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Teaching The Wrong Lessons

March 28, 2006
Opinion By Rick Green

For those of you who - like me - are woefully ignorant about immigration, meet Amanda.

An A student at Greenwich High School, a volunteer tutor, she is a teenage leader who loves watching "The OC" and listening to Coldplay. She dreams of the Ivy League and making her mark in America.

She can forget about it.

Amanda is an undocumented immigrant. Legislation approved by the U.S. House of Representatives would make her a felon. She is a child.

We can debate about erecting fences at the borders or fining employers who hire the undocumented to do the jobs that Americans don't want. But what's the point of punishing children?

"I have grown up here. I am in most ways American," said Amanda, who asked that her last name not be published. We talked over soft drinks one afternoon at a pizza place near her high school about how she always thought she would be an American success story - even though her family can't afford college.

Outside, classmates in BMWs and Volvos, with their lacrosse sticks and iPods, buzzed on by. We talked about how her future has suddenly lurched to a stop: No green card, no college.

"My whole life I grew up thinking Columbia or NYU," said Amanda, who is 17. "It's like, wow, was I wrong."

Amanda was reminded of this when she appeared on a Danbury radio program. Callers suggested that Amanda and those like her should get the hell back to Brazil if they are so smart.

Brilliant. Let's take it out on children who came with their parents. So what if public schools have educated her since the third grade.

Among the 1.8 million undocumented children, there are an estimated 65,000 teenagers about to graduate like Amanda, at least 200 in Connecticut, hoping to go college. Should we just ship them back?

Why not just bar them from our public schools? That way they won't turn into honor students and make us feel bad.

Of course, Amanda is probably good enough to get into any of the half dozen schools she is applying to. But she can't afford them. As a foreign student, she isn't eligible for financial aid.

There's no option of in-state tuition at the University of Connecticut, a school that would be lucky to land a young woman such as Amanda. State legislators last year rejected a bill that would have given students such as Amanda in-state rates, a $13,000 savings. Supporters say there wasn't enough backing to try to get the bill passed this year.

It's not exactly radical. Across the country, nine states - including Texas and California - have laws that allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants.

Amanda and her friends are trying to muster support for a federal law, the Dream Act, that would allow undocumented students here for more than 5 years to go to college and become legal residents of the U.S. It's going nowhere at the moment, although it has bipartisan support.

At a church in Stamford one recent evening, Amanda and others urged the group of 100 or so students and their parents to speak out. A man near me quietly said he'd been here for 11 years and his teenage son doesn't even speak Spanish. "His whole life is here," he said.

Tough luck, I thought. But then I drove home to my world where it's easy to forget that succeeding in life isn't just about working hard. I kept thinking about Amanda's world, which is getting closer to my world.

"I know how hard I've worked. How could it not pay off?" Amanda told me. "Not going to college, that's unimaginable."

Yes, it is.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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