Teenagers, the stereotype goes, don‘t like school. So drivers in Silver Lake may have been surprised last Thursday afternoon to see about 60 high school students marching down Rowena Avenue chanting “Education now!” and waving signs reading “Let Us Learn!” For explanation, passers-by only had to look up at a bright-yellow billboard at the corner of Auburn Street reading, “Did you know thousands of gifted California High School graduates are denied their education rights and can’t go to college?”

The teens, along with parents, teachers and community activists, were there to bring attention to the plight of immigrant students who, because they are undocumented, are charged nonresident tuition fees by California colleges, which effectively closes the door to higher education. Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, whose district includes most of southeast L.A. County, has introduced a bill that would allow California‘s undocumented immigrants to pay the much cheaper fees granted to other state residents.

Activists estimate that thousands of students every year, many of whom have lived in California since they were toddlers, are prevented from continuing their studies because of their immigration status. In 2000, the Cal State schools charged out-of-state students an average of $7,500, while the average in-state tuition cost was $1,839. In the UC system, nonresidents pay over $10,000 more than residents. Even in community colleges, higher nonresident fees put post-secondary studies out of reach for many. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid or for most private scholarships.

“Gabriel,” a junior at Huntington Park High School with spiked hair, a scruffy goatee and a 3.8 grade point average, came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 6. He assumed he’d go to college until he got to high school and learned the truth. “My parents said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you have the grades‘ but the reality is I don’t have the money for it.” Because of his immigration status, Gabriel says, “I can‘t really work, I can’t do anything.” His story is far from unique. “John,” a junior at Marshall High, wants to study chemical engineering at UCLA or Berkeley, “if I actually get to go to college.” His eyes light up at the thought of it: “I love science,” he says, “I love it.” But John will very likely be prevented from going because he was born in Mexico. The same goes for “Elizabeth,” a 16-year-old honors student with a transcript that would make any college admissions officer drool.

The current rules have created an extraordinary level of secrecy in what is, for most kids, a routine if stressful process. An underground railroad of sorts has developed to sneak kids through the admissions process at some colleges. One teacher from a high school in South-Central says she shuttles 300 students across town every year to meet with a sympathetic admissions officer at a local community college who coaches them on sidestepping the requirements. Without this clandestine network, says Marshall High teacher and counselor Steve Zimmer, the situation would be catastrophic. Many students, who often don‘t understand their situation until they’ve already been accepted by universities, are devastated. “We treat it like it‘s a grief intervention,” Zimmer says. “They can’t believe that this is happening, that they could‘ve done everything right and still end up in this position.”

Zimmer has to break the bad news, he says, to about 20 kids each year. “One of my best students graduated in 1998,” he says. “She couldn’t go to college, so she ended up getting a fake Social Security number and working at Mervyn‘s.” Another, he says, graduated with a 4.0 and went on to work in a factory. “It’s always the same story,” another teacher said. “It can be more or less sad, but the bottom line is always the same.” Zimmer adds, “Even if you believe that their parents committed a crime, in the rest of our society, outside of immigration law, we don‘t punish the children for the crimes of the parents.”

Some relief may come from the Firebaugh bill, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition if they have been in California for at least three years and are applying for residency. When it was introduced last year, it passed with bipartisan support, only to die on the governor’s desk. Governor Gray Davis vetoed the bill, saying it conflicted with federal law. When Mexican President Vicente Fox brought the issue up with the governor last month, Davis claimed a shift in policy would be too expensive. Firebaugh says he‘s changed parts of the bill to satisfy Davis’ objections and is willing to amend it further to accommodate the governor.

Firebaugh is optimistic. “We‘ll fix this before you graduate,” he told Elizabeth at Thursday’s rally. But Davis (whose office would not comment on the revised bill) will surely face pressure from anti-immigrant forces to veto the bill, and he has little to gain from signing it. One student speculated that the governor “vetoed that bill because immigrants don‘t have the right to vote.” Marshall High’s Zimmer agrees: “I don‘t think he cares — they’re not a voting bloc. He doesn‘t have to look these kids in the eye and say you can’t go to college.” In the meantime, expect to see more teens rallying on street corners near you, loudly demanding to learn.

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