SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Some students say they're losing out despite a New Mexico law that allows them in-state tuition at public colleges or universities and state-funded financial aid regardless of their immigration status.
The law has been in effect for 11 years but New Mexico's public universities and colleges operate independently from one another and their policies regarding immigrant students vary.
New Mexico Highlands University imposes some of the toughest barriers, according to interviews conducted by The Santa Fe New Mexican with students and school officials from around the state.
The interviews also indicate some of the problems students encounter may be largely because staff members aren't informed about the law.
"Sometimes front-line people are not trained in this," said Armando Bustamante, a student program specialist at the University of New Mexico who helps immigrant students navigate the system.
Bustamante said another problem is that the state Higher Education Department lets each institution interpret the law however it wants.
"The issue with the law is that it's a simple, two-paragraph law that has no implementation policies," he said.
Higher Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre said schools set their own enrollment policies, but they must follow state and federal immigration laws.
When Hali Calzadillas Andujo applied to Highlands in May 2015, she didn't think her immigration status would be an issue.
Calzadillas was able to enroll and receive in-state tuition, like other New Mexico students. But when she filled out the university's general scholarship application, her lack of legal residency became a problem. The application only gave her the option of stating whether she was a citizen or a legal permanent resident.
She told Highlands' financial aid staff that she had a work permit through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
The Obama administration adopted a policy in 2012 that granted temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. to young people brought to the country as children and who were living here illegally but who meet certain criteria.
Calzadillas, 22, said she gave up trying to explain that state law allowed her to apply for any state-funded scholarships the school offered. No one would process her scholarship application. She pays her $5,000-a-year tuition out of pocket.
Calzadillas said she feels cheated.
"I have a 4.0 GPA," said the second-year student at the university's Santa Fe campus. "I'm a good student, so I was hoping to get some sort of scholarship."
Montse Oceguera, 23, a Highlands student at the school's Albuquerque campus, had a similar experience. "I remember being on my porch at night crying because I had no idea how I was going to pay for school," she said.
Oceguera is now working toward a master's degree in social work. A friend gave her a $2,000 loan to help her cover tuition for her first semester. Eventually, the state Children, Youth and Families Department gave her a $10,000 stipend to pay for the last two semesters of her undergraduate degree. After she completes her master's degree, she will work for the agency as part of the stipend requirements.
Highlands spokesman Sean Weaver said the university doesn't have specific enrollment policies regarding immigrant students. It should be following the state law, he said, but there's no designated office or staff member to ensure that happens.
Still, Weaver said he was surprised to hear that Highlands students were having trouble with their immigration status, and he said all scholarship applications should be processed.
Highlands isn't the only school where immigrant students encounter confusion about the state law. The University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University both have programs designed to ease the enrollment process for immigrant students, but a study last year showed that some staff members at each school were still misinformed.
Laura Gutierrez Spencer, director of an NMSU program that helps low-income and first-generation college students, said the university processes all scholarship applications, regardless of a student's immigration status. If the student isn't a citizen or legal permanent resident, she said, the university makes sure he or she is only considered for state-funded scholarships, rather than federally funded aid.
NMSU also started a program this year that offers students from Mexico a lower tuition rate than the out-of-state rate.
At Western New Mexico University in Silver City, DACA students from Arizona, Colorado and El Paso, Texas, can qualify for in-state tuition even before they are considered state residents.
New Mexico is one of 18 states that allow all residents, regardless of immigration status, to pay in-state tuition.