Out of the shadows: A glimpse at immigration reform and how it has affected Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Out of the shadows: A glimpse at immigration reform and how it has affected Steamboat

Luke Graham






John F. Russell

The entrance to Steamboat Springs High School provides a pristine view. Mount Werner's peak pokes over the top of the school like a big brother in a family photo.

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Step inside the school at lunch and the buzz begins. Groups of students wearing cowboy hats and pearl-snap shirts gather in one area. Kids in gym shorts and athletic hoodies dot another.

Meander past the rows of circular tables in the commons area, past groups of students reading books, girls giggling at one table and athletes at another where lacrosse sticks outnumber lunch boxes, and something uncomfortable happens.

Nestled away in a corner, long past the rows of lunch tables and laughter, just out of reach of the smell of braised pork, sit a couple dozen students. They are tucked between the bathrooms and stairs. Seemingly out of sight, the high school's Latino students hang in the shadows, the dialects of their native language reverberating off the walls.

A brunette named Esmeralda stands in the hallway nearby, hands cupping a chicken wrap, eyes fixed on the carpet below.

"It's the Mexican corner," she says.

Esmeralda heads to the school's library. There, she sits with an exchange student from Mexico and a teenage girl from Colombia. She then reveals a story shared by an estimated 1.8 million children like her across the country.

Esmeralda, who declined to provide her real name in order to protect herself and her family, is an illegal immigrant. She estimates half of the students in the "Mexican corner" are, too. They're able to get a high school education, but their lack of a nine-digit Social Security number has made college an almost impossible dream.

But there is new hope for Esmeralda and the estimated 1,500 Colorado high school graduates each year who also are in the country illegally.

"Really, though, it doesn't seem real," Esmeralda said while glancing up from a Capri Sun.

10 years in the making

The Asset bill first was introduced in the Colorado House of Representatives 10 years ago. It proposed in-state tuition rates at Colorado colleges for illegal immigrants so long as they attended high school in the state for the preceding three years and graduated.

Versions of the bill eventually failed six times, each with lawmakers wrangling for the other side to make concessions. It came under fire in 2006, when Republicans said the bill violated a state law that required a Colorado identification card to prove that a person was a legal resident in order to gain certain federal, state or local benefits.

Compromise never was reached. So when Democrats took control of the House and Senate after November's general election, they moved forward in January with their preferred version of the Asset legislation, including a provision offering illegal immigrants access to the College Opportunity Fund, which provides tuition assistance to students who have qualified for in-state tuition.

Critics of the Asset bill argue that the College Opportunity Fund is paid for by taxpayers and shouldn't be available to those here illegally.

Opponents also contest the cost of the bill.

According to a legislative fiscal analysis, illegal immigrants attending college would generate $2 million in tuition for state colleges and universities in the Asset bill's first year of implementation and $3 million in its second year. The College Opportunity Fund would provide $930,000 in tuition assistance to illegal immigrants in that first year and $1.4 million in the second year, the fiscal analysis stated.

Fast forward to March 2013 when, propelled by Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, the House approved the bill by a 40-21 vote. It now moves to the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it into law.

With passage of the Asset bill, Colorado becomes the 14th state to offer some sort of in-state tuition to undocumented students. It comes on the heels of Obama's executive order in June 2012 for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants temporary federal work permits and Social Security cards to qualified illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and meet certain requirements.

Forgotten youth

Esmeralda's brown eyes rarely rise above the horizon. Her gaze typically is fixed on the floor with her long, brown hair falling to the high points on her cheeks. Her shoulders slump, her back hunches as the front of her shoulders pinch in under her chin.

Like many in her situation, the high school sophomore arrived in the U.S. at age 3 from Chihuahua, Mexico, a trip of which she has no memory. She's grown up American. She's gone to school here. She gets good grades.

But when she graduates, her options were going to be limited.

"I would be the first person in my whole family to go to college," she said. "The reason my parents came to this country, this place, is so I could have a higher education and break the line of poverty in my family."

Until deferred action was in place and the Asset bill passed, Esmeralda had few options. Colleges would have charged her out-of-state or international tuition rates, making higher education unaffordable for many illegal immigrants. At the University of Colorado, for example, fall 2012 in-state tuition rates were $4,028 for 12 credit hours. Out-of-state tuition balloons to $14,425. Room and board is another $5,865.

