Sunday, June 5, 2011

AMERICAN GIRL* (The Register-Guard)

*In every way but officially, that is, which may affect a Churchill High student’s ability to get into college

The Register-Guard
Appeared in print: Sunday, June 5, 2011, page A10

“I don’t put a wall up to shut people out. I put it up to see who is willing to go over it to be with me. Take me as you find me with all my fears and failures.”

— Quote on Edith Gomez’s Facebook page, under “About Edith”

All she wants is a chance.

A chance to get a driver’s license, a Social Security card and, maybe someday, a piece of paper that says she is what she knows in her heart she is: an American.

Edith Gomez also wants a chance to go to college in her home state without having to pay sky-highforeign-student prices. Oregon is the only home she has ever known, she says. Her parents brought her across the border from Mexico in the mid-1990s when she was 1 year old, and her earliest memory has her right here in Eugene.

“I’ve pretty much lived in Eugene my whole life, and I don’t know Mexico at all,” says the 17-year-old, a Eugene International High School junior at Churchill High School. She has no memory of Mexico, where she was born in the small town of Arcelia, in the southern state of Guerrero, in the fall of 1993. She has never been back there since she was taken across the border, along with a brother two years her senior, by her parents.

“I don’t see myself as an illegal immigrant,” says Gomez, whose English, even though it is her second language, sounds like any other teenage girl from the Northwest. “I didn’t know until the second grade. All I knew about it was, if the wrong person knew, they’d take you away.”

Her parents came into the United States illegally, and that makes Gomez illegal too.

Now a standout National Honor Society student with a 3.9 grade-point average, Gomez is among an undetermined number of illegal immigrant students in Oregon who could benefit from the latest version of a proposed law known as the tuition equity bill, passed in March by the state Senate, but now on its death bed in the state House because of mostly Republican opposition. Senate Bill 742 would go into effect for the 2012-13 school year — which would be Gomez’s freshman year in college — and allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities if they meet certain criteria.

Neither the Eugene School District nor the state of Oregon keeps records on the number of public school students who are illegal immigrants.

Since 1982, federal law has prohibited school districts from asking for proof of U.S. citizenship.

The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank for economic and social policy research, estimates about 65,000 illegal immigrants annually graduate from U.S. high schools.

For those illegal immigrants, graduation opens up a grim landscape. Without documentation of citizenship, they cannot get legal work, cannot get a driver’s permit, cannot get government-backed college aid or in-state tuition rates.

Proponents of the tuition equity bill say these students should not have to pay a price for having been brought into the country illegally by their parents. Critics of the bill say its passage would be another incentive for people to sneak into the United States illegally and take advantage of taxpayer-funded assistance.

Not much incentive

Gomez says she knows at least a dozen other Churchill students, as well as some students at other high schools, who are undocumented. Churchill Prinicpal Kim Finch said Gomez would know better than she. “I couldn’t even hazard a guess,” Finch says. “I think it’s greater than people think, but parents who are here illegally don’t really want people to know.”

For students such as Gomez, the vast majority of them Latino, there is not much incentive to do well in high school, she says.

“I know kids who just give up because they say, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything afterwards,’ ” says Gomez, who is in her 12th year of attending Eugene School District schools since starting kindergarten at the former Whiteaker Elementary School in the fall of 1999. She remembers freshman year a fellow Latino Student Union member at Churchill who couldn’t wait until he turned 16 so he could drop out of school. “I remember thinking, like, ‘Wow, maybe that’s why so many Latino kids really don’t try very hard, because they feel, ‘Why am I going to work so hard for nothing, if there’s nothing for me at the end?’ ” Gomez says.

“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I’ve thought about it sometimes, too, when things get really hard. But you always have to pull out that hope. And I feel like, if they passed this (bill), we could get more Latinos to go to college. If you have all these great minds that want to continue, I just don’t see why the government wouldn’t want to take them and use them, you know? Then they could give back to society.”

Michael Stasack, Gomez’s French teacher at Churchill, says the tuition equity bill is tailor-made for someone like Gomez. “Edith is the type of person it’s designed for,” Stasack says. “She’s an amazing student, she’s highly motivated. She’s the type of person who our country was founded on: highly motivated, hard working immigrants who are going to improve the country they came to.”

‘I like to win’

For Gomez, who had a difficult home life for many years, until the state Department of Human Services took her from her parents last year, school and sports (she was undefeated as a singles tennis player this year at Churchill) is where she has focused her energy. She has always done well in school, she says

“I look at it kind of like a competition,” she says confidently. “And I like to win.”

“I’ve just always kind of hoped something would happen,” Gomez says of being able to go to college. “Something will come, and I’ll be able to go to school and it’ll be OK. I just think it’s a lot easier to (have) excuses to limit yourself. So I just try not to do that.”

Children of illegal immigrants often feel like they’ve gotten a raw deal when it comes to attending college in Oregon, says Gomez, whose older brother, a 2009 Churchill High School graduate, is now a student at Lane Community College. Gomez also has two younger siblings, including a sister who is a freshman at Churchill, who were both born here and are thus U.S. citizens.

Determined to succeed

Everyone is speaking French; nothing but French. Nothing else is allowed because, well, this is French IV at Churchill High School on a Tuesday afternoon.

