By Jessie Hellmann
Angel Ramos, 20, moved to Indiana with his parents and younger sister from Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico, when he was 8.
His family moved to the U.S. for typical reasons: to work and build a better life for him and his sister, Ramos said.
He attended U.S. schools beginning in the fourth grade and graduated from Kokomo High School in 2010.
Ramos now works with his father as an independent contractor, mostly making furnishings for houses, such as door frames and cabinets.
Because it’s just the two of them, they don’t make much money, and definitely not enough to send Angel to college since House Bill 1402 passed in 2011.
HB 1402 requires undocumented students like Angel to pay out-of state tuition.
Before the bill, tuition at Indiana University Kokomo was manageable at $198 per credit hour.
“It was just enough money that me and my dad could work together and pay as we went,” Ramos said. “It would be hard, but we would be able to do it. He would work, and I would study and help him out.”
He got as far as attending orientation and signing up for classes to study fine arts at the local college before the bill passed and reality hit him like a smack in the face.
“I started getting really excited … But, one night I came home, turned on the news, and there were these kids my age at the Statehouse, protesting a new bill signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels,” he said. “Later on I found out that that law prevented me from getting in-state tuition.”
Now Angel would have to pay IU Kokomo’s out-of state rate of $563 per credit hour if he wanted to attend school.
“When I went up to my dad and talked to him, he just looked at me and said, ‘We can’t afford that,’” Ramos said.
He was devastated.
He feels just as American as anyone who was born in the U.S., he said, and he doesn’t understand why he should be forced to pay out-of state tuition in a state where he has lived the majority of his life.
“I wasn’t born here, but I was raised here,” he said. “I went to American schools, went on field trips, had American friends, watched American movies, and I stood up every morning at school and said the Pledge of Allegiance.”
For students like Ramos, HB 1402 made college two to three times more expensive and much harder to pay for, especially since such students also are ineligible for state or federal financial aid.
When the bill went into effect July 1, 2011, students had two options: pay out-of state tuition or drop out and wait for Congress to pass immigration reform or apply for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals work permit policy.
Currently, 26 of Ivy Tech Kokomo’s 5,302 students self-report they are non-citizens, though the school doesn’t know how many of them are undocumented, said Steve Whikehart, Ivy Tech Kokomo interim admissions director.
He said some of the 26 students could be international students, which Whikehart estimates at about four a year, or refugees, or students with various types of visas.
Because Ivy Tech is an open admissions campus, administrators are not required to document why someone is considered a non-citizen.
All of these students are charged the out-of-state tuition of $250 per credit hour, although the law doesn’t require the schools to verify a student’s legal status.
Without the manpower or resources to verify legal residency, the school relies on receiving viable information that a student isn’t documented.
“If we had definite proof from an accredited agency, that’s the only time we’re going to take something like that into an investigative state,” Whikehart said.
Because of this, it’s still possible undocumented students are receiving in-state tuition, he said.
Currently, two known undocumented students attend Indiana University Kokomo.
“It’s a significantly big issue for the two students, but not a huge impact across the campus in IU Kokomo,” said IUK Vice Chancellor Todd Gambill.
He said the two students were attending when HB 1402 was passed, and qualify for SB 207, a bill passed in the last session that allows undocumented students who were enrolled on July 1, 2011, or before to continue paying in-state rates.
Gambill said he’s unsure how IU Kokomo verifies a student’s legal status.
“I don’t know what we would do if somebody lied, because we haven’t had to deal with that,” Gambill said.
Mark Land, associate vice president of public affairs and government relations at Indiana University Bloomington, said IU and its regional campuses do not “chase down” students to verify their legal residency.
When students first log into One Start, IU’s online portal, after receiving acceptance to any IU campus, they’re required to sign an electronic affidavit stating they’re a legal U.S. citizen, but no one has ever been caught lying, Land said.
“We don’t have the resources to verify everyone. We take people’s responses to be the truth,” Land said. “We’re clearly stating that we expect people to tell the truth on these things. If they lie, I guess we can pursue them legally for lying on a legal document, but we are not actively policing it. We’re expecting people to do the right thing here.”
IU began requiring students sign the affidavit after the Legislature passed HB 1402. Before then, IU and its regional campuses didn’t really care about a person’s legal status, Land said.
“Our position all along is, these kids have been here most of their lives, have done the right things, and they’re being caught up in something that is not their making,” Land said. “Our concern is if you have the academic qualifications to get into IU. We’re following this law because we have to, but legal residency didn’t matter to us before.”
Land said the university system never supported HB 1402, but was pleased when SB 207 passed this year, allowing the students who were enrolled on or before July 1, 2011, to return to school and pay in-state tuition rates.
“This year we were pleased to see these students grandfathered in,” Land said. “It seemed a little unfair that in the middle of a college experience, to [raise] the tuition rate on these students when they already started. There was a fairness issue there we thought.”
Strong support in Howard County
Howard County has strong support for banning in-state tuition for undocumented students in state Rep. Mike Karickhoff, who covers Kokomo and portions of Howard and Grant counties, and in state Rep. Eric Turner, who has a portion of eastern Howard County in his district.
They co-authored the original HB 1402.
“They’re in our country illegally. Those seats could be occupied by students who grew up here and want to go to college,” Karickhoff said. Two years later, however, both representatives voted for SB 207.
“There wasn’t a pathway to citizenship [when HB 1402 was passed],” Karickhoff said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which allows those who entered the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S. and work without fear of deportation for at least two years.
“Without an education, they’re not going to be able to support themselves, which is why I voted for 207,” he said.
