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Undocumented immigrants may get in-state tuition
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Washburn High School teacher Peter Denny works with Ana during aviation class. Ana wants to attend college in Minnesota in the fall, but because she is an undocumented immigrant, she would have to pay higher out-of-state tuition. (MPR Photo/Bianca Vazquez Toness)
Some Minnesota school children can't get in-state tuition to Minnesota's colleges and universities. But that might change soon. A bill before the Legislature would give Minnesota students who are not legal residents of the United states the right to pay the same amount as kids who were born here.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Ana's not even five feet tall, but she's got big dreams of becoming a pilot.

She has flown a plane, and is building one from a kit. She's usually the only girl in her aviation classes at Washburn High School in Minneapolis.

Now she wants to go to college and major in chemistry or engineering.

"Then I can actually go to NASA," she says. "Because that's one of my dreams. To work for them, and be an astronaut. So I got big dreams."

Ana was born in Mexico and came to the United States when she was eight. She doesn't want her last name used for this story, because she's an undocumented immigrant.

She doesn't have a U.S. birth certificate or a green card. That's a problem now that Ana's applying to college. She'd like to go to the University of Minnesota, but the school would charge her out-of-state tuition.

Even though Ana has lived here four years, her U of M tuition would run $20,000. That's $12,000 more than her Minnesota classmates who are citizens.

Ana's mother supports her four kids on her own. She works in a Minneapolis factory making winter hats. Ana says her mom is a hard worker, but can't afford her college tuition.

One of my dreams is to work for NASA, and be an astronaut. So I got big dreams.
- Ana, 18, undocumented immigrant

"I do get discouraged," she says. "Maybe my mom won't be able to pay for the out-of-state tuition. So I think I may not be able to make it. But i'm still hanging on. I'm not letting go."

Ana's not the only student in this situation. As many as 500 students may be in the same boat each year.

But, there may be a solution.

Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield, says kids like Ana are being punished for decisions their parents made. Cox has introduced a bill that would allow them to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. He says it's important to put aside how people got here.

"A bill like this is helping people that really truly want to help themselves," Cox says. "And except maybe in very few circumstances (they)had nothing to do with how they ended up in Minnesota. They were brought here as part of a family that moved here."

His plan requires students to have spent at least two years in a Minnesota high school and graduate. It wouldn't help them with financial aid.

University of Minnesota and MNSCU officials don't think the bill would affect the schools financially. Craig Swann, vice provost for undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota, says students like Ana would help his campus.

"These students would bring a diversity of experience and background to the campus," Swann says. "And we are poorer because they are not here in those numbers."

The bill looks like an easy fix, but some lawmakers won't support it.

Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, is a college admissions counselor at Southwest State University. As a counselor he agrees that kids like Ana could help his campus. But as a policy maker, he doesn't want to reward people who are in the country illegally. He worries about creating another welfare program that could attract people to the state.

"Nobody wants to talk about it. It's a politically incorrect subject," Seifert says. "But at the end of the day, should we draw a line and say if you are not here legally you shouldn't get government benefits no matter what they are?"

In the meantime, Ana isn't waiting for the Legislature to decide. She's got more immediate concerns, such as how to pay for school.

No matter what the price, she can't get government grants and loans. Without a U.S. birth certificate or green card, she can't even legally work an on campus job.