Parent's illegal status almost shatters local student's college dreams

Parent's illegal status almost shatters local student's college dreams

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - A local student is awarded the LIFE scholarship to go to college, only to be told it would be taken away because of her parents' illegal immigration status.

It is a situation many students will face.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 11 million people reside in the U.S. illegally and many have children. Some area American citizens and some are not.

Regardless, they face their own set of challenges.

Lizette Hernandez, 19,  is just one of them. She has studied hard all of her life to get good grades. That led to her graduating with a 3.6 grade point average from the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology in Myrtle Beach.

"I want to be a pediatrician but I want to start off as a nurse," she said.

Hernandez enrolled at Horry Georgetown Technical College with college credit already under her belt and the LIFE Scholarship she earned while in high school. It would give her around $5,000 for the first year.

For Hernandez, who lives with her boyfriend and has a 1-year old daughter, the scholarship was a life saver.

"It's a good amount of money and it covers basically like a year of school and most of my books," she said.

Education is something Hernandez said her parents told her at an early age is imperative for a prosperous future.

It is so imperative that Hernandez's parents risked their lives and freedom for her by entering the U.S., illegally before she was born.

"If my parents didn't leave Mexico, ... I wouldn't be in college," she said. "I wouldn't probably have even made it to high school because in Mexico you have to pay to go to school. You have to pay for elementary and their income is very low. So if you don't have money you don't go to school and turn to child labor."

Hernandez was born in Fresno, Calif. Her parents moved with her to South Carolina when she was 3 years old. Even though she is a U.S. citizen and a Palmetto State resident, a string of email correspondences from the scholarship coordinator at HGTC sought proof of her parents' citizenship status.

On Aug. 1, she got an email reading, "In order to determine your LIFE eligibility, please submit documentation that your parents are S.C. residents to the financial aid office."

Hernandez asked what, specifically, she needed to submit.

Emails went back and forth for several days about what paperwork was or was nott available.

"I am not sure why my parents have to be involved in this," Hernandez wrote to the scholarship coordinator. "I am an independent student for two years now. And I have a dependent, which is my daughter."

On Aug. 3, she learned she lost the scholarship.

"If you can't prove citizenship for parents, then you will not be eligible for the LIFE scholarship," HGTC wrote in response.

Hernandez said the decision was not fair to the children of immigrant parents because they want to succeed and move forward to get careers.

She eventually got in touch with a lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center to look into the case. The group is not for profit and last year took up a class action lawsuit against the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education and a number of state schools on behalf of 170 students whose situations were similar to Hernandez's.

As a result of that lawsuit, the commission gave schools guidelines to follow when this scenario happens.

Part of the guidelines state if the student is a dependent, state law presumes the student's residency is the same as the parent.

A portion that is paramount to Hernandez's situation states if the parents' status is illegal, and the student is legal, the student is encouraged to challenge scholarship denials by submitting documents such as a high school transcripts, attendance records, state driver's license and utility bills.

But Hernandez is an independent.

The director of public relations at HGTC, Mary Eaddy, could not speak specifically about student cases, but said the school encourages anyone who finds themselves in this situation to delve deeper.

"Anyone who has problems should talk with the office of student affairs at HGTC and sit down and talk with a counselor there or an administrator about what the problem is and how they can address it," Eaddy said.

A few weeks later, Hernandez got a phone call from the school stating HGTC had reversed its decision.

It could be because a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a letter to the school threatening action or it could be because she is an independent and her parents' legal status never mattered in the first place.

Hernandez said she never asked why the school changed its mind. Instead, she is just happy the ordeal is over and she can move on with her education.

Still, she had a message for other students.

"Fight. There's always a way around a bad situation," Hernandez said.

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