And the first student to ask a question of Stasack, the teacher, is Gomez. But you’d have to speak French to know what she, or anyone else in the class, is saying. Stasack has just handed tests back, and Gomez is saying something about a “courbe?” That would be French for “curve.” She wants to know if the test was graded on “la courbe?”

“Oui,” Stasack says.

As in all but two of her classes, Gomez is getting an A in French IV. Her other classes this term are precalculus, biology, literature, history and economics, all part of Eugene International High School’s International Baccalaureate, or IB, program, where students earn college credit in certain courses. She has A’s in all of her classes except Advanced Placement/IB biology and calculus, where at last report she was missing an A by a hair, with an 89.9 percent average in both classes, Gomez says. So she still has a shot at a 4.0 GPA this term, she says.

“She’s a wonderful student,” Stasack says. “She does her homework, she participates, she’s engaged, she loves what she does. You take a kid like this and you fill the schools with them? You’re going to improve the level of the community and the work force.”

Her favorite class is Jennifer Bender-Willis’ AP/IB biology class for juniors. Despite her fight to earn an A, and the class’s challenging topics of human anatomy and biochemistry and the molecular structure of cells, she likes Bender-Willis’ personality and her contagious enthusiasm. And like most of Gomez’s teachers, Bender-Willis is familiar with Gomez’s story, her struggles at home and having to adapt to foster parents for a brief time before a couple from her church, Tadd and Jessica Barton, took her in last fall under an agreement with Lane County Juvenile Court.

“She’s a very brave person,” Bender-Willis says. “If you look at the things that have gone on in her personal life, the things she has gone through. … She has survived that. She has very little fear anymore. She’s like, ‘I’ve gone through this, I’ve gone through this,’ I’m makin’ it. I’m going to do this. She’s very determined, knows what she wants to do, knows where she wants to be.”

Rising tuition

Gomez says she wants to be an orthodontist. “I’ve just always liked working with people. And I like straight teeth,” Gomez says, laughing. Her teeth are gleaming white and straight as piano keys despite never having braces or regular dental care. She interned a couple of summers ago for Eugene dentist Leah Hickson and found she liked it.

But one does not become an orthodontist without first going to college. Gomez said if she could go anywhere, she’d go to Willamette University in Salem. Tuition at the small private school, though, is $38,800 a year no matter where you’re from, Oregon or Mexico or the farthest reaches of Siberia. At that price, Gomez will not be going to Willamette without serious financial help. And as an undocumented immigrant, she is not eligible for governmental financial aid. And even if she wanted to go to Lane Community College in the fall of 2012, nonresident tuition there is currently $2,556 a term vs. $996 for in-state students.

Tuition at all public universities is set to rise for 2011-12. At the University of Oregon, a year of tuition in 2011-12 is projected to be $27,738 for nonresident and international students vs. $8,880 for in-state students.

Gomez says she is looking into what types of scholarships might be available to someone in her position. Wednesday night at Churchill, during an awards ceremony for outstanding students, Gomez received the Portland State Viking Scholar award, worth $2,000 if she chose to go there. For a nonresident student, tuition at PSU is projected to be $22,983 annually beginning this fall.

‘She lives here’

Linda Howard of Eugene says she has known of Gomez’s potential for years, since she tutored her in fourth grade reading at Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

“I couldn’t put my finger on it,” Howard says. “She was bright. She was thoughtful. We just liked each other. I think I saw her potential from the beginning. We just made a connection.”

Howard also saw that Gomez, who began learning English as a little girl when her brother would come home from school and speak it, didn’t need much help with reading. “It was quite clear that she didn’t need me very much,” Howard recalls. “But the teacher was kind enough to let us continue.”

The bond continued into Gomez’s days at Kennedy Middle School, where Howard started a mentorship program when she was a staff member there in the 1980s and early 1990s. Howard would pick up Gomez weekly for lunch, with Gomez’s younger sister, Janilet, sometimes coming along.

“Given all that I’ve seen her go through in the last couple of years, she’s just an exceptional young woman with incredible focus,” Howard says. “She’s had every reason to give up and she just hasn’t let that be an option.”

Last year, after Gomez, who calls Howard “my angel,” was removed from her home by the DHS after reports of physical abuse by her father, Howard introduced Gomez to Eugene immigration attorney Raquel Hecht. Hecht pursued special juvenile immigration status for Gomez, which is based on findings of abuse, neglect or abandonment of an immigrant child, and could have eventually won her permanent U.S. residency. It might have allowed her to qualify for in-state tuition, too, Hecht says. But a court agreement could not be reached.

Instead, Hecht is now pursuing a U visa for Gomez. U visas are granted to immigrant crime victims in exchange for information to law enforcement, and are good for up to four years of legal residency, Hecht says. Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner OK’d the application, Hecht says. Although a U visa would allow Gomez to get a driver’s license and a Social Security number and could lead to permanent residency, it does not secure in-state college tuition rates.

In the meantime, Gomez has been living with her new family, the Bartons, in their south Eugene home since October. She calls them “mom” and “dad,” and refers to the Bartons’ two daughters, Bailey, a 2009 North Eugene graduate who now lives in Portland, and Gabby, a South Eugene sophomore, as her “sisters.”

Gabby Barton’s take on whether Gomez should be able to attend college in Oregon at in-state tuition costs?

“She lives here,” says Gabby, having dinner a couple of weeks ago with her parents and Gomez. “I don’t really see her as being an immigrant from Mexico. She’s lived here all her life.”

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