BY REED SHELTON
Undocumented citizens now have the opportunity to pursue an affordable higher education in Maryland universities through two additions to federal and state law passed in 2012, from which some Salisbury University students are now benefiting.
The Maryland Dream Act allows undocumented immigrants living in the state to attend Maryland universities at in-state tuition, provided they attended a Maryland high school for three years and meet other conditions.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), made law through an executive order by President Obama, grants undocumented citizens who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday, among certain other stipulations, renewable two-year work permits and exemption from deportation.
One such undocumented citizen assisted by these laws is SU senior Veronica Martinez-Vargas who is majoring in physics.
Martinez-Vargas was active in fighting for the passage of the Maryland Dream Act and is one of 787,068 individuals that had been approved for DACA by 2014, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.
“I cried,” said Martinez-Vargas of her reaction to learning that Maryland voters had made the Dream Act law. “I couldn’t believe our work had paid off, and I was so grateful that I’d finally be able to go to college.”
The first of her family to attend college, Martinez-Vargas left Guanajuato, Mexico at 10 years old in 2003. Her mother decided to take the risk of entering the U.S. illegally in hopes of pursuing a better life for her and her daughter.
“I knew that what we were going to do was something that was looked down upon,” Martinez-Vargas said. “But at that time I thought it was the only way. I didn’t know the legalities of it then, or that visas even existed.”
She and her mother endured a days-long bus ride followed by a failed attempt to cross into the U.S. which saw them detained and then deported.
Days later, they tried again and were successful, passing through a hole under the border fence and spending two days waiting in the Arizona desert for their transportation onward. Soon thereafter, they would end up in Salisbury and become part of (according to the Pew Research Center) the state’s approximately 250,000 undocumented citizens.
Were it not for the Maryland Dream Act, Martinez-Vargas and other undocumented citizens often wouldn’t have the opportunity to seek higher education. Their financial means simply are not frequently sufficient to cover the tuition for out-of-state students, which is often nearly double that of Maryland residents ($16,968 a year at SU, compared to $8,622).
Although it is certain that some current Maryland students are benefitting from the Maryland Dream Act, their numbers at SU are still few—currently less than ten, according to SU’s Office of University Analysis, Reporting and Assessment.
Statewide, there is some difficulty in gauging how many individuals are being assisted by the act.
According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the state board responsible for establishing statewide policies for universities, the act cost Maryland universities $2.1 million in 2014—that is, there was a loss of that amount compared to what would have been earned via these undocumented citizens paying out-of-state tuition, assuming they would have still been able to afford attending.
Yet, that is perhaps a small loss in the face of the benefit.
Gustavo Andrade is the organizing director for CASA de Maryland, the state’s largest immigrant and worker’s rights organization as well as one that fought for passage of the Maryland Dream Act.
Andrade believes the act affords undocumented citizens that arrived as children, often without any choice in the decision to leave their countries of birth, the chance to seek an education he feels all motivated people should be offered.
“It’s incredibly difficult for undocumented citizens to navigate the education system,” Andrade said. “If these are our kids, of course we want to make it as easy and hassle free as possible for someone to pursue a higher education. To pursue their dreams and get a job.
“Folks are chomping at the bit to come into… every institution of higher learning and our job as a society is to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. (The Maryland Dream Act and DACA) both are designed to make it as easy as possible for a student to graduate high school in Maryland and have access to higher education.”
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, while still pushing for the as-yet unapproved Maryland Dream Act, agreed with Andrade’s sentiment.
“We have a constitutional obligation to provide a public education for every child in our state,” O’Malley said in 2011. “But we should not allow our nation’s broken immigration system to serve as an excuse to escape our basic, moral obligation to expand opportunity for all Marylanders, provided they graduated from a Maryland high school, pay taxes in our state and are on a path toward citizenship.”
Mayra Melendez, 21, is both an undocumented citizen benefitting from these laws and a senior at SU dual-majoring in international studies and conflict analysis and dispute resolution.
A few years after she emigrated from Lima, Peru as a seven-year-old, Melendez and Martinez-Vargas had become best friends.
The two met in elementary school English classes and in adulthood they took on roles as activists with CASA de Maryland to fight for the passage of the Maryland Dream Act.
Melendez immigrated legally to the country with her father, who had a work visa sponsored by the manufacturing company he worked for.
When she was 17, a documentation error made by her father’s lawyer quashed their hopes of a green card and the fully-legal and permanent residency that accompanied it.
“She filed the application wrong, and it was because of her that we were denied,” Melendez said. “We didn’t have any type of support system or network. Like many other immigrants, you rely on someone that speaks your language and on the first person you see. We relied on that lawyer, and that lawyer failed us.”
Before there was any possible opportunity to seek another option, their work visas expired, leaving Melendez with two options: continue living in the U.S. as an undocumented citizen, or return to Peru and attempt the expensive, extremely-lengthy and unguaranteed process involved in coming back to America legally.
“We were told (returning to Peru) was our only option,” Melendez said. “I was very scared. I was set on going to college here, and had friends here. I love Peru, and I’m proud of where I come from, but at that moment I felt fear. It would have meant starting all over again.”
With the passage of DACA, many opportunities finally became available for Melendez.
She would be able to visit her family in Peru for the first time since she left. She would be able to study abroad. She could finally get a driver’s license and a permit to legally work. Most importantly, there would be a two-year moratorium on her potential for deportation.
“I finally didn’t have to be afraid anymore,” Melendez said. “Finally, I could know that after I finished college maybe I’ll be able to get a job somewhere. I won’t be sitting there with a degree, wondering what I’d do with it.”
So great had been that daily fear of deportation that until then, she had never confided in Martinez-Vargas –her friend since elementary school—that she too was undocumented.
“That morning (when DACA passed) I still hadn’t known what she was going through,” Martinez-Vargas said. “I said thank you! Thank you so much for being excited for me,’ because I hadn’t known she was going through the same thing; that this mattered as much to her as it did to me.”