Kevin Hernandez was 11 when he left his grandmother's home in El Salvador, traveling by bus and on foot — alone — to Maryland to meet his mother, whom he had not seen since he was 6.
Shortly after the boy waded through chest-high water to cross a river, he was arrested by immigration authorities and spent more than a month in a detention facility for children. After he was released to an aunt, he was reunited with his mother.
Over the past five years, Hernandez has been tested by a turbulent adolescence. He struggled to learn English and adjust to a new culture. His father exploded when he came out as gay at 14. Hernandez now lives in a small apartment in Highlandtown with friends and works two jobs while attending Patterson High School.
But thanks to this week's vote, Hernandez, 16, feels that his struggles will pay off. Marylanders voted in favor of the Dream Act on Tuesday, which will allow students who were brought to the United States illegally as children and meet other criteria to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
"Now I know I have a long way to go," said Hernandez. "I have hopes now."
Hernandez and other young activists reflected on the passage of the Dream Act one afternoon this week in the East Baltimore offices of the CASA de Maryland, an immigrant-advocacy group. After years of uncertainty, the young people are heartened that a college education is within their reach — a once nearly unthinkable aspiration for the children of parents who work at menial jobs for little pay and live in fear of deportation.
"I grew up not knowing what college was," said Missael Garcia, 22, a native of Mexico. "My dad never went to school. He doesn't know how to read or write. My mom went to school through middle school."
Garcia trekked across the border with his mother and three younger siblings when he was 12. His mother stumbled in a hole as the family walked through a field at night and hobbled on a fractured ankle for the rest of the journey. When their bus arrived in Baltimore, Garcia and his siblings saw their father for the first time in six years. The whole family wept.
Since graduating from high school 21/2 years ago, Garcia has taken an English course at the Community College of Baltimore County. But the three-credit course cost $1,000 and Garcia, who works as a food runner at a restaurant, could not pay to continue his studies.
Now the passage of the Dream Act has given new optimism to Garcia, who spent his teen years in East Baltimore and now lives in Dundalk.
"My plan is to go back to school. I have some money saved up from the past two or three years that I've been working," he said. "I want to study business administration and open my own restaurant."
Maryland's Dream Act, which goes into effect Dec. 6, enables students who were brought to this country as children to pay in-state tuition rates if they have attended at least three years of high school in state and can show that they or their parents have paid state taxes during that time. Students must complete 60 credits at a state community college before they can apply to pay in-state tuition at a four-year institution.
More than 58 percent of voters supported the law, which had been approved by the state legislature last year. Opponents had secured its place on the ballot after mounting a petition drive. Maryland's Dream Act is the first in the nation to be approved by a referendum.
"I feel like [Marylanders] support us and they know what we've done for the United States," said Hernandez, who hopes to be an attorney. "I feel like they have our back."
The state is expected to lose about $3.5 million annually from the tuition break, but advocates say that the cost will be more than made up by the economic impact of the students attending college and embarking on professional careers.
At age 16, after his parents had briefly split up, Garcia dropped out of high school and got involved in drugs and alcohol. "One day, I was working in construction in the hot sun and I saw all the high school students coming out of school," he said. "I was breaking concrete. My hands were all beat up. And I was like, 'What am I doing with my life?' "
Soon after that, as Garcia walked his dog near Patterson Park, a man leaped out and bashed him on the head with a baseball bat, an incident Garcia attributes to his involvement with drugs. He spent five days in the hospital and came out determined to go back to school.
Garcia took two buses to attend classes at an alternative high school in West Baltimore and flourished there. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his class and was elected prom king. Now he plans to dig into community college courses with the same intensity.
Jonathan Rodas, an 18-year-old senior at Overlea High School, is planning to apply to community colleges in the spring, as soon as he receives a Social Security number through a plan President Barack Obama implemented in June to allow those here illegally as children to work.
Rodas grew up in San Salvador, El Salvador, with his grandparents and younger brother. His mother, who left when he was 5, sent money from her pay as an electrician.
"I remember one year she sent money so I could have a birthday party, but I thought she was going to come," he said. "I felt so bad. All I wanted was her there."
When he was 12, Rodas crossed the border with his aunt, cousin and younger brother. The family settled with his mother in Langley Park in Prince George's County but moved to Overlea earlier this year after his aunt was deported. The family was fearful that immigration agents would come for them next.
After some initial struggles to learn English, Rodas quickly excelled in his classes in the United States. He is currently enrolled in three Advanced Placement classes at Overlea and is taking gifted-and-talented and honors classes.
He is a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Boy Scouts and serves as a mentor to younger students at CASA de Maryland.
Like Hernandez and Garcia, Rodas said he found the process of fighting for the Dream Act empowering. With CASA organizers, he has marched and spoken at many rallies.
"The first time I did it I felt really scared," said Rodas. "Now, if someone asks me to tell my story, I don't get scared anymore."
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