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Originally published January 10, 2012 at 9:42 PM | Page modified January 11, 2012 at 3:33 PM

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Scholarships not for illegal-immigrant students?

Illegal-immigrant high-school students, who signed up for the state's College Bound scholarship as a way of paying for college, are finding it and many other public and private scholarships out of their reach.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Editor's note

The ability to comment on this story has been restored. Commenting was not allowed when the story was first posted last night because we did not have available staff to adequately monitor the thread. History has shown that stories involving illegal immigration often provoke hateful comments. Discussion of the issues and policies brought up in the story is fine; attacking private individuals or ethnicities is not.

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When she was in the eighth grade, the student — now a senior at Kent-Meridian High School — signed up for a state scholarship program the Legislature had just created.

The College Bound Scholarship program allows middle-school students from low-income households who maintain good grades, stay out of trouble and graduate from high school to receive a scholarship to a Washington college or university.

But there is a caveat that the Kent senior and possibly hundreds of others like her may have failed to take note of at the time. To obtain the scholarship they will also need to apply for federal financial aid. And to apply for that, they need a valid Social Security number, which as illegal immigrants they do not have.

With graduation looming, many are finding College Bound, as well as other public financial aid and many private scholarships, out of their reach.

Advocates for these students, already eligible for in-state tuition, want to make a push this legislative session to allow illegal-immigrant students to receive state financial aid — resurrecting the debate about what role, if any, states should play in helping undocumented immigrant students financially.

Even they acknowledge it's a tough sell, given economic reality.

But, says Ricardo Sanchez, director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP), which partners with school districts and colleges to address educational issues for Latinos, "We've invested tens of thousands of dollars in these kids and we have a wealth of talent among them."

In Washington state, the majority of illegal-immigrant students are Latino and, as an ethnic group Latinos represent the fastest growing in the state.

In recent weeks, these students have been making the rounds, lobbying lawmakers and urging school boards from Kent to Chelan to support such a measure.

"The worst thing we can do is leave these young people, especially scholars, with no hope of an education — or a future," Sanchez said.

Yet even with a college degree, some of these students still face uncertainty because they cannot work legally after they graduate.

Craig Keller, who heads Respect Washington, a group of citizens working to discourage illegal immigration in the state, said taxpayers should not be burdened with educating these children — especially during tough economic times.

"Illegal-immigrant children have benefited richly from a free education in the U.S.," he said. "The government doesn't owe them or anyone else — legal or not — a college education."

Education in jeopardy

The Kent-Meridian senior, who asked that her name be withheld because of her immigration status, was on a school visit to the University of Washington in October when she learned for the first time that she might be ineligible for College Bound.

The Mill Creek Middle School teacher who encouraged her to fill out the scholarship form in the eighth-grade was likely unaware of her immigration status, she said. He was simply encouraging good students to apply.

At Kent-Meridian, she has a 3.8 grade-point average and is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program, an initiative that prepares high-achieving students worldwide for college.

Her father works in construction and her mother in a restaurant. Without a scholarship, she said, they would be unable to pay for her to go to college, particularly the UW where she'd hoped to attend. A few private foundations and organizations provide scholarships to students like her, including Washington's College Success Foundation.

"I know there's a possibility I may not be able to go," she said. "I want to look back and say even if I can't go that at least I tried. I want to look at all the possibilities that I have."

$7.4 million to start

In the years since the Legislature launched College Bound, nearly 93,967 middle-school students have signed up, according to the Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board.

The first group — almost 16,000 who applied during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years — will graduate from high school this year.

At the time, the Legislature set aside $7.4 million to pay for the program. The HEC Board estimates that amount will provide scholarships to eligible students through the school year that ends in 2014.

It will fall to the Legislature to figure out how to pay for the program beyond that, spokesman Gary Larson said.

Middle-school students can apply for the program using either their Social Security number or student ID number. Their families must qualify as low-income; they must pledge to be good citizens and not commit a felony. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and those in foster care may also apply.

As seniors, students must apply for federal financial aid (FAFSA).

To date, about one-third of College Bound applicants have been Latino and LEAP's Sanchez estimates nearly half lack lawful immigration status.

Advocates and school counselors — even state officials — have pushed eligible students to apply for College Bound, regardless of their immigration status. They say they want them all prepared in the event there's a policy change in Congress or Olympia that qualifies those in the country illegally for the scholarship.

But Keller of Respect Washington said the state needs to create conditions so that these students leave the country once they graduate from high school — not stay.

"The funds appropriated to fund postsecondary education should be dedicated to those who obey the laws and are here legally," he said.

Budget problems cited

LEAP, instrumental eight years ago in getting the Legislature to approve in-state tuition for illegal-immigrant students, is urging school boards to pass resolutions in support of legislation to allow these same students to qualify for state financial aid.

Three years ago a similar measure was introduced in the Legislature but received only a single hearing before it died.

Three states — California, New Mexico and Texas — now provide financial aid to illegal-immigrant students.

Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle, said she supports the same approach for Washington but acknowledges it's unlikely such a measure would make it through the current Legislature: "Our budget situation makes that almost impossible right now."

Still, LEAP and its students are making presentations to school boards throughout the state, hoping they would pass resolutions supporting such legislation.

In the Eastern Washington school district of Grandview, where 87 percent of students are Latino, Superintendent Kevin Chase said board members are likely to be supportive because many have watched these children grow up alongside their own.

Some illegal-immigrant kids end up dropping out of high school and following their parents into the fields, often out of financial need and often, too, because they see no real future for themselves, he said.

"Our focus here at Grandview is for all kids to graduate with the ability to be successful in college, work and life," Chase said.

In Lupe Villasenor's home, dropping out was never an option.

She and her siblings were encouraged by their farmworker parents — who had no more than a grade-school education — to be the very best students they could.

College was always on the table — the possibility of it more real for the 17-year-old Lupe, a Chelan High School junior, than for her older brother who graduated from high school last year. While she was born in the U.S., he was brought here as a baby from Mexico illegally by their parents.

She will likely use the College Bound Scholarship to attend Washington State University next year, she said. She wants to become a lawyer.

Her brother had also hoped to enroll at WSU but ended up at a community college instead, because that's all the family could afford.

He's studying horticulture, she said, an educational foundation he believes he will be able to use in the fruit orchards of Eastern Washington — even without legal status.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @turnbulll.

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