Millennium Scholarship not limited to U.S. citizens

Nevada’s higher-education officials don’t advertise the fact, but non-citizens are receiving the state’s Millennium Scholarships. What’s more, state and university officials say they have no idea how many non-citizens have obtained the college grants.

“It’s not our place to make that distinction,” said Jane Nichols, chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada.

As long as students complete two years of high school here and meet the requisite grade point average, they’re good to go.

“The legislation says only that you have to be a resident of Nevada. It doesn’t say anything about being a [U.S.] citizen. The high schools don’t ask, and neither do we,” added Kathy Besser, assistant state treasurer, whose Carson City office administers the scholarship fund.

Critics said the policy opens the door to illegal aliens, too. In doing so, Nevada has bypassed the national debate about granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens.

“I’m shocked,” said Steve Sisolak, a southern Nevada regent who frequently questions UCCSN’s spending habits. “We’re doing this at the same time we’re talking about running out of money? It doesn’t make sense.”

Marcia Bandera, the regent who represents northeast Nevada, isn’t particularly troubled by the policy.

“If a student is here on approved status with families that are working and paying taxes, I have no problem,” she said.

The philosophy also holds true for possible illegal aliens. “In my opinion, if we don’t know they’re here illegally, then it appears to be OK,” Bandera said. But she acknowledges that Nevada’s college and universities don’t ask about immigration status. “That’s an INS issue,” she said.

K-12 school systems must, by law, serve all children residing within district boundaries, whether they’re in this country legally or illegally. When Californians passed Proposition 187 to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving public services, including education, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

But compulsory school laws do not apply to higher education, so colleges and universities are under no legal obligation to admit non-citizens, let alone award scholarships to them. Federal grant and aid programs offer little help to non-citizens and none to undocumented aliens.

These rules frustrated Las Vegas high-school counselor Roque Barela—until he discovered that Nevada had no such prohibitions. One of his students, Julio Meza of Desert Pines High School, expects to receive the $10,000 Millennium Scholarship this spring.

Barela died in a car crash earlier this month.

“[Barela] said we were going to find a way,” said the young El Salvadoran who expects to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2004—a year after he graduates from high school.

Nevada reflects the buck-passing that goes on between higher education and immigration agencies.

Bandera said it’s logistically impossible for Nevada’s universities and colleges to check and verify the citizenship status of every incoming student. As for the Millennium Scholarships, “As long as a student graduated [from a Nevada high school], it’s allowable,” she said.

Regent Howard Rosenberg, whose district encompasses much of Washoe County, has a similar take. The UNR art history professor said he would “hate to turn down youngsters who come here and go to school here to make a better life for themselves. If we’re not here for the kids, who are we here for?”