ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When Grecia Rivas graduated from a Tucson high school a few years ago, she thought her days in a classroom were over. She was an immigrant living in the U.S. illegally and counselors didn't know what to tell her about college prospects, though she had a 3.8 grade point average.
It was the height of Arizona's SB1070, a state law designed to target immigrants like her, and Arizona colleges at that time didn't allow such immigrants to attend at in-state tuition rates.
The 24-year-old from Nogales, Mexico, is now pursuing a degree in graphic design at one of New Mexico's smaller colleges thanks to an effort by the school to recruit students like her — high-achieving student immigrants who are living in the country illegally.
Western New Mexico University recently launched a campaign targeting potential students like Rivas using a combination of social media and face-to-face recruiting. Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the school works to convince the students they'd find a hospitable environment for immigrants and possible financial aid at the 3,700-student university located in the mining town of Silver City.
Other colleges, like City University of New York and Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, have followed the same trend as schools search for more students amid nationally declining enrollments. The schools are openly encouraging the immigrant students known as DREAMers to apply despite the uncertainty of their careers after they graduate.
The students are called DREAMers after the proposed federal DREAM Act — a law that would give the immigrant students a pathway to citizenship through college enrollment or military service. The proposal has languished in Congress for years.
Federal law does not forbid immigrants in the country illegally from attending universities in the U.S., and state laws vary on whether the immigrant students who graduated from state high schools can attend at in-state tuition rates. New Mexico, Texas and Arizona allow the students to attend and pay in-state tuition.
For Western New Mexico University the move to recruit DREAMers living out of state was a no-brainer, said Matthew Lara, the school's admission director. During recruiting trips, Lara stumbled upon immigrant students who were interested in college but didn't have counselors knowledgeable about their options.
"We met incredible students with 4.0 GPAs and off-the-chart test scores," Lara said.
The campus also wanted to reshape itself from a school mainly serving students in the southwestern New Mexico to one that attracts students from surrounding states. DREAMers looking for a school were a natural fit, Lara said.
Lara said after recruiting its first small batch of DREAMers seven years ago, the school revamped its tuition and worked to find enough financial aid to attract students who have been granted temporary residency status under the Obama Administration's federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Those DACA students living in Arizona, Colorado, and El Paso, Texas can apply to Western New Mexico University and if accepted, receive in-state tuition.
The school boasts about the recruiting effort on its home page with "DREAMer/DACA Students Welcome" coupled with a photo of a DREAMer student. And it has placed billboards in Hispanic immigrant neighborhoods throughout the Southwest. One billboard in Tucson invites students from Pima Community College to apply to Western New Mexico University.
Despite the very public campaign, the school said it has received little negative feedback and several lawmakers have supported the effort.
However, Rep. John Zimmerman, a Las Cruces Republican whose district borders the university, said the state needs to be careful on whether it was encouraging immigrants to break federal immigration laws. "We need to make sure that they have legal immigration status if they go to our state schools," Zimmerman said.
Still, Zimmerman said he was pleased the school is offering educational opportunities.
Rivas said word has spread that Western New Mexico University is a place where students like her can continue their education with a supportive system.
"This has been the best choice I've ever made ... coming here," Rivas said. "I can be myself now, and I'm able to help other DREAMers."