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Bill would ease college financial challenges for students illegally in Minnesota

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DREAM Act march
In this photo from March 2008, hundreds of students marched to the Capitol in St. Paul, to show support for the DREAM Act. A bill in the Legislature this week would reclassify students whose parents brought them to the United States without permission as residents of Minnesota for purposes of tuition and financial aid at all public colleges and universities in the state.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

When Jhoanna Llamas-Sanchez was in started high school, she worked hard, made good grades and thought about college. Like a lot of other teens, she also dreamed of a car.

"I remember I was telling my parents, 'When I turn 16 and I go get my license, I want my first car to be a Volkswagen Beetle,' " she said. "And I remember them kind of saying, 'You can't get a license.'"

Llamas-Sanchez, now 19, discovered she is in the United States without permission. At age 5, she moved to Minnesota, after her mother illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

A freshman at North Hennepin Community College in Minneapolis, she is one of many Minnesota college students whose parents brought them to the United States without a visa.

Under state law, Llamas-Sanchez can study in Minnesota and is entitled to the same flat-rate tuition as legal Minnesota residents at more than two dozen state-run campuses and the University of Minnesota's campuses in Morris and Crookston. But because of her status, she does not qualify for federal or state financial aid.

A bill introduced in the Legislature this week could change that by classifying students whose parents brought them to the United States without permission as residents of Minnesota for purposes of tuition and financial aid at all public colleges and universities in the state. To qualify, students would have to attend a Minnesota high school for at least three years before graduating.

They also would have to apply to legalize their immigration status.

Supporters of Dream Act
In this 2007 file photo, students and immigrants march in New York in support of the DREAM Act.
Kathy Willens/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The measure would address a dilemma for students like Llamas-Sanchez. Unless the bill passes, if she wants to transfer to the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus to earn a bachelor's degree, she'll have to pay out-of-state tuition -- even though she's lived In Minnesota for nearly 15 years.

If passed, the bill introduced by state Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, would allow such students to receive money from the State Grant, Minnesota's main public student aid program. It also would enable them to receive private scholarship funds raised by public colleges. Officials from the state Office of Higher Education estimate a few thousand immigrant students could qualify for the State Grant under the legislation.

Pappas said the bill aims to invest in some of Minnesota's brightest young people "by educating them, and allowing them then to have a good job and raise a family."

"They're going to contribute back to our community tenfold what we've invested over their lifetime, tenfold what we've invested in their education," said Pappas, president of the Senate.

The bill comes eight months after the start of the Obama administration's Deferred Action program, which offers students a reprieve from deportation in the form of a two-year work visa.

The temporary status allows young people brought to the United States by their parents before they were 16 to live and work in the country for two years if they are not older than 30. To qualify, they must be in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained general education development certificate, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces.

"They're going to contribute back to our community tenfold what we've invested over their lifetime, tenfold what we've invested in their education."

In January, Gov. Mark Dayton added $1.2 million a year in State Grant money for those Minnesota students covered by Deferred Action.

More than a dozen states have similar laws for students whose parents brought them to the United States illegally. But some Minnesota legislators say it's not right to give public financial aid to students who aren't legally in the country.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said Minnesota's limited public money should go first to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. He said it's unfair for a student living in the United States without permission to receive in-state tuition when a U.S. citizen from another state must pay out-of-state tuition.

"We want to encourage people to be in this country legally," Drazkowski said. "And if we enact policies that reward people who don't follow the rules and who don't come here legally, I think we're providing incentives in the wrong place."

For Llamas-Sanchez, the bill also would mean that she would no longer feel unequal as a student in a state where she has lived for nearly 15 years.

"This is my home," Llamas-Sanchez said. "Yes, I was born there, and yes, I may have lived my early childhood there, but I have very little memories from where I am from."