WASHINGTON — They can't get citizenship or in-state tuition rates, so they're taking the next steps – the Capitol and White House steps, that is.
A coalition of student immigrant advocacy groups in Massachusetts, Colorado and California on Wednesday launched a makeshift school in the nation's capital, reminiscent of the "teach-ins" of the 1960s, to encourage a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants through college enrollment.
The first class at "Dream University" – a school with informal classes and volunteer professors and instructors from around the country – was held Wednesday outside the White House, with more planned in the weeks ahead. Students don't get credit for the classes, but they're free.
The first class of about 27 students, several wearing white DREAM University T-shirts, gathered at Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
Cady Landa, a former Boston public schoolteacher, led the students in a discussion of a report recently released by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
"It's not only an education," Landa said about the protest classes, "it's turning around a terrible situation and making it a positive situation."
Pedro Perez, who is attending college in Wisconsin, said being in the country illegally forced him to turn down a private school scholarship. Because they are in the country illegally, the students can't work to pay their way through school.
"It's hard to go back to Mexico. It's like an unknown country to me. I've been here since I was 3," Perez said.
The classes could allow undocumented students who can't afford tuition rates in some states a chance to attend classes, said Carlos Saavedra, national coordinator for a Washington-based group called United We Dream.
The Dream University plan calls for students, regardless of immigration status, to attend classes of 20 in history, civil rights, science, music and other subjects taught by professors from Washington's Georgetown and American universities. The '60s "teach-ins" took a similar approach in mobilizing opposition to the Vietnam War.
Tom Shields, a doctoral student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., said he and two of his colleagues also have agreed to teach classes soon, and organizers say more professors from elsewhere will join.
The idea for the school came about after the Massachusetts-based Student Immigrant Movement group held a 19-day around-the-clock vigil outside of the Massachusetts Statehouse to protest a measure that would have imposed greater restrictions on illegal immigrants.
That vigil drew support from activists around the state and ended after the amendment failed.
"We got really inspired by what happened in Massachusetts ... and how successful it was," Saavedra said. "We brainstorm that if we really wanted to make a point about education ... we needed to literally build a university in different parts of D.C."
Dream University also acts as a vigil of sorts to push a federal bill, known as the DREAM Act – standing for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – that could grant legal status to some immigrants who attend college or serve in the military.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chief sponsor of the bill, said it was "very unlikely" the DREAM Act would pass in Congress before the fall elections.
State laws vary on allowing illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition rates. California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin allow it, but others, such as Massachusetts, require out-of-state rates – something a number of illegal-immigrant students say they can't afford.
Groups of students in Denver and Los Angeles have announced plans to attend Dream University. But among the most vocal student activists have been those in Massachusetts, which so far has sent 10 students.
"Another 55 are scheduled to leave July 21," said Jose Palma, 33, of the Student Immigrant Movement group.
Students nationwide have signed up for the classes and word is spreading through Facebook, Saavedra said.
The school even has a "financial aid adviser" and a "residential hall:
Renata Teodoro, 22, an illegal immigrant in Boston, said she was working with undocumented students in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Kansas to raise money so students could travel to Washington to attend classes.
Once students arrive, Teodoro said, they will be housed in tents set up along the Capitol grounds.
"This school sustains our momentum," said Teodoro. "We're not going to give up."
Contreras reported from Boston.
(This version CORRECTS woman's name at bottom of story to Renata, not Renato.)