SAN FRANCISCO — When he started high school, Matias Bernal's English was so limited he stumbled over the words for numbers and colors. Four years later, he was on the wait list at Princeton.
But Bernal is an illegal immigrant from Mexico City. Without access to financial aid, grants and most scholarships, he pushed aside the Ivy League brochures and prepared to attend Cal State Fresno, where he could live with family and pay tuition with money from jobs he was not supposed to have.
"I was crushed," he said.
About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year. With partisan Washington hopelessly deadlocked over immigration, many states have been taking matters into their own hands.
Legislatures from Arizona to Wyoming have passed 56 laws affecting immigrants this year -- most of them cracking down on foreigners -- but access to higher education seems to be one area where immigrants have been inching forward.
Nebraska just joined nine other states, including California, Texas, New York and Illinois, that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at their public institutions. Although there are states with large immigrant populations, such as Florida, where similar legislation has failed, the majority of undocumented students in the U.S. can already count on paying the same tuition as the citizens who sit next to them in class.
Some California legislators are seeking to take the next step and join Texas and other states that allow undocumented students to apply for financial aid from the state when they attend California schools.
"Immigration is a federal issue, but there are consequences for states when the feds fail to act," said state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who has sponsored the bill in California. "States have a right and a duty to act in their own interest."
This state-by-state approach is better than nothing, supporters said, but it leaves a lot of gaps, helping some and shutting out other students in neighboring states who could do just as well if they could afford to go to school.
Five years ago, federal legislators first introduced a measure that would have filled in the gaps.
The DREAM act, as it's known, sought to allow illegal immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools to become temporary residents, eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid, as long as they pursued higher education. If they met these requirements, and stayed out of trouble, they could become legal residents.
It never came up for debate. Although it's been reintroduced every year since, the DREAM act inevitably becomes tangled in the politicized immigration rhetoric of Capitol Hill, said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of the bill's sponsors.
"It's gotten caught up in the larger immigration debate," said Diaz-Balart. "It's unfortunate -- this is a fairness issue with regard to hardworking, studious people."
Although measures that make education more accessible often garner bipartisan support, any move to improve the lot of people who are here illegally remains controversial.
Opponents argue that every seat taken in a classroom by someone like Bernal means one less seat for others.
"There are other victims here," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that seeks to stop illegal immigration.
"If we admit someone who is here illegally, we're saying no to someone else," he said.
Some universities, including the UC system, have publicly supported the DREAM measure, saying they're interested mainly in getting the best students they can, whatever their immigration status.
"Access isn't just being admitted to the university," said UC spokesman Ricardo Vazquez. "It's being able to afford going to the university."
Financial aid would help students like Nora Razon, who was brought to California illegally at age 2 from Jalisco, Mexico, and made it to San Francisco State University despite growing up in a home so violent she spent stints in foster care.
She couldn't get financial aid, but because California law let her pay in-state tuition -- about $3,000 a year, instead of the $11,000 charged out-of-state residents -- she could afford to go to school by working nights as a waitress and commuting four hours round-trip by train.
"I refused to believe my education was going to stop," she said.
But others, like Miguel Saporittis, remain shut out of the system.
Five years after moving from Argentina to Florida, he graduated from high school with honors, several courses on nursing under his belt, but without the papers that proved he was here legally.
Without them, he would have to pay out-of-state tuition at Miami Dade College, where he hoped to earn his nursing degree -- a cost of about $17,500 a year with living expenses, according to the college website.
The amount was prohibitive; Saporittis turned instead to a job installing sprinklers.
Although states can help illegal immigrants afford college, only the federal government can make it easier for them to become legal residents, legislators said.
Laws in states like California can only postpone the moment when those students will enter the workforce and face the fact that, with or without a diploma, they're still not allowed to work legally.
This leaves students like Bernal to plan for graduate school, pushing away the real world and hoping that if they stay in school long enough, and do their work, legislators in Washington will make it possible for them to overcome this last hurdle.