But, he said, he won’t support all undocumented students in Indiana receiving in-state tuition until the federal government creates a pathway to citizenship for them.
“To throw away and disregard the fact that they’re in our country illegally, and that their parents are in our country illegally and educating them, I don’t see people in Indiana doing that without a pathway to citizenship,” he said.
He said he believes the 2011 bill led the way for other states to take action that the federal government wouldn’t.
“I think [Indiana], along with other states that passed comparable legislation, helped focus our federal government on a problem that’s out there that needs to be addressed,” he said. “It’s a federal problem, but because our federal government isn’t addressing it, you can see state legislatures doing it.”
Only two other states, Arizona and Georgia, bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates. Colorado passed a similar law in 2008, but repealed it in 2013.
“I think it’s good that we’re on the forefront,” Karickhoff said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be on the forefront?”
For those who don’t have a work permit from the federal government or can’t pay Indiana’s out-of state tuition rates, Karickhoff suggested they “apply pressure” to members of Congress to develop a citizenship pathway.
“If their parents put the same emphasis on their citizenship as their education, they might be citizens,” he said. “I would encourage the children of undocumented aliens, or undocumented aliens themselves, to spend as much energy gaining legal status as they spend on their job and their work. I’m trying to be compassionate here. I’m trying to be a thoughtful person.”
He said he doesn’t think authoring HB 1402 has hurt his constituents, and in fact, he doesn’t believe there are many undocumented students present in Howard County.
“Howard County, District 30, we don’t have any. We don’t. It’s a non-issue here,” he said. “ opens up opportunity for people who live in our state. There are still going to be students occupying those seats. They’re just going to be legal residents.”
A second chance?
With the passing of Senate Bill 207, authored by state Sen. Jean Leising, whose district covers parts of Henry, Rush, Fayette, Franklin, Ripley, Decatur and Shelby counties, and state Sen. Carlin Yoder, whose district includes parts of Elkhart and Kosciusko counties, came a new chance for a few of these young people.
Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law May 7, and it went into effect July 1. Now, undocumented students who were enrolled on or before July 1, 2011, can go back to school and pay in-state tuition.
This includes Erick Gama, 22, of Indianapolis, who moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 10.
“It’s a good thing, although I was kind of shocked [HB 1402] didn’t grandfather us from the beginning,” he said. ”I’m glad, because it’s going to be my last semester, and I’ll be able to pay in-state tuition instead of out-of state, which is about $6,000 for two classes.”
When HB 1402 passed, Gama had just completed his sophomore year studying design at IU Bloomington. Because he’s undocumented, he was forced to start paying out-of-state tuition.
He became a part-time student to lessen the load of his increasing tuition costs and received financial help from family to cover the bills.
“I took the classes that I needed the most, my major classes, and then started taking three classes a semester,” he said. “I took Ivy Tech classes online to try to keep up with the credit hours and transferred them to IU. I should have graduated in May, but I’m graduating this December.”
He wishes he was getting a refund for the out-of state tuition he paid, and believes it might have been better for him to stop going to college if he had known SB 207 would pass.
“It was a mean-spirited bill because it just completely removed undocumented immigrants from attending higher education,” Gama said. “It’s already hard enough with financial aid because we can’t apply for federal or state aid, and have to find private scholarships.”
Sen. Leising said she authored the bill because HB 1402 didn’t grandfather in students who were already enrolled in school.
“I think that, truthfully, they should have figured out how those kids could have been exempt,” Leising said. “A lot of times when legislation passes, it doesn’t impact people that are in a process. They’re grandfathered. I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to get the bill passed. It wasn’t fair to those who invested years of their lives already and wouldn’t be able to finish.”
She said she doesn’t think the Indiana Legislature will support a bill that gives in-state tuition to all undocumented students because of the “brokenness” of the federal government’s immigration laws.
“Right now, I don’t think that the Legislature would collectively support a bill that would take care of all undocumented college students,” Leising said. “I don’t think they are willing to make that commitment without the federal government changing policy, because right now, I don’t think the Legislature has any confidence that the border has been secured and that would potentially be a problem.”
She said some legislators wanted to amend her bill to expand in-state tuition to all students, but it wouldn’t have had enough support to pass.
“It just seems to me that if we have a young person who had done well in school, graduated from a public high school and wanted to continue their education so they can be productive members of society, we should let them finish their education,” she said.
She estimated the law will only help about 300 students.
Lalita Haran, an immigration attorney based out of Kokomo and Carmel, said it’s difficult, if not impossible, for undocumented students to gain citizenship.
“They don’t actually have a way to legalize,” Haran said. “Immigration laws do not provide them much opportunity to legalize.”
She said Obama’s executive order allowing people brought here as children to gain work permits and not be deported is only a temporary solution.
“There are many conditions to it, and many do not quality,” Haran said. “It doesn’t provide legal status either. It just relieves them from deportation for a two-year period, which can be extended.”
She, too, said the federal government needs to reform immigration laws.
“It would be nice to be a nation of immigrants with amazing intellectual capacity and keep growing, and not sending them to other countries because of outdated immigration laws,” Haran said.
Ramos just hopes he gets the work permit he and half a million others applied for through Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
Maybe then he can get a get a regular job to save up money to go to school.
It’s a waiting game for Ramos, as he applied for the permit in February.
Currently, an immigration reform bill is being debated in the House, which if passed by both houses, will lead to citizenship for more than 11 million people, including those brought to the U.S. as children.
Ramos said he wouldn’t know how to survive if he had to go back to Mexico.
“I don’t belong there,” he said. “This is my home.”