Grades, personality, work ethic 

Cecilia, 17, is a popular student at her South Arkansas high school. She's been on the Homecoming court, captain of the flag line, a student council officer, an usher at prom.

She plays the flute in the school band, which was important enough to her that she quit the school softball team to give it more attention.

Cecilia works hard out of school as well, putting in 20 hours a week at a grocery store. She volunteers with a youth service group in town.

Importantly, she's a good student. She was inducted into the National Honor Society this year.

Cecilia would like to become a radiologist and has had her heart set on going to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Cecilia is a credit to her school, her family and her community. But she stands out in another way. She may be the only student at her school to cross the Rio Grande on an inner tube, in the dark, dodging the border patrol.

She's not a legal resident of Arkansas, though she has lived here with her family since she was 4 years old. To go to UCA, she'd have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is double the charge to residents. “I really want to go to college,” she said. But she is seeing her dream evaporate.

Anti-immigrant groups — most notably Secure Arkansas, the group behind a proposed ballot initiative that would make sure undocumented Arkansans don't get any public benefits — suggest that students like Cecilia are a plague on state coffers. In fact, her situation is rare. Her counselor said she's the first undocumented student at her school who's been aiming for college.

According to the University of Arkansas and other state-funded schools, recent checks on Social Security numbers have called just a tiny number into question. Only 15 students out of 19,000 at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville have submitted Social Security numbers that don't check out, new provost Bob McMath said recently. Only 25 students at UCA, which has an enrollment of 12,600 students, were questioned by higher ed because they either failed to provide a Social Security number or the number was incorrect. The admissions office expects most of those students will be found legal.

If there's a problem, it's Cecilia's. “She's one of us,” her school counselor said. The situation, she said, is “sickening. … She's really worried about the future.”

As a graduate of an Arkansas high school, Cecilia might have been eligible for in-state tuition at the UA and UCA until recently. The state high school diploma signaled residency; state schools are not required to gather information on citizenship from applicants. UCA president Lu Hardin said in 2006 that the school was offering in-state tuition to undocumented Arkansas high school graduates because it was “the right thing to do.” 

Then, after an Associated Press article reported that undocumented students might be enrolled as residents, Gov. Mike Beebe directed the state Department of Higher Education to make sure colleges had stopped the practice. Director Jim Purcell sent out a letter to all state-funded schools requesting them to include questions of residency, citizenship and the provision of a valid Social Security number on their application forms.

Federal law says schools may not offer postsecondary school benefits to non-citizens unless it offers the same benefits to all students, regardless of residency.

The governor acted hastily after the AP story was published, since it came on the heels of his own declaration that Secure Arkansas's ballot initiative was unnecessary because it duplicated laws already in place.

Cecilia and her mother and brothers joined her father in Arkansas when she was in kindergarten, traveling on passports and tourist visas. Her father had come to the United States earlier to work on a farm and got a legal Social Security number. He has not been able to secure U.S. citizenship, but he has paid federal and state taxes since he began work here.

When Cecilia was 10 years old, the family decided to visit relations in Mexico over Christmas. On their return, they were stopped at the border and denied passage.

Three weeks later, Cecilia was in an inner tube with the man they'd paid dearly to get the family across the river. They landed, crawled up a high bank and ran a couple of miles across the desert to a waiting car.

Cecilia was eager to return. “We were in school. We didn't want to miss it,” she explained. Then she smiled. “Our vacation turned out to be longer than we thought.”

Going to UCA will be as neat a trick as getting into the U.S. Out-of-state tuition tags nearly $7,000 on to the nearly $22,000 cost of tuition, room, board and books.

Cecilia knows how to work hard — she makes the family's car payments, pays for her phone and helps pay family bills. But a college bill of nearly $120,000 is too much debt to bear.

Cecilia speaks with a South Arkansas accent, with lots of diphthongs and pronouncing “I” as “ah.” She's popular, she said, because she's chatty and is “easy to get along with.” “I think if I worked hard and kept my grades up I [should] be eligible like any other person,” she said. “We came for a better living. We know two languages and we work as hard as everybody else,” she said. Why is she treated differently?

Recently, Cecilia talked to an Army recruiter about ROTC and the college benefits a commitment to the armed services would bring. The Army recruiter, she said, didn't ask whether she was a U.S. citizen.


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