An education in U.S. immigration policy

Dream Act would serve thousands of children following in Onan Marroquin's footsteps

April 14, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Most Marylanders who oppose the Dream Act, which grants undocumented immigrants the resident tuition discount on a state college education, probably never met the likes of Onan Marroquin. If they did, they might have a change of heart and mind about the Dream Act. They might come to see it as the fair and smart way for the state to support the bright and highly motivated young people who come through our schools and who, with more education, might join the ranks of the state's innovative and future-thinking professional class.

They might see the Dream Act as a good investment.

Mr. Marroquin was born 26 years ago in a town called Chiquimulilla, nearGuatemala'sPacific coast. The mid-1980s was a time of political upheaval and violence in Guatemala. Mr. Marroquin's parents left him and his two sisters with a grandmother and went to the United States to find work. They settled in Maryland.

In 1995, when Mr. Marroquin was 10 years old, his father returned to Chiquimulilla, gathered the children and announced that he was taking them to the U.S. The family traveled for three weeks through Mexico, hiking through the countryside and fording rivers. Mr. Marroquin recalls the journey, part of which he spent on his daddy's back, as a great adventure. "Up until we got to the border, everything felt like a field trip," he says.

His father and uncle had hired a "coyote," a smuggler of humans, to help them cross into Texas. But at some point, the coyote disappeared, and Mr. Marroquin recalls his family being stranded for hours on a road in a desert. His father decided to wave down the first car that came along; it turned out to be that of a local police officer.

The officer took pity on the family — hard to imagine such a thing today — and drove Mr. Marroquin, his father, uncle and two sisters to a bus station. The family took the bus toWashington, D.C.and rejoined Mr. Marroquin's mother.

To this point, of course, the Marroquins were undocumented — people without papers, illegal immigrants. But Onan Marroquin had no awareness of the immigration issues or his family's status; he was just a boy in a new place, still seeing the whole experience as a great adventure.

The family applied for citizenship, stepping into a long line for that privilege. Meanwhile, his parents worked, and Mr. Marroquin and his sisters attended school inPrince George's County. They learned to speak English.

Mr. Marroquin was an excellent student, eventually earning honors at High Point High School in Beltsville, graduating second in his class and giving the commencement address in 2004.

The next step, of course, was college, and Mr. Marroquin had high hopes. The boy from Chiquimulilla applied to M.I.T., Cornell, College Park and Carnegie Mellon. He wanted to study engineering. He was wait-listed at M.I.T. but accepted at the other universities. His top choice was Carnegie Mellon, and he came within inches of actually going there. In fact, he'd gone to freshman orientation and met his first-semester roommate before learning that he was ineligible for financial aid, and that was crushing news.

Mr. Marroquin did not yet have legal status (he has since gained permanent residency) and was therefore ineligible for help with tuition. "I was asked if my family could pay for Carnegie Mellon," he says. "But no, my family did not have $200,000."

Mr. Marroquin says he didn't think his status would create such obstacles, but he soon learned that being undocumented closed doors — to all the universities he wanted to attend, including, he says, the University of Maryland at College Park. Ironically, another Maryland university, Morgan State, accepted him and provided him with the financial aid he needed. (I guess they didn't get the memo.) He received his bachelor's degree from Morgan, now lives in Baltimore and works for AmeriCorps. He is in line to become a citizen and is making plans for the next step, perhaps law school.

The Dream Act — Maryland's, or the one long stalled in Congress — would make the path to higher education and citizenship so much easier for all the kids who are following Onan Marroquin's footsteps. We should stop penalizing them because their parents carried them across a border. We should continue to support their education, encourage them to become citizens and contribute to their adopted country. It's a good investment.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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