The state version of the Dream Act makes undocumented residents eligible for much lower tuition if they graduate from a Minnesota high school. It's the only way Juventino Meza said he will be able to continue his education.
"I am a senior at Arlington High School so if it doesn't become a law soon I am screwed, I will say," Meza said.
Meza came to St. Paul illegally from Mexico to join his family four years ago. He's already taking advanced-placement courses in high school and he's confident he will will be accepted to the University of Minnesota. But he has no chance of going if he has to pay non-resident tuition.
"I know I can meet the requirements they are asking for," he said. "But I know they will find out that I am undocumented, then that will be a problem."
The Minnesota Dream Act would also require students to file applications to become permanent residents.
Elisabeth Carmona is close to completing her studies at Century College in White Bear Lake. As a legal resident, Carmona wouldn't benefit from the law. But she said many of her friends would.
"I am really, really glad that I had the opportunity to go to school and to now go to college," Carmona said. "I am the first generation (in my family) to go to college. We just need an opportunity to let you know what we can do."
Opportunity is also the word Michael Yang used. Yang said lowering the barriers for immigrants to continue on in school can only help the state's economy. He's now a doctoral student at Hamline University in St. Paul. As an immigrant paying in-state tuition, he said, he's a more productive citizen.
"I had a dream when I first came in 1979 to finish my doctoral program just like these students," Yang said. "I believe they will do it. All we need is to have the opportunity be given to us."
I know when they find out that I am undocumented, then that will be a problemJuventino Meza, student
The private University of St. Thomas in St. Paul recently changed its policy to allow undocumented students. But faculty member Deb Morgan told the committee scholarships for the students have not yet caught up, so many of them are opting for the University of Minnesota and elsewhere.
"These are students we want," Morgan said. "When I've seen these students and listen to them--I've been an educator a long time--I realize I don't want to miss out on these people. I don't want to miss out on the contribution they can make to our state, to our society and ultimately to our world. I don't want to miss out on these people being role models for future generations."
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the Senate Higher Education Committee chairwoman is author of the state Dream Act legislation. Even with increasing support at the capitol, the bill has to get passed Governor Tim Pawlenty. He's threatened to veto similar ideas in the past because he says they give rights to non-citizens that aren't afforded to students from other states.
For some at the committee hearing, the focus is on increasing the chances for poorer immigrants to get a better education regardless of what form it takes.
Rose Santos, principal at the International Academy school in St. Paul said programs such as the Power of You which pays two years tuition for Minneapolis and St. Paul high school graduates, are popular and beneficial.
"We'd like there to be more grants out there for these students because a lot of them right now are currently working two jobs and going to high school because it's that important for them to get their diploma," Santos said.
A handful of states have passed their own Dream Act legislation. Congress is also debating an overhaul of federal immigration law that could open educational opportunities for some students here illegally.