Helping Houston-area immigrants turn dreams of college into reality

Shawnda Smith looks through Texas A&M's program package while her son, Tariq Powell, 16, talks to Texas A&M representative at Houston Independent School District's second DREAM Summit Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Houston. Tariq, a junior at Chavez High School, is interested in the school's engineering program. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / © 2016  Houston Chronicle

Shawnda Smith looks through Texas A&M’s program while her son, Tariq Powell, 16, talks to Texas A&M representative at Houston ISD’s second DREAM Summit. Photo by: Yi-Chin Lee

Brenda Madrigal thought she would get kicked out of high school for not having citizenship documentation or a Social Security number.

Source: Houston Chronicle
By: Shelby Webb

Now 22, Madrigal had to apply to Houston Community College as part of her admission to an early-college high school. She was surprised when she was accepted without issue, even as an undocumented immigrant.

On Saturday, she told about 250 similarly situated students and parents at Houston Independent School District’s DREAM Summit that they, too, could go to college.

“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, but it’s not impossible,” said Madrigal, who is now studying for a master’s degree. “If I can do it, they can too.”

The summit, held at the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center, gave information about financial aid, college applications and ways to prepare for higher education to immigrant students. Representatives from college admissions offices, immigrant advocacy groups and HISD departments set up information booths, and speakers gave students and parents a road map to higher education.

Nearly 23 percent of the Houston metro area’s 6.3 million residents were born outside the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. An estimated 350,000 of those Houston-area immigrants are undocumented, and about 39,000 are estimated to be under the age of 16.

Gracie Guerrero, HISD’s assistant superintendent of multilingual programs, said some non-citizen students do not know they have options after high school.

“They may have heard some erroneous information that it doesn’t matter what you do in high school because you can’t go to college anyway. But that’s not true,” Guerrero said. “They need to know that college is a possibility for them and they can get financial assistance.”

The summit is named after the controversial Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, which is legislation first proposed in 2001 to give undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 and lived here continuously for five years a path toward eventual legal status if they attend college or serve in the military. Congress has tried multiple times and as recently as 2010 failed to muster enough votes to pass the measure into law.

Therefore, 10 states, including Texas, have gone ahead and enacted their own similar laws. Under the Texas version of the DREAM Act, undocumented students who have a high school diploma or attained a GED in Texas can qualify for in-state college tuition and state financial aid, so long as they show they’ve lived in the state for three years and are seeking legal residency.

Although Texas was the first state to adopt such a law in 2001, conservative lawmakers have tried and failed to repeal it as recently as 2015. Similar laws are on the books in nine other states, including California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

But in the wake of President-elect Trump’s sharp rhetoric on immigration and undocumented immigrants, some area students wonder if they’ll be able to attend public colleges and pay in-state tuition in the coming years.

Guerrero hadn’t heard many concerns about it Saturday, but said she has on some school campuses.

“In general, you hear about issues like parents not wanting to send their students to school” out of fear they’ll be rounded up, she said. “We’ve heard concerns of students worrying they won’t find their parents when they come home.”

Lathaly Araujo, a 17-year-old senior from Peru, is nervous Trump and those with anti-immigration sentiments will urge states like Texas to repeal their versions of the DREAM Act. She worried that she and others who are not yet citizens won’t be able to get financial aid for college. Still, Araujo has applied to the University of Houston and Rice University.

Melissa Chapman, who moved to Houston from Colombia a year and a half ago, was more optimistic.

“I don’t think he’ll be able to cut the dream of having an education,” Chapman said of Trump. “You have the right to study and you have the right to obtain knowledge. It would be hard to take that away.”

Though Chapman is 18, she’s a junior in high school. American schools would not accept some of her high school credits from Colombia, but she’s making the most of retaking her classes here. After one semester of English as a second language course, she is now earning college credit in Advanced Placement English. She’s working to boost her grade point average with hopes of getting as many scholarships and college admission offers as she can.

Chapman was encouraged by the financial aid offerings listed Saturday and to see college students like Madrigal succeeding.

“It makes you feel like you’re not alone,” she said. “People are in my same situation, and it’s nice to know that they can take your hand and help you.”

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