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Originally published May 22, 2013 at 9:05 PM | Page modified May