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As Lawmakers Focus On Repeal Of The State’s Dream Act, Where Do These Children Of Texas Go?

Crystal Chavez
Freshman Alfredo Avila studies on the UTSA north campus during the holiday break.

Several lawmakers have already filed bills to repeal the Texas Dream Act. Texas’ incoming lieutenant governor, Sen. Dan Patrick, has vowed to repeal it during the 84th legislative session, which begins Tuesday. And Governor-elect Gregg Abbott has said if one of the bills lands on his desk, he would not veto it.

The Dream Act, similar to acts in at least 16 other states, allows certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges. So what happens to these students, who only know Texas as home?
I met up with University of Texas at San Antonio freshman Alfredo Avila at a local Starbucks. Avila is studying electrical engineering and I ask him what lies ahead. “For the most, what I’m going to try to do is computer engineering and software design, things like that are pretty much what I’m studying right now and I really like it, so hopefully, in the future, I can go into that.”
Avila was born in Michoacan, Mexico, but the United States is all he’s ever known. His parents brought him to this country, illegally, when he was a 2-year–old, moving across the Texas-Mexico border.

“From there we went to New York and lived in Manhattan for a little while, and then moved to New Jersey, where I spent a number of years.” But Texas is where the child became a youngster, and the youngster became a young man, with dreams and hopes and ambitions for the better life his parents once dreamed of for him. “I have been here, in San Antonio, since I was about 13,” says Avila.
Avila went on to graduate from San Antonio’s Earl Warren High School. And because of the Texas Dream Act, signed in 2001, he’s paying in-state tuition at UTSA. Out-of-state tuition would have cost him an additional $6,000 per semester, for tuition and fees. That doesn’t include other factors such as books and transportation. He also works part-time and lives at home to save money. I asked him how a repeal of the act would affect him.

He pauses. “There’s around, like, two options for me either I work a lot more to try to earn enough money and earn more scholarships to pay off for the extra costs that I would have to pay, or I take time off from college to earn some money and so it just becomes a lot more difficult to attend college, which has been a dream of mine,” he says.
Avila is the first person in his family to attend a university. Outgoing Democratic State Senator Leticia Van De Putte authored House Bill 1403 — the Texas Dream Act — and says it’s been working for Texas. “What this does is make sure that our students who graduate from Texas schools, who have been here at least three years, have the ability to pay the same in college tuition as the students that they graduated with.”

To be eligible, students also have to sign an affidavit stating they are seeking legal residency. Some Republicans, including newly elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, argue laws like this encourage illegal immigration. They say it’s unfair to students who are U.S. citizens from other states, who have to pay the higher out-of-state tuition. Here’s Patrick last week at a press conference, and he’s pretty unambiguous: “I will totally support senators who want to end in-state tuition.”
Supporters say parents of these students have been paying taxes in Texas and the state has already invested in their grade school education.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s latest figures- in 2013, more than 20,000 students benefited from the Texas Dream Act. More than 1,300 were enrolled in San Antonio schools. The majority of these students attend community college. Not all are undocumented. Some have federal government visas. Some are also protected from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

That includes Avila, the student we met earlier and as he puts it, he might have arrived here undocumented, but he grew up embracing the concept of “America.” “I’ve grown up with the customs, with the identity, the values and the morals, more of the beliefs that the American culture sort of brings on the people that grow up inside of America,” says Avila, speaking for himself and millions like him, who came here as infants and children.

The Texas Association of Business said in an email it supports in-state tuition for some undocumented students. (This is what that email stated. “The following is language from our priorities: Oppose the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented students attending institutions of higher education who are in the process of obtaining legal status and graduated from a Texas high school.”

Dallas business owner Jorge Baldor is a Cuban refugee who came to the U.S. at the age of six. He’s launched an effort and a website — Keep H-B1403.com. He thinks there’s a practical side to this argument too. “Texas has to be competitive not just nationally but internationally. We’re in a world economy and having an educated workforce is something that is vital for Texas’ growth. Business owners that I’m talking to are frustrated about the level of education in general, so 1403 to me is an obvious answer,” says Baldor.

There have been previous attempts to repeal the Texas Dream Act, but they’ve failed. The political climate is different now. Governor Rick Perry, who signed the law, and believed in it, is leaving. And the makeup of the Texas Legislature is more conservative this session.

For those who wait to see how this changes their lives, all they can do, is concentrate on the now. “I try to focus all my time, the time I get on school and the rest of the time that I work, to try to keep up with some of the bills we have to pay and things like that,” says Avila. And that’s really all he can do.
Just so Texas’ lawmakers know, when he gets his engineering degree, he wants to join the workforce, and give back to the state that’s given him an opportunity to change his life, and his family’s.

Crystal Chavez was Texas Public Radio’s Morning Edition host for three years, until January 2015.