Among a sea of blue caps and gowns, some draped with cords and colorful stoles, were Blanca Collazo and Jordi Santos. They’re both good friends. They were both born in Mexico and arrived in the United States as toddlers.
On May 22, they sat far from each other at opposite sides of the arena during North High School’s commencement ceremony. The two friends were proud and happy for one another. That day they were among more than 500 other students who received their diploma from North High School in Phoenix.
Collazo and Santos are also among the 2,000 youth without an immigration status that every year graduate from Arizona high schools.
The estimate was recently released by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. These graduates, the MPI study concludes, “will be at risk of deportation and will face severely limited opportunities to pursue further work and education.”
Throughout his senior year, Santos experienced those limitations. He saw classmates apply for scholarships he wasn’t eligible to seek, and he took college classes through a dual-enrollment program but couldn’t afford to pay for the college credits he earned. While others had jobs, he didn’t.
“It’s depressing to know you have less opportunity compared to other people,” Santos said.
Now, he sees graduating high school as an accomplishment.
“It’s a chapter that I finished, that I accomplished,” Santos said. “It’s me showing myself that it is possible to do whatever I want, even if I don’t have the same opportunities as other people.”
After a career test showed him that he had an aptitude for dental hygiene, Santos said he started making plans to attend Phoenix College’s dental hygiene program. But he will put off enrolling in college for a year to work with his dad installing floors to save up for tuition, he said.
Immigrant youth like Santos have to pay significantly higher rates to attend the state’s public higher education institutions. That’s because Arizona voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, which prohibits Arizona residents without lawful immigration status from in-state or resident tuition eligibility.
The cost of tuition at Maricopa County Community Colleges is nearly 300 percent higher for non-residents than residents ($85 per credit hour versus $326). At the state’s public universities, tuition for non-residents costs more than double than what in-state students pay.
Collazo has had more opportunities than her friend. She has protection from deportation and a work permit through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a temporary program available only to certain undocumented immigrant youth. DACA is not considered a lawful immigration status, but rather “a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer” deportation of a person.
Thanks to DACA, Collazo has a job, a car and contributes to her family’s income, she said. She wishes Santos and other friends who are undocumented could have had an opportunity to do those things for themselves and their families.
“It makes me really sad, because they deserve to be the same as me,” Collazo said. “We’re hardworking. They deserve to accomplish their dreams. Everybody does.”
Santos became eligible for DACA when he turned 16 back in April 2017, a few months after President Donald Trump was inaugurated. His parents were afraid to sign him up, he said. At the time, there was confusion about what Trump would do with the program, and fear his administration would use the information in DACA applications to target families.
The Trump administration then ended DACA in September 2017. Through different court challenges, DACA was kept partly in place but only available for those who had already applied. No new applicants, like Santos, can benefit from it.
“It haunts me,” he said.
Santos and Collazo were the part of the last groups of 16-year-olds immigrant youth who could have benefited from DACA.
Collazo was the first in her family to graduate high school. She crafted her cap with three vertical lines of green, white and red decorated with matching flowers and monarch butterflies — often a symbol of migration. On top of her depiction of the Mexican flag, she glued a phrase that read, ‘No hay frontera que destruya mis sueños’ (There’s no border that will destroy my dreams).
“That means the world to me. People used to tell me I’ll never graduate, never go to college, never get scholarships,” she said. “I can achieve all my goals and all my dreams.”
Collazo has a vague memory of when she and her family walked across the U.S.-Mexico border when she was three years old. A human smuggler told her to “get down,” she recalled. Her family told her they took turns carrying her on the long journey.
Collazo plans to be the first one in her family to earn a college degree, too.
She will pursue a double major in political science and criminal justice from Grand Canyon University, where she earned a scholarship, she said.
Like Collazo, Juan Carlos Cisneros also looked at private institutions to continue his higher education.
Cisneros graduated from Bioscience High School this month. He grew up in the border community of Nogales, Sonora. He arrived in the U.S. with his mom, who was leaving an abusive husband, in June 2007. He missed the cut-off date for DACA eligibility by nine days.
He learned programming in eighth grade with the robotics club, and has kept honing his engineering skills. He wants to study computer science, and said he’ll likely attend Benedictine University’s Mesa campus.
“I have ideas for what I want to create,” Cisneros said.
On Wednesday morning, Cisneros visited the state Capitol for the eighth time this year. He and more than 100 other high school and college students gathered to demand legislative leadership lower barriers to higher education for undocumented students.
“Even though the session is gone… our students, our allies, Arizona voters are here today stating that we are standing behind 2,000 undocumented students who are driven, who are talented and who are ready to give back to our state,” said Reyna Montoya, a DACA recepient, former educator and founder of Aliento — a community group that works with undocumented youth.
A bill that would have set new tuition rates at community colleges and universities for all who graduate from an Arizona high school, regardless of state of residence or immigration status, failed this legislative session.
Senate Bill 1217 had support from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business groups, non-profit education organizations, community colleges and the Arizona Board of Regents.
“We can’t afford to wait in Arizona,” said Sen. Heather Carter, who sponsored SB1217. “Kids that are graduating high school today and have done everything we’ve asked them to do should have an affordable path to higher education.”
The Republican from Cave Creek succeeded in getting SB1217 through the Senate, but Speaker Rusty Bowers stopped it. Carter maneuvered to bring back the proposal, but Senate President Karen Fann killed it.
Carter said next session the legislature needs to come up with a solution to make higher education more affordable. She sees two paths — one creates a new tuition rate for high school graduates like SB1217 proposed, while the other goes back to the ballot to repeal Prop. 300, the voter-approved law prohibiting in-state tuition eligibility for certain immigrants.
“I think this is critically important for the students of Arizona,” Carter said.
She said a story she heard from a student early this year has stuck with her: Germán Preciado, a DACA student who graduated Bioscience High School, had aspired to attend Arizona State University.
“ASU was out of his financial range, he couldn’t afford to go there,” she said. Instead, Preciado will go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study civil and environmental engineering.
“We are losing some of the best and the brightest to private schools outside of the state of Arizona,” Carter said. “We need to do all that we can do to keep students here in Arizona.”
A poster with Preciado’s photo and story was displayed Wednesday morning near the House of Representatives building.
Preciado and Cisneros, who wants to study computer science, graduated together from Bioscience High School. Their friend group called themselves, “The nerds of 2019,” Cisneros said.
His friends got full-ride scholarships to MIT, ASU, Tufts University and Northern Arizona University, Cisneros said.
While he and friends found a path to higher education, Cisneros said he’s advocating at the Capitol because he wants to open doors for younger students.
“I mainly want to give other people who come after me the opportunity because I know how tough it is to look for a scholarship,” he said.