After just one year, ASU junked its scholarship program for illegal immigrants. Sarah Fenske wonders who will step up for them now

Last year, when Proposition 300 went into effect and undocumented students were barred from getting in-state tuition rates at Arizona universities, Arizona State University did a brave thing: It enlisted private donors to do what taxpayers would not.

If students graduated from an Arizona high school but couldn't prove they were in this country legally, ASU awarded them a privately funded $12,000 grant called the "Sunburst Scholarship." The goal was to bridge the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition — and keep a few hundred kids from dropping out of school.

Naturally, the plan drew fierce criticism from the usual suspects, not to mention threats of an audit from legislators who wanted to ensure that not one dime of taxpayer dough was going to Mexican-born kids.

Well, the legislators can stop worrying. Last week, ASU officials confirmed to me that they're discontinuing the scholarships.

The funding ran out, they said. Then they declined my request for specifics.

I suppose we should just be grateful that they did the right thing for a year. It cost an estimated $3 million to provide scholarships to 207 undocumented students, after all, and that doesn't factor in the blowback from the angry xenophobes who may have decided to take their bequests elsewhere.

In any normal universe, the Sunburst Scholarship would hardly be controversial. The students in question have done nothing wrong: Surely, Lou Dobbs wouldn't suggest that they should have defied Mom and Dad as 3-year-olds, or even third-graders, and vowed to stay in Mexico unless their parents obtained valid visas. (Well, okay, maybe Lou Dobbs would suggest that. Sigh.) In the loony anti-Mexican climate in Arizona today, though, the scholarships were truly an act of courage, and ASU President Michael Crow should be applauded for them.

But the demise of the Sunburst Scholarship raises real questions.

For one: When ASU realized the funding had run dry, why did it not contact leaders in the Hispanic community to come up with a transition plan? The activists I've talked to said they'd heard that the scholarships were being terminated only after getting calls from frightened students. Turns out the students learned they were being cut off in a letter from the school telling them to look for alternate financing for next fall. Clearly, this could have been handled with a bit more grace.

Here's another question: Just how hard did ASU work on getting donations for this scholarship? I haven't heard any direct requests for support. Granted, I'm not rich and not an ASU alum; I wouldn't blame anyone for leaving me off their fundraising list. But with an issue like this, you'd think a public plea would be in order — if nothing else, a story in the newspaper urging people to give. I can't find any evidence that ever happened. When we last heard about this issue, President Crow made it sound as though the matter was taken care of. ASU had found private funds. Period.

Which makes me wonder this.

Did ASU really run out of money? Or was it just easier not to raise it?

With legislators breathing hot air and an angry mob at the gate, it surely would be easier for ASU to cut 207 Mexican-born students adrift than to keep fighting.

"The fact that they're stopping these scholarships makes me feel like the pressure was greater than they could take," says Luis Avila, a local Latino activist and recent ASU grad.

I hope Avila is wrong about that. But I have to admit he may be on to something.

For seven years now, Congress has debated doing something about the students who come here, illegally, as little kids. Just about everybody agrees there should be a way for those kids to earn citizenship. Just about everybody agrees that society benefits if they're able to afford college.

The bipartisan plan to make it happen is called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. It's been discussed, it's been filibustered, and it was even slipped into the immigration reform bills of 2006 and 2007. It just can't seem to get approved.

So the kids are stuck in limbo. Born in Mexico but educated through high school in the United States, they're in No Man's Land.

These days in Arizona, their situation is even more tenuous. They can't get tuition breaks to go to any state-funded university, but they also can't get hired for any job without their employer's risking his business license. But they can't just pack up their bags for Mexico, either — for many of them, this country is all they know.

Congress has screwed these kids because of its inability to do something, and Arizona voters have done their best to twist the knife. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that ASU, despite a noble $3 million investment, is dropping the ball.

But as easy as it is to blame ASU, and blame the government, there's another side to this story. And it has to do with individual responsibility.

Conservatives like me have always argued that if the public sector were forced to shrink, the private sector would step up. Before Social Security, for example, people took in elderly relatives. Today, we complain instead about the poor quality of government-financed nursing homes.

Before the welfare state, if you knew someone who was out of work, you'd slip them some cash. Today, we think jealously about them sitting on the couch watching TV and collecting government checks while we slave away at the office.

We need to admit it: In Arizona, at least, the anti-immigration crew is winning, bigtime. Mexicans without the right papers can't hold jobs. They can't post bail. They can't get payouts from a lawsuit. They can't get the in-state tuition reduction.

And what are we in the private sector doing about it?

I grouse because ASU never bothered to ask for donations for undocumented students. But there's no reason I should have waited for an invitation; ASU President Michael Crow was quoted in the newspaper talking about the scholarship plan four months ago. I could have written my check then.

The good news is this: As lazy as I've been about kicking in money, it's not too late. Alfredo Gutierrez, the former state senator and political consultant, tells me that a plan is under way to channel donations through Chicanos Por La Causa. That nonprofit already has the staff in place to funnel money to students without taking a penny for overhead. They'll call it the "American Dream Fund."

"We want to get at least 100 Hispanic individuals to give $1,000 to the fund," Gutierrez says. "Step two will be talking to the corporate and philanthropic community."

Step three, I hope, will be enlisting the rest of us — those of us who don't have $1,000 but who are dismayed that voters denied a bunch of good kids the opportunity to pay for their education. It's time we stop grousing and start pulling out our checkbooks.

Gutierrez admits he wishes ASU would have given community leaders a little more warning. But that's in the past. Now, he says, it's time to step up.

"This really lit a fire under us," he says. "There's hundreds of these youngsters that we've got some obligation and responsibility to. This really triggered a lot of energy."

Now that ASU is out of the picture, the American Dream Fund is these students' last hope. I don't want to believe that we, too, are going to let them down.