WINDHAM, Conn. (AP) – Ivonne Barcenas grew up in the hometown of the University of Georgia and had hopes of studying there — until she found out that immigrants without permanent legal status are prohibited from attending the state's top public universities.
Instead, 18-year-old Barcenas this fall will be attending a public university in Connecticut, a state with more immigrant-friendly higher education policies.
Barcenas and her family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 3.
She will study at Eastern Connecticut State University under a scholarship program designed to help undocumented immigrants in 16 states where they are barred from top state schools or ineligible for in-state tuition.
Barcenas, who graduated with honors last month in a ceremony at the University of Georgia, was accepted to a private college but says she did not have the money to attend.
"A lot of opportunities were shut down to me because of my status," she said through tears in an interview this week.
"I mostly took AP classes in high school, because I thought that was as close as I would ever get to a college experience."
She learned recently she was one of 46 students awarded a private scholarship to attend Eastern Connecticut.
The four-year scholarships, which are worth up to $20,000 a year, are available to a group of immigrants known as DREAMers, who are covered under a 2012 federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
In 2011 Connecticut passed a law allowing students with DREAMer status to pay in-state tuition.
That law and the scholarship program have been criticized by several groups that support stricter immigration laws.
Elise Marciano, president of the Danbury-based United States Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement, said the students have "no business" attending schools that are operated with taxpayer money.
"A student in this situation is taking the place of an American student," she said. "We, as taxpayers do not want to be educating people from other countries. They don't belong in America and we don't need to be funding their education."
Mark E. Ojakian, President of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, said no students were bumped from being admitted to Eastern by the scholars and no taxpayer money is being used to fund their education.
"This in no way takes away anything from Connecticut students or Connecticut residents," he said. "This is an independent organization that decided Connecticut was a great environment to pilot the program."
He said the school will provide the students with some special services, such as liaisons to help them navigate the program. He said they also will make sure the scholars, most of whom come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds in the South, have coats, hats and boots to wear during the cold Connecticut winter.
Barcenas has three siblings. Her father is a forklift operator and her mother is sick and cannot work, she said. Her goal is to someday return home, possibly as a nurse.
"I just want to help my family," Barcenas said. "By getting a college degree, I'll be able to do that."