Diploma in hand, Johnny Garcia walked off the stage at McGavock High School’s graduation and left behind a sparkling academic record. A 3.8 grade point average placed him in the top 10 percent of his senior class, earning him the title “distinguished scholar” from Metro.
“I tried my hardest in school,” Garcia, who graduated May 20, told The City Paper. “I want to make it so where my parents struggles and efforts some day pay off.”
But classroom success carried no meaning in his search to find affordable, in-state tuition to continue his education. Not in Tennessee.
Garcia, born in Mexico, arrived in the United States when he was 4. His residency in this country was unauthorized, however, and he became one of the estimated 70,000 undocumented students nationwide who graduate annually.
In Tennessee, undocumented students like him are not eligible for the state’s in-state tuition at public universities. Lacking this financial tool makes the cost of higher education three times higher, he said, a price tag out of reach for him and other immigrant students.
“It’s an investment that we’ve made and that the government has made to help go to K-12 education,” Garcia said. “And then when it comes to the end, that’s it. It’s like those 13 years were just a waste. We went through the school system, only to not be able to afford to go to college.”
Clad in cap and gown, Garcia was among a few dozen Metro students who held a rally at the Parthenon at Centennial Park hours before they took part in their respective graduation ceremonies. Their campaign is twofold. Undocumented students tied blue ribbons around their wrists as a pledge to continue their education — some way, some how. The second objective deals with state policy: Students hope to open in-state tuition to undocumented students.
Things managed to work out for Garcia, who discovered a financial incentive program 70 miles up the road at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where he plans to major in architecture. He will receive that school’s in-state tuition, available to students in designated nearby cities. He wishes Tennessee offered the same opportunity.
“We want the class of 2012 to be the last class to go through tuition inequality in Tennessee,” Garcia said. We’d like to change things for the future classes.”
The goal certainly seems a long shot in Tennessee, however, where the Republican-dominated state legislature doesn’t usually welcome immigrant causes. Causing angst among immigration activists during the most recent legislative session, for example, the General Assembly approved a measure that limits the number of foreign workers permitted at charter schools, a measure Gov. Bill Haslam allowed to pass without signing.
For now, no plans appear to be in the works to open in-state tuition to students whose residency is not authorized. Still, Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville said he would explore the issue.
“I’m told I have a lot of undocumented citizens in my district, many of whom are students,” Stewart said. “Some of these people have lived here for their entire young lives. I’m going to explore this issue with them during the offseason because in many cases, we have some very talented people being denied access to school.”
But the general mood on the issue among state legislators likely reflects the sentiments of Rep. Jim Gotto, a Nashville Republican, who called in-state tuition for undocumented students a “complex situation” that boils down to “fairness.”
“For the children of illegal immigrants, we have to remember their parents made the decision to come here illegally, which automatically places the student in the out-of-state category,” Gotto said. “In order to be fair to those families who legally came to this nation, it is likely that law is going to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.”
In all, 13 state legislatures have passed measures over the past decade that made in-state college tuition available to immigrant students, though Oklahoma later repealed its law. In certain states, Maryland for instance, there are pushes to enact similar legislation. Meanwhile, state lawmakers in Kansas have discussed following Oklahoma’s path, and overturning its in-state tuition law. Nationwide, the topic is a hot-button issue.
States that grant in-state tuition to undocumented workers include immigrant-concentrated Texas and California, as well as states such as Nebraska, Utah and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Such laws tend to grant in-state tuition at state universities to graduating undocumented students with at least two or three years of state residency.
Amelia Post, youth director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, an immigration advocacy organization that has helped launch the in-state tuition campaign, estimated more than 1,000 undocumented students graduate from Tennessee high schools each year. Numbers for Nashville are unclear, as Metro schools do not track the documentation of its students.
“There could be different paths to get that goal,” Post said of achieving “tuition equality” in Tennessee, stopping short of pledging that her group would try to mirror legislative endeavors in other states. For now, efforts seemed centered more on public awareness. “Right now, we’re just looking at how we can work together with a lot of people who care about this issue.”
Post pointed to Tennessee’s renewed focus on education and the education goals professed by politicians. “If we want to improve K-12 education, if we want to lower dropout rates, if we want more students going to college and completing college in Tennessee — in order to meet those really important goals, then we need tuition equality.”
Supporters of in-state tuition for undocumented workers might have an ally in Metro Nashville Public Schools, though the district hasn’t taken an official position on the issue.
This winter, the Metro school board approved a nonbinding resolution in support of the federal DREAM Act, decade-old legislation that would grant citizenship to students who arrived in the United State illegally as minors if they were to commit time in the military or at higher education institutions.
With 22 percent of its student body coming from backgrounds where English wasn’t the first language, Metro has the largest immigrant community of any school district in the state.
Jay Steele, Metro’s associate superintendent for high schools, attended the recent “tuition equality” rally at Centennial Park at the invitation of the organizers. “Many of them are graduating as valedictorians, salutatorians,” he said. “They’ve met all the requirements of the state of Tennessee, and their opportunities after they leave high school are very limited.
“My goal is for every kid to have a fair and equal opportunity no matter where they’re from,” Steele said. “If they graduate from a Tennessee public high school, I would love for them to be considered as in-state students. That’s not my decision, but I do support that.”
Those hoping to change Tennessee’s in-state tuition policy point out that only 5 percent of undocumented students who graduate high school move on to college.
Nineteen-year-old Arely Bravo, who graduated this month from Metro’s Overton High School, plans to enroll at Nashville State Community College to study criminal justice. Born in Mexico, Bravo has lived in Nashville since she was 5. Her plan is to eventually transfer to Lipscomb University.
“It would open the doors to so many students to go to college,” said Bravo, who called it “insane” to charge out-of-state tuition for students who have attended public school in Tennessee for years.
Janet Garcia, an undocumented student who graduated from McGavock in 2009, said she couldn’t afford college immediately after high school. She said many of her undocumented friends in the same situation were forced to go back to their native countries or found jobs in construction, house cleaning or other low-paying fields.
Initially, she worked jobs translating and babysitting to earn enough money to make college an option. Still, without in-state tuition, she said financing is a challenge.
“It’s really hard because I have to pay three times as much, so I can only take three classes per semester,” she said. “It’s taken me three semesters to complete my freshman year."