But as they grow older that similarity wanes. By the time their peers are preparing for college, most undocumented youth are painfully aware of the limitations their illegal status places on them.
In Indiana, for example, undocumented students would pay three times more than citizens to attend IU.
Indiana is one of only three states, along with Arizona and Georgia, that explicitly bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Eighteen states, including Illinois and California, have provisions that allow undocumented students to pay in-state university tuition rates.
Without this benefit, college becomes impossible for many young Hoosiers. Activists, economists and politicians are divided as to whether or not that’s a good thing.
Lupe Pimentel was six when she crossed the border with her mother and siblings. Though her early memories of home in Vera Cruz, Mexico, are hazy at best, she knows on their way into America, her family was stopped by gang members who held her brother at gunpoint before letting them through.
Growing up in Indianapolis, she said she rarely noticed a difference between her and her classmates. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that she learned she wasn’t a citizen.
She had been filling out a form for the 21st Century Scholars Program, a group meant to help Indiana students graduate college. One of the requirements was a social security number. She asked her mom what hers was.
Her mom explained their situation to her.
Disheartened, Pimentel gave up on her schoolwork.
“What’s the point? she figured”
At the end of her sophomore year of high school, she found some hope in the Latino Youth Collective, an organization that helps youth get involved with grassroots advocacy efforts and spread awareness on Latino issues.
She found it was possible to change things so that undocumented youth can go to college. She began working harder in school and devoted herself to advocacy efforts.
On May 9, 2011, then-governor Mitch Daniels signed House Bill 1402 and Senate Bill 590, both of which banned undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition.
In response, Pimentel, who was 17 at the time, joined five other undocumented immigrants in protest outside Daniels’ office.
“I’ve been here since I was 6,” Pimentel wanted to tell him. “I am a Hoosier, and for you to cheat me out of state tuition isn’t fair. An education is a right.”
Daniels would never hear her story.
The students were arrested for their peaceful protest, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was called and Pimentel spent a night in jail.
Eventually, a guard came to get her from her cell.
“You’re going home,” the woman said.
Pimentel’s eyes widened.
“Wait, what home?” she asked, fearing she was being deported to the country she hadn’t seen since she was six.
The policewoman burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the relieved Pimentel. “I mean you’re staying here.”
Since that day, Pimentel has become a leader in Indiana’s young Latino community.
Now 23, she is a president and co-founder of the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, a group devoted to helping immigrants to achieve higher education.
She regularly works with Indiana officials and residents to change the way undocumented immigrants are treated in the state.
One of her main partners has been Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary.
In the most recent legislative session, Rogers wrote Senate Bill 345, which would have allowed certain undocumented students to be eligible for resident tuition rates.
Eligible students would have to have attended high school in Indiana for at least three years. They would have had to register and enroll at an in-state institution after fall 2015. They would have either to graduate from an Indiana high school or receive the equivalent to an Indiana high school diploma.
The federal bill, based off of the federal legislation the DREAM act, which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, was first proposed in 2001. Though it hasn’t ever been passed, it has prompted state legislators to write their own versions of the bill to help undocumented minors.
Twelve states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that allow unauthorized migrants to get drivers licenses. Those 12 plus another six states have legislation allowing undocumented students to receive in-state tuition.
For Rogers, SB 345 would provide both social and economic benefits to the state of Indiana. Other legislators, like Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, do not see it that way.
“I don’t really think it’s appropriate or fair for Indiana taxpayers, many of whom couldn’t afford to send their own children to college, to have to spend millions of dollars a year for illegal immigrants to have their children put into the same universities,” Waltz said.
Though Rogers’s Dream Act made it past the Appropriations Committee, she did not call it for a second reading in front of the full Senate in March.
She said she didn’t have the votes needed and wanted to wait until a time when she knew the bill could pass.
She said she hopes that time will be the coming legislative session, which begins Jan. 6.
Waltz also has plans for 2016. Among other things, he said he hopes to promote legislation that would enact harsher penalties for companies using unauthorized migrant labor.
Rogers takes the opposite economic view. She said she feels immigrants are an asset to the Indiana’s economy and need to be treated as such.
Chad Sparber, an international economics professor from Colgate University who specializes in how immigrants affect the economy, said states allowing in-state tuition subsidies have accomplished their goal of increasing enrollment rates for undocumented students. However, he said there are some unintended consequences as well.
Sparber has found an inverse relationship between the number of enrolled undocumented students and the number of enrolled foreign-born Latinos who are in the country legally. As the former increases in a school, the latter actually decreases.
“Most people who are against this type of legislation are more concerned about native-born citizens though,” he said. “And we don’t find any evidence that those enrollment rates are declining.”
Another problem with this type of legislation, Sparber noted, was an ethical one.
Most jobs meant for college-educated people are stricter about legality than the average labor job, he said. So, even if an undocumented person attains a degree, they might not have access to higher level jobs until they become citizens.
After graduating from Pike High School in 2010, Pimentel started as a part-time student at Ivy Tech Community College. She spent half her time working in Mexican restaurants to pay the out-of-state tuition. One year she had to take a semester off to work full-time.
Eventually, due to good grades and leadership, she was awarded a full-ride scholarship.
She said she doesn’t party and she doesn’t drink.
“My parents sacrificed everything for me to get an education,” she said. “I’m very aware of that.”
Still, she said she is angry at the difficult and lengthy process it took her to get to this point. She is angry for all of the other students who haven’t been so lucky.
After qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Pimentel was able to visit Mexico for the first time since she was six.
On that visit, she learned she had an American accent. She said she found Mexico to be crime-ridden and frightening. She was told that “real” Mexicans don’t say lemonade, they say lemon water.
She said she didn’t really feel like a Mexican.
Her whole life she had felt like an American.
But Americans are allowed to drive, and they are given in-state tuition.
“It’s a question that a lot of us battle with; are we American?” she said of her and her friends on the Undocumented Youth Alliance. “So we came up with a new word for who we are.”
It’s a word they use when fundraising for their program that raises money for undocumented youth college scholarships. It’s a word they use to meld their two identities together.
They call themselves Undocuhoosiers.