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The Faces Behind the Latest Immigration Battle

Thanks to Gov. Rick Perry, Karla Reséndiz was able to attend UT-Austin and pay in-state tuition rates — even though she is not a legal resident of Texas. Reséndiz — and by extension Perry — is now the focus of a harsh debate over illegal immigration.

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In 2004, Karla Reséndiz graduated near the top of her class at Rockwall High School outside of Dallas. She was a member of the National Honor Society, captain of the fencing team and the leader of the school's junior Rotary Club. 

From there, Reséndiz went on to earn a doctor of pharmacy degree with honors in 2010 after completing the University of Texas at Austin's six-year program. She paid the same in-state tuition rate any other Texas student would to attend the flagship public university. Now, Reséndiz and others like her find themselves engulfed in the latest political skirmish to roil the Republican candidates for president.

Reséndiz is the child of illegal immigrants — her family brought her to Texas from Mexico City in 1998 when she was 12 years old. (Story continues after video.)

Gov. Rick Perry's 2001 decision to sign into law a provision allowing Reséndiz and other illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates has drawn such harsh scrutiny that Perry now finds himself in an unusual position: outside the Republican mainstream on the issue of illegal immigration, at least judging from the reaction of his fellow GOP candidates. 

That wasn't the case in 2001, when House Bill 1403 passed the Legislature virtually unopposed and Perry signed it into law, making Texas the first state in the country to offer in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. To qualify, a student must have lived in the state for three years, graduated from a Texas high school and agree to apply for permanent residency. 

Perry's attempt to defend the policy at the GOP debate last week in Florida by saying those who opposed it don't "have a heart" only inflamed the criticism from other Republicans. His chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has taken up the issue in a relentless assault.

“I fundamentally believe that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for American taxpayers to pay for the college education of illegal aliens particularly at a time when American taxpayers are having a hard time financing education for their own children,” Romney recently told radio host Jordan Sekulow.

Immigration hardliners like Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee went a step further and proclaimed Perry “finished” for what they call his support of illegal immigrants over legal residents and citizens. The group promises to protest outside Perry fundraisers this week.

“ALIPAC believes Rick Perry is unfit to be President of the United States because of his recent promotion of in-state tuition for illegal aliens, Perry's choice to side with President Obama and Mexico against Arizona's SB 1070 illegal immigration bill, and Perry's opposition to significant border fencing,” the group said in a statement.

Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been flirting with a presidential run, took a swipe at Perry in a question-and-answer session after a speech Tuesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. 

“I want every child who comes to New Jersey to be educated, but I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition their education,” Christie said. “And let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position that is a common sense position.”

Perry's campaign staff has tried to blunt the criticism over the in-state tuition law by highlighting his tough stances on other immigration-related issues.

“In light of the federal government's failure to secure the border, Governor Perry has championed border security, authorizing $400 million from Texas to fight border crime, and called for penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants and an end to sanctuary city policies,” Ray Sullivan, the campaign’s communications director, said last week after the Center for Immigration Studies released a report claiming more jobs in the state have gone to immigrants than native-born Texans.

Like Reséndiz, Loren Antonio Campos is the child of an illegal immigrant. His mother brought him to Texas in 2000, from Monterrey, Nuevo León, when he was 11 years old. 

Campos provided Booker T. Washington High School in Houston some bragging rights in 2007 when he was named a National Hispanic Scholar and a finalist in the National Merit Scholarship program for his academic success in the school's engineering magnet program. 

In May, Campos graduated from UT with a 3.1 GPA and a degree in civil engineering. His in-state tuition rate per semester was about $6,000, almost a third of what out-of-state engineering students who’ve enrolled since 2006 pay, according to figures from the university. Without the tuition break, Campos says, he would not have been able to attend UT.

For Campos, the harsh criticism of Perry's decision is bewildering and disheartening. 

“I feel like America is my home. At the end of the day, we have to think about what makes someone an American,” Campos said. “Is it a nine-digit number? Or the values we uphold. I feel like I have worked just as hard as anybody else to earn the place that I’ve earned.”

Campos was one of about 16,500 students without legal immigration status who benefited from the bill in 2010 — about 1.2 percent of the estimated 1.39 million students who paid in-state tuition to attend a Texas public college or university.

Campos’ sister is a U.S. citizen, and she has petitioned for legal residency for Campos, but he says that could take “10 or 15 years.” He remains hopeful, however, that HB 1403 will eventually have a “domino” effect culminating in the passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for immigrants brought into the country before the age of 16 and who have graduated from high school or earned a GED, been accepted to a college or university or served in the U.S. military.

“Dropout rates for Latinos have fallen in states that offer in-state tuition so it’s definitely an investment in the future,” he said. “At the end of the day, an educated state is a going to be a successful state and these types of laws invest in the future.”

But he and others like him now find themselves confronting a hardening anti-immigrant political climate in Texas and elsewhere that has produced laws requiring a strict crackdown on illegal immigrations, from Arizona's mandate that employers use E-Verify to weed out illegal immigrants to Texas' decision to deny them the ability to obtain driver’s licenses.

One of the ironies of Campos and Reséndiz's situations is that while they were admitted to UT, allowed to pay in-state tuition rates and graduated from the university, their prospects of actually finding legal employment in their fields are virtually nil, given their immigration status.

Campos could return to Mexico and employ his skills and education there, or in another country. But he says he wants to remain in Texas, which he considers home. He's currently selling cosmetic and skin-care products and is considering applying to graduate school in Texas while his immigration struggle drags on.

Reséndiz and her family had the necessary visas when they arrived in Texas in 1998. After the visas expired, the family stayed, hoping to become legal citizens. Thirteen years later, that has not yet happened. 

She defends the decision to extend in-state tuition rates, which allowed her to attend college, to someone in her position.

“In order to qualify for this benefit, you have to have lived in Texas for at least three years and graduated from a Texas high school, and this benefits not only undocumented students; it benefits anyone that benefits under that criteria,” Reséndiz said. “It’s sort of infuriating to see the debates and people just attack us and say we’ve had a handout when in fact we’ve worked really hard. Our grades, our test scores back it up. We have gained a rightful place at the universities that we go to.” 

But like Campos, Reséndiz finds that her degree is of little use in Texas. Unable to prove she is a legal resident, Reséndiz cannot become a licensed pharmacist. She currently operates her own consulting company organizing support for the federal DREAM Act (her clients pay her company, and she in turn pays herself). 

She says she intends to remain in Texas and continue her efforts to become a legal resident.

"[Opponents] should look at the people behind the bill," she said. "They would be surprised at how many undocumented people they know, who they think are great people."

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