DALLAS — Roberto Alfaro recalls filling in his name and address on an application to a Texas state university, then reaching the box asking for his Social Security number. That was when he put his pen down.
"Reality hit me," the high school honor roll student says. He told himself: "It ain't for you."
He ended up taking courses at a community college.
Although Alfaro, 19, has lived in Texas since age 7, he is an illegal Mexican immigrant. As a result, he does not qualify for the lower tuition charged Texas residents who attend in-state public colleges. And he cannot afford the higher tuition foreign students must pay.
But a bill that recently passed the Texas Legislature could make higher education more affordable for about 3,000 illegal immigrants, allowing them to attend a Texas public college at in-state tuition rates.
When the law goes into effect Sept. 1, Texas will be the first state to offer the waiver for illegal immigrants, experts said. California lawmakers approved a similar policy last year that was vetoed by the governor.
In Texas, those who qualify are first-time college students who have lived here at least three years and earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. They must sign an affidavit stating they will apply for permanent resident status when they are eligible.
Rep. Rick Noriega, a Houston Democrat who wrote the bill, said many undocumented students have to wait years for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to process paperwork to resolve their legal status. "We as state lawmakers should not be made to be enforcers for a faulty INS system."
But opponents say the bill gives people the perception that immigration laws can be broken.
Lynn Ligon of the INS Dallas district acknowledged that a state law giving undocumented students more access to college conflicts with laws that prohibit them from working in the U.S.
"While it sounds well and good to give them the opportunity to go to college, it's like, what then? The other parts of other laws would interact and cause them harm," he said.
At the minimum, a student who graduates from college would need a work permit, which costs $100 a year and is not always easy to get. The next step would be a green card, which grants legal status. Finally, an immigrant can become a citizen. The process takes several years, though it is speeded up for some people if employers can show that their skills are in demand.