Steve Duin: Victor Mena and the case for tuition equity
Author: Steve Duin, The Oregonian
Posted: February 11, 2013

Read the original column in The Oregonian here. 


Victor Mena's father figured he had two choices -- work for a Mexican drug cartel or starve -- so he bundled up his two sons 20 years ago and followed a coyote north from Uruapan into California.

"I don't remember crossing the border," Mena says. Or a gentle, uncluttered childhood in Beaverton. When Victor was 11, Oregon DHS removed him from his home for a year because his stepmother turned abusive in her corporal punishment.

He was shuttled to three different middle schools. Worked summers in the Yakima Valley, helping his father cut and bundle curly willow branches.

Discovered his undocumented status when he applied to college, then secured a non-immigrant U-visa based on that childhood abuse.

Victor Mena had choices, bitterness among them. He chose to major in criminal justice at Portland State, and minor in Persian.

Work in student government.

Intern with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services in the federal courthouse.

Plot that career with the FBI.

All of which makes me wonder why anyone believes Oregon is better off when Mena -- and so many other undocumented students who grew up here -- are forced to pay out-of-state tuition, which all too often eliminates college as an option.

Mena has squared off, in hearings and demonstrations, against those true believers. "They think tuition equity is a path to citizenship," he says.

"Tuition equity is a path to education. It's not an immigration issue."

The Legislature will once again take up the debate this week over whether there's inalienable justice in providing in-state tuition to Oregon students who are undocumented based on their parents' residency status.

The debate must end.

"We've invested heavily in these children since kindergarten," said Brenda Lewis, a Beaverton school district administrator who met Mena when she was principal at Barnes Elementary.

"They've grown up with us. Why would we not continue to support their education? Why, suddenly, would we pull the rug out from under them? It doesn't make sense."

The political context for the debate has clearly changed. Democrats now have a clear majority in the Oregon House, and Republicans, rocked by the 2012 election results, are desperate to make inroads with Latino voters.

Voters like Mena and the eight siblings in his conservative, chaotic Catholic family. Six are U.S. citizens, born in this country. "They're all going to be able to vote," Mena said. "And I think they're looking at this (issue) pretty closely."

Mena is precisely the diligent, intuitive, over-achieving student any Oregon university would die for. When he reached kindergarten, he could read and write in both English and Spanish; he often translated for his father on the job circuit.

At 10, Mena decided he wanted to join the FBI because Washington County deputies and Beaverton police were forever at the family's Southwest Jenkins Road apartment complex: "I realized their interactions with people were not as smooth as they could be because they didn't know the language or the culture."

And because no one else in his family had negotiated the perils of high school, Mena was smart enough to connect with adults like Lewis and former Nike treasurer Gary Kurtz, who volunteered to be his "lunch buddy" in second grade and has remained his friend for 16 years.

Mena is singularly impressive. And hardly unique.

"He's a wonderful story. But there are a lot of kids just like him," said Kurtz, now living in New York. They arrived in Oregon with undocumented parents. They succeeded against all odds.

And in-state tuition will give them the opportunity to complete their education in the state they love without forcing them to pay the prohibitive fees levied on international students.

"With my status and my background, I have to work three times harder than the average American," Mena said.

He's on board with that. He just wants a smoother road, and tuition equity, for all the other students who belong in Oregon but don't have the papers to prove it.

-- Steve Duin