-five-hundred dollars, but for
Hugo it would have been over twenty-seven-thousand, the out-of-state rate.  Still, he never considered returning to Mexico,
 
Nicolas: “If I would’ve gone back to Mexico, it would have been like running away from my problems. When I was in high school, I realized how hard it was going to be for me to go to school or impossible.  I wanted to make sure that that was not going to be the case for me, but I could make it happen for people younger than me.”
 
This year tuition equity was one of the most controversial issues faced by the Oregon Legislature.  Representative Michael Dembrow championed the bill during the floor session, saying the state has already invested in these kids,
 
Dembrow:“Many have lived here virtually their entire lives.  They did not choose to come here.  We brought them here.  They have no other country
to go to, but they have plenty to offer this state.  Unfortunately they have become the collateral damage of this country’s immigration
debate.”
 
Backers predict that only 38 undocumented young people in Oregon will take advantage of the program this fall and next, so state costs
should be minimal.  But State Senator Doug Whitsett argued that those figures are not credible and costs will be significant,
 
Whitsett: “There are as many as 210-thousand undocumented aliens in the state of Oregon. This number of people is about equal to the entire
population of Eugene-Springfield. And colleagues, we are being asked to believe that a city the size of Eugene-Springfield would offer up
only 38 children to seven universities.”
 
Oregon University System Chancellor Melody Rose says that number should increase to one-hundred in two years time, but contends it’s
still an economic win for the state,
 
Rose: “Students who gain a college degree over the course of their life more than pay for that degree in their own income, in contributions to
the tax system and of course in avoiding social services that they might otherwise access.”
 
Rose says these students won’t be eligible for federal or state aid and eighty-five-hundred dollars is still a lot of money,
 
Rose: “Cost is a barrier to all low income students regardless of their documentation status.  Students in the United States are growing increasingly
price sensitive, so it shouldn’t surprise us that undocumented students on the low end of the economic spectrum should fine a real barrier
there.”
 
So even with in-state tuition, Hugo didn’t think he was going to a four-year school.  Then, this summer, he got a call from a mentor of his,
an Oregon judge,
 
Nicolas: “He asked to have dinner with my parents and ourselves and after that he and his wife said that they wanted to pay for my education.
The University of Oregon was way beyond my dreams but once he said that....you know, my dreams were on hold and now I have that
chance.”
 
Hugo plans to study economics and Chinese and maybe pursue a law degree.