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Going to bat

It troubles 17-year-old Mara Bauermeister that undocumented immigrant students enrolled in Rogue Valley schools who master English and earn good grades find out after graduation there are few options for higher education.

"Unfortunately, due to their legal status, they are typically barred from many of the opportunities that currently make a college education affordable, such as in-state tuition rates, state and federal grants and loans, private scholarships and the ability to work legally to earn their way through college," said Bauermeister, a senior at South Medford High School, during a presentation last week to the Medford City Club on the problems facing immigrant students.

"This is especially tough because without in-state tuition, college is three times more expensive. In effect, through no act of their own, they are denied the opportunity to share the American dream."

Bauermeister did her senior project, required for graduation, on immigrant youths in hopes of educating people in the Rogue Valley about the struggles they face and their contributions to the United States in taxes, social services and roles in society.

She worked with a Latino youth group she helped found to develop a brochure and give presentations at Rogue Community College in addition to the Medford City Club.

Bauermeister interviewed Kathy Keesee, community organizer for UNETE, a local farm worker advocacy group, and Latino immigrant students, both legal and illegal, on campus. She also reached out to Latino students at other local schools, where Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group.

South Medford students junior Liduvina Garcia, sophomore Elizabeth Garcia and sophomore Elizabeth Valazco told Bauermeister they wanted a way to fight discrimination on the campus and to portray a better image of Latino students.

They felt the public perception of Hispanic students had been further tarnished by a drive-by shooting Feb. 18 involving Latino gangs near the South Medford campus. No one was injured.

The four girls joined forces to found a youth group in March called Razas Unidas (Races United) to bring together Latino students from across the valley, help educate the public about immigrants and do community service projects.

The group now has 30 members, and one of its first activities was to persuade the Medford City Council to proclaim March 31 as César Chávez Day. Chávez was a Mexican-American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist who helped found the United Farm Workers in the 1960s.

Barriers immigrant students face include discrimination, a lack of guidance on college options and financial aid, and too few bilingual teachers, members of Razas Unidas said.

Illegal immigrant students cannot independently achieve legal status if their parents aren't legal. Even if they grew up in the United States, they aren't eligible for federal financial aid, have to pay out-of-state tuition and in Oregon, can't obtain a driver's license, which makes it difficult to find a job, they said.

They urge their audiences to write lawmakers in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors act. The federal legislation would give high school students who are long-term illegal immigrants and want to serve in the armed forces or attend college a way to gain legal status.

For schools, it's been difficult to keep up with the growth in the Spanish-speaking population.

Crater High School students complained that the English as a Second Language teacher doesn't speak Spanish. Students who need help with translation have to compete for the attention of the Hispanic liaison who serves the entire Central Point School District — the valley's third largest district — or find a peer tutor who speaks Spanish.

The high school started a peer tutoring program to make up for a shortage of Spanish-speaking ESL teachers in the valley, said Central Point Education Director Samantha Steele.

The immigrants, both legal and illegal, and the schools daily face a large anti-immigrant sentiment in the valley. Razas Unidas members said they hope to help diffuse those feelings through public education and good works.

"On our first day of school as freshmen we heard that by the time we were seniors, less than one third of us would be left," said Lucero Casteneda, a junior at Crater High School, referring to the high Hispanic dropout rate. "We need to hear positive messages about how we will be successful and when we graduate that we will be an asset to this community."

A year as an exchange student in Chile sparked Bauermeister's interest in immigration.

Her host family, who had been undocumented workers in the United States, recounted the struggles it faced.

"The family was worried to go to the police if something happened because they were worried about getting deported, and they couldn't get any medical benefits," Bauermeister recalled. "I was surprised that happens in the U.S."

For details on Razas Unidos, call 245-1625.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459.

As part of her senior project, South Medford High School student Mara Bauermeister reached out to the Hispanic community and wrote a paper on its struggles in and contributions to U.S. society. - Bob Pennell