The farmland surrounding the high school in Storm Lake, Iowa sets a scene typical of the American heartland. But inside the building, the diversity of the student body is much more akin to a New York City public school. In fact, the Storm Lake Community School District is “majority-minority” – approximately 77 percent of students are not Caucasian and 45 percent speak a first language that is not English.
Over the last decade, a demographic sea change has occurred in Storm Lake, bringing big-city issues to the small town school district. Administrators and teachers have made adjustments to meet the needs of their new students.
“We have lived and breathed a globalization here at Storm Lake High School,” said Principal Beau Rouleaux.
One obstacle still looms large: Some students are in the country illegally, precluding many of them from post-secondary education because they cannot apply for financial aid. The federal DREAM Act would provide an avenue to college for those students and an estimated 2.1 million others across the country. But supporters of the legislation face an uphill battle – one that is all too apparent in Storm Lake, where their congressional representative, Republican Steve King, is one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill.
Central American Migration
Storm Lake’s transformation began in the late 1970s, when then-Gov. Robert Ray opened the state’s doors to refugees from Southeast Asia. But the most dramatic change took place in the last decade, as the two meatpacking plants in town began recruiting workers from Mexico.
Many of those workers brought their children with them. From 2000 to 2011, the number of Hispanic students in Storm Lake schools increased by 121 percent, while the number of white students decreased by 49 percent. Today, students in the district speak 18 different languages, ranging from English to Spanish to Lao.
“It does look different here than it looks in other places in the country,” said Lori Porsch, the curriculum and special education director for the Storm Lake Community School District. “We’ve kind of created a new normal here.”
That “new normal” includes educating undocumented students. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that public schools could not ask students about their legal status for purposes of enrollment. So, Porsch and her staff often don’t know a student is in the country illegally until they start talking about college.
Geraldin, who recently graduated from the Storm Lake schools, is one of those students. (To protect her identity, we will not use her last name.)
In 1999, her father left El Salvador for the United States. Her mother followed him a year later, leaving Geraldin in the care of an aunt. In 2001, a devastating earthquake struck El Salvador, prompting the United States government to offer temporary protected status to Salvadorans, including her parents. Two years later, 11-year-old Geraldin made the journey to Iowa to be with them – illegally.
While she could have graduated from Storm Lake High School last year, Geraldin instead opted to do a year of “charter school” – a joint program between the Storm Lake High School and Iowa Central Community College that allows students to take college-level courses for free while they are still under the purview of the high school.
Now that she has her high school diploma, she wants to go on to college but doesn’t know how she will pay for it. Undocumented students cannot apply for financial aid, and 40 percent of them live below the poverty line, according to a 2009 College Board report. Geraldin may try to find work as a babysitter, so she can be paid in cash.
“I know I want to be somebody in life,” she said. “And that’s just the thing holding me. That I can’t get financial aid.”
A DREAM Deferred
Geraldin’s conundrum is not unique to Storm Lake, of course. The College Boardestimated that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools each year. But only 5 to 10 percent of them go on to a college, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Among them is Daniela Pelaez, valedictorian of North Miami High School and a future student at Dartmouth. Pelaez made headlines in March when she was ordered to leave the country. (She has since been granted a two-year reprieve.) And last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas divulged that he has been in the country illegally since he moved from the Philippines as a child.
The federal DREAM Act would offer undocumented students a path to higher education by granting them conditional residency status. This would allow them to apply for financial aid and to live and work in the United States legally for six years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that passage of the legislation would reduce deficits by $1.3 billion to $2.2 billion over 10 years.
The legislation has long had bipartisan support. It was first introduced in the Senate in 2001 by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. But it also has a powerful opposition that includes presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who told an Iowa crowd in January that he would veto the bill. (More recently, he said he would consider an alternate version of the legislation, which Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has said he will propose.)
And then there’s Rep. King, one of the country’s staunchest hardliners when it comes to illegal immigration. He is also vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, where the bill is currently stalled.
“This DREAM Act is a pardon and a reward, so I won’t support legislation that has amnesty in it,” King said. “If you reward lawbreaking, you get more lawbreaking.”
Instead, King and other opponents of the bill say undocumented students should return to their home countries and get in line to immigrate legally to the United States.
“It’s time for them to use the investment that American taxpayers have made to go better their own countries, so there isn’t the necessity to come to the U.S. to pursue what they think is the only education that they could have,” said Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
This reasoning doesn’t go over well in Storm Lake.
“They really would not be able to be successful in the country they initially came from because they only lived there as a young child,” said Porsch. “That isn’t their country. This is their country.”
The thought of returning to El Salvador scares Geraldin. Instead, she plans to take a slow path through college, paying for as many classes as she can each semester.
“I’m gonna do whatever is in my hands to go to college,” she said. “My papers aren’t going to stop me.”
But for many undocumented students, they will.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.