At Steamboat Springs High School, college and career counselor Danica Moss said she hasn't seen an increase in the number of inquiries from the school's Latino students, but the school holds college informational meetings for Latino families in the fall. In past years, those meetings often included sobering news about the prospects for college for illegal immigrants.

Under Asset, however, Moss anticipates future meetings will convey a different and better message for families.

"Thank goodness. It is so exciting to see," she said. "They are good kids who really work hard and have bought into the public education system. They want a better future and to continue on just like the kids they've sat in school with since elementary school."

Esmeralda, whose parents are separated, yearns for that better future.

Her mother supports the family by cleaning houses. Esmeralda takes care of her younger sister and cleans one day per week to help supplement the family's meager income.

"I don't even know. I don't know. I just see a broken chain and taking care of my mom," she said about her family's future prospects. "I see her not working so hard. I can see better days ahead."

By the numbers

Colorado population: 5 million

Hispanic or Latino: 1 million

■ Routt County, 2000 census

Total population: 19,690

Non-Hispanic: 19,056

Hispanic: 634

Hispanic share of total: 3 percent

■ Routt County, 2010 census

Total population: 23,509

Non-Hispanic: 21,909

Hispanic: 1,600

Hispanic share of total: 7 percent

■ Population change in 10 years

Total increase: 19 percent

Hispanic increase: 152 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Watershed moment

Before passage of the Asset bill and deferred action, the future of many young illegal immigrants was very different. Although they could attend public schools and ultimately earn a high school diploma, their post-graduation lives could bring a return to the shadows. Upon learning they are in the U.S. illegally, many drop out of high school and start their lives in this country working minimum-wage jobs.

That's "the way I was looking at it," said Carlos Hernandez, a Steamboat Springs High School senior and one of the first in Routt County to get temporary resident status through Obama's deferred action policy. "For a while, I wanted to drop out."

Deferred action was a watershed moment. It allows temporary amnesty and work permits for those younger than 31 who entered the U.S. illegally before age 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony or certain types of misdemeanors; and are in school, have graduated from high school, have earned a GED diploma or have served in the military.

The process to apply for deferred action is arduous. Illegal immigrants have to prove they have been in the U.S. for the past five years. The application costs $465. In Routt and Moffat counties, an estimated 60 illegal immigrants have applied for temporary status with a dozen or so receiving it. Through the middle of March, 469,530 illegal immigrants across the U.S. had applied, with 245,493 receiving documents.

"At the beginning, I was so stressed," said Abilena, 20, who graduated from a Routt County high school in 2012. "You had to show proof from five years back. How do you prove a summer when you're 15 when you don't have documents? I could prove the school year. I got soccer coaches' letters, medical records, school records, bank accounts, church letters. Anything with dates, really."

Abilena, who also declined to provide her real name, applied for deferred action in September and received notice in late November that her papers had been accepted. In December, she went to Grand Junction to get fingerprinted at the Social Security office. In mid-February, her identification card came, and a week later, her Social Security card arrived.

It was a scary process, Abilena and Carlos acknowledged. They had to reveal everything about their families and themselves. They had to admit they were here illegally, essentially deferring deportation for two years. The documents are good for two years, at which point they can reapply. After that, their hope is that national immigration reform could lead to an easier path to citizenship.

For Carlos, deferred action meant he would continue with his high school education, the opportunity of a diploma becoming a worthwhile reality.

The thought of the future paints a smile across Abilena's face — the first real glimmer of hope since she learned seven years ago that she was an illegal immigrant.

"I was so happy," she said. "All these things are running through your head. Even though it's only for two years, it's a step. It's a step to something."

Learning the truth

Abilena's first 13 years of life seemed uneventful and even successful.

Then she found out she was here illegally. She started to miss school. She got in fights and eventually was kicked out of school. One of those fights earned her a court date requiring her father, who was a lawyer in Mexico, to miss work and jeopardize the family's future.

"I didn't like it. I couldn't understand it," she said about learning she was in the country illegally. "I started doing really bad in school because I saw no hope in it. I realized my situation. My grades started going down. I didn't want to go to school."

Abilena came to the U.S. when she was 3. The trip is fuzzy. She was in the back of a cargo truck with her mother, packed in tight with other children and their parents. She remembers being tied to her mother to stay close and her mother holding a large knife to her chest to protect Abilena from kidnappers.

"There was a lot of crying," she recalled. "We ended up in the front of the truck. It was such a bumpy road that people were bleeding from their heads when they got off."

Carlos remembers a similar trip, the details sparse but certain moments still vivid. He was in Arizona or New Mexico at a gas station with his 2-year-old sister, clinging to a Batman toy for the journey.

At age 15, Carlos found out he was an illegal immigrant. Like Abilena, he says he felt stuck. They came to the U.S. through no choice of their own. They felt American, but they weren't.

"I don't know anything about the Mexican flag," Abilena said. "But ask me about the Pledge of Allegiance. I know all about that. I had to say it every day in school."

After making up credits online, Abilena moved to Colorado before her senior year to visit her sister. Her sister persuaded her to continue school and pleaded with her to graduate.

Abilena was at a crossroads. She decided to continue with school. She graduated in 2012 and looked at colleges before determining a higher education was too expensive.

Now, with deferred action and the Asset bill, she plans to enroll at Colorado Mountain College.

"It's the most genuine hope I've had," she said. "Now that I think about it, it makes me happy."

Discontentment

Today's hope felt by illegal immigrants like Abilena, Esmeralda, Carlos and Steamboat Springs High School junior Alejandra is in sharp contrast to past feelings of resentment toward their parents.

All four still have family members in Mexico, most of whom they never have met. Abilena, Carlos and Alejandra, who also declined to have her real name published, never have been back to Mexico. Esmeralda has been back once, for a week, when she met aunts, uncles and cousins she never knew she had.

"It was probably when I was in elementary and middle school that I realized I was undocumented," Alejandra said. "I knew I wasn't the same. People in my class talk about going on an airplane and that experience. I still don't know what that experience feels like."

All four grew up in the U.S., but they each realized they weren't like their classmates. Each had a moment when he or she resented their parents' decision to come to America.

They wonder what would have happened if they had not come here. They wonder what would have happened if they had the same opportunities as legal Americans.

"You're made to feel ashamed of it," Abilena said. "Your parents brought you here when you were so young. You had no option. I wonder why a lot to this day. Now I have an opportunity. But I'd always say, 'Why did we come here?'"

With the recent movement toward immigration reform, they said it has become easier to understand their parents' decisions.

"When I got my deferred action papers, I knew what it was," Abilena said. "I called my mom. I called my dad. I called my sister.

"I actually feel a part of here. I know it makes them feel accomplished as parents."

Finally, a future

Possibilities now seem like realities. Esmeralda loves math and numbers, but a recent visit to school by medical professionals has her dreaming of becoming a doctor.

Alejandra also loves math but has grand visions of opening her own beauty salon. Carlos, once destined to drop out of school, now sees something different. In a few months, he has the chance to graduate.

"It was good to know I didn't quit," he said. "I definitely thought about it. I'm getting that diploma. Now I know if I set my mind to it, I can do it."

Abilena's future is more complex. She likes the idea of philanthropy. Or maybe teaching. Or maybe math. She knows she wants to help people. And she's pregnant.

"A person can have everything and not do anything with it," Abilena said. "I don't think they have to base it on who they are and where they came from. It's more what they want to be and become.

"This has given me more of a reason to do something with my life. Why would I settle for less? Sometimes I think, 'Why me? Why did I have to go through this?' I know what it's like to be without it. It pushes me to do something with my life. When I got it, the first thing I said was, 'I'm going to college.'"

By the numbers

Colorado population: 5 million

Hispanic or Latino: 1 million

■ Routt County, 2000 census

Total population: 19,690

Non-Hispanic: 19,056

Hispanic: 634

Hispanic share of total: 3 percent

■ Routt County, 2010 census

Total population: 23,509

Non-Hispanic: 21,909

Hispanic: 1,600

Hispanic share of total: 7 percent

■ Population change in 10 years

Total increase: 19 percent

Hispanic increase: 152 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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