In January, six immigrant students, some of them undocumented, gathered after school in an empty classroom at Nashville’s Glencliff High School to snack on Doritos and gummies and strategize their path to college. Excitement was building about upcoming campus visits, including one to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“My mom risked her whole life to get us here. I don’t want to disappoint her,” explained one student named Daniela.
This month, their enthusiasm was derailed when a bill to secure in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants was shelved for the session in the Tennessee legislature. Rep. Mark White, the House sponsor from Memphis, announced last week that he just didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, which was approved last year by the Senate but failed in the House by one vote.
The Glencliff students are all sophomores, so it’s still possible that the next General Assembly will reintroduce and pass the bill before they graduate from high school. For now, however, they live in a state where some of them won’t qualify for in-state tuition, even though they are good students.
As undocumented immigrants, they are also barred from Tennessee Promise, a state program waiving tuition to community colleges if they complete a nine-month process for approval. Because out-of-state tuition is prohibitively high for most families, the program is viewed as the best pathway to college in Tennessee.
The Glencliff students were hoping that this year would be different in the legislature and that they could complete high school knowing that they have financially plausible options to attend in-state schools. Finding avenues to encourage students to pursue post-secondary education is one of the pillars of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education platform, and the governor supported the in-state tuition bill.
On the House floor last week, White choked up with emotion as he shared how undocumented students cried in his office the day before when he told them he wouldn’t bring up the bill for a vote.
Opponents had argued that the bill was more about immigration than education — that offering non-American citizens in-state tuition was a slippery slope that could lead to undocumented immigrants receiving other state benefits. During the last year, anti-immigration sentiment has been stronger than ever as legislators sought to block refugees from entering Tennessee.
Despite the hurdles, the Glencliff students say there are a multitude of reasons why they are determined to go to college.
“We’re willing to get an education. We’re ready. We’ll have gone through 12 years of school, just for the law to say, ‘hey, no, you can’t continue,’” explains Keyli, who like Daniela and the other undocumented students asked not to be identified by their last names to protect their families over their legal status.
Keyli and Daniela are part of Early Escalera, a national program that aims to support immigrant students, documented as well as undocumented, as they achieve their post-secondary education goals. The program continues into junior and senior years of high school, when it is just called Escalera.
“There’s this misconception that if you’re undocumented, you can’t go to college,” says Karla Coleman García, a Vanderbilt University graduate student and policy manager at Conexión Américas who leads Glencliff’s chapter of Escalera. García herself was undocumented until she was 13. “We want to show students that there are places they can go, and guide them through that search,” she said.
Conexión Américas, a Tennessee nonprofit organization that supports Latino families, worked to open the first Tennessee chapter of Escalera at Glencliff because of the especially high rate of immigrant students in South Nashville. Glencliff’s student population includes teenagers who were born all over the world — and an estimated 15 percent are undocumented, according to guidance counselor Ellen Houston.
Debate over educational opportunities for undocumented immigrants has grown as the U.S. population of undocumented immigrants has swelled to an estimated 11.3 million in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 1982, the Supreme Court decided in Plyler v. Doe that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are guaranteed a K-12 education. But the decision did not extend to higher education.
Tennessee Promise has been a game-changer for many students by helping them even consider college. That’s why Glencliff requires all students to participate in the nine-month process toward getting the scholarship. But when Houston goes into classes to help students sign up, the realities for undocumented immigrants also can crush their morale.
“I’ve found it very difficult,” she said. “I have to say, ‘In order to apply, you have to be a permanent resident or a citizen,’ and some of their faces just drop. … I think it can be heartbreaking.”
It can be hard for students to stay motivated when their chances are limited and they’re already struggling through language barriers and poverty.
But, Houston says, things have gotten easier in Nashville for motivated undocumented students in the four years since she started working at Glencliff. Trevecca Nazarene University, in particular, has stepped up financial aid for undocumented students.
“I think for the students who are really high-achieving, it really does work out,” she said.
In their free time at Glencliff, students often can be found hanging out and flipping through college books in Houston’s spacious office, called “the Loft.” And like Escalera students, they are often already thinking past college.
“A lot of it is because how we grew up,” said Yesenia, an Escalera student with an eye toward attending Vanderbilt. “We want to pursue a field that can help other people — like doctors.”
Keyli nodded in agreement. “Being a doctor … back home, it was like being president,” she said, adding that she’s more likely to become an educator because the medical field makes her squeamish. “I want to help the younger generation get it,” she said.
Many want to stay in Tennessee, or return after further exploring the United States.
“I’ve lived here since I was 5, and Tennessee is awesome; it’s great,” Keyli said. “I’m Guatemalan. I go to a store that’s Mexican, and the owners are Arabic. It’s all different people.”
Tennessee’s diversity is a key reason the students think supporters of the tuition equality bill should keep trying.
“It would mean a lot to Tennessee,” Daniela said. “It would be an opportunity to show we can be united.”