When lawmakers created the Hathaway Scholarship in 2005, it was meant to encourage all Wyoming high school students to go to college by making it easier to afford.
However, there is one group of Wyoming students that will never qualify for the Hathaway Scholarship: those without U.S. citizenship.
Isabel Perez entered the Wyoming public school system when she was ten years old, shortly after her family left Mexico City for Green River. Perez came to the U.S. without documentation, but said she grew up to be a regular American teenager.
“I was involved in sports, and yearbook production,” said Perez. “I’ve always been a good student, so I knew I wanted to go to college after high school.”
Perez was told that she would qualify for the Hathaway Scholarship, and so she decided to attend Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs.
“Because I not only got the Hathaway, supposedly, but I also had technical theater scholarships that would help me to pay for room and board, and have extra money to go with that,” said Perez.
She moved into the dorms at Western and dived into her first college semester. But right after midterms, Perez got a notice from the Financial Aid Office.
“They tell me that my scholarships had been removed,” said Perez. “So now I have to pay all this extra money for staying at the dorms, for my tuition, and I was paying out of state even though I had already lived in Green River for ten years.”
Perez was told her Hathaway Scholarship and her in-state tuition rate was pulled because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and was handed a bill for more than $3,000. And because it was well past the drop date, she had no choice but to pay it.
“It’s just horrible for a freshman to find out the first semester in college, ‘well, you had help, but nope, we’re going to take it away from you now’” said Perez.
At the time, she had the DACA status, also known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. For those that qualify, the status protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation, among other things.
But it does not provide a path to citizenship, and in order to qualify for Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship, students must be American citizens.
University of Wyoming Law Professor Suzie Pritchett said this requirement undermines the objective of the scholarship, which is to give Wyoming high school graduates better access to higher education.
Pritchett said this is unfair to DACA students.
“They’re graduating from the top of their classes from high school, they’ve spent the majority of their lives in Wyoming,” said Pritchett. “They thought they were going to receive all of the benefits that their classmates would, only to come to find out that this massive source of financial aid and support, particularly to our talented high school graduates, was not available to them.”
According to U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services there are 605 DACA recipients living in the state, some of which, Pritchett said, are students in the public school system.
“And because our public schools at the k-12 level have a constitutional obligation to educate anyone regardless of their immigration status, we’re pouring loads of money into these kids to make sure they receive the finest education here in Wyoming,” said Pritchett.
During the last two legislative sessions, bills have been introduced that would have allowed DACA students to qualify for the Hathaway, but neither attempt was successful.
Wyoming Department of Education’s Megan Degenfelder said the issue is not currently being considered by any legislative committee or the department.
“We haven’t developed much of an opinion on the issue, of whether there’s an intent to not have those students receive the fund,” said Degenfelder.
She added that they have no idea how many students this is impacting, because such specific data on DACA students is not available.
Gillette Senator Jeff Wasserburger was one of the lawmakers that established the Hathaway scholarship, and he said he was unaware there was a rule that kept DACA students from receiving it.
“I don’t remember, I thought we said that if you’re a graduate of a state of Wyoming high school, doesn’t matter if you’re out of state or a foreign citizen, you get the scholarship,” said Wasserburger.
Student Isabel Perez said she also wasn’t aware of the statute.
“I think that’s just in the fine print,” said Perez. “I never heard any information until I got the notice, all this information that not even my high school counselors or principals or anyone that I knew of was able to give to me.”
Despite the hurdles, Perez is now a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, where she pays in-state tuition because she is now a U.S. citizen. While she had the financial resources to overcome the loss of her scholarships, she’d like the law change to help those that are unable to pay.
This story is the third in a series on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Listen to the rest of the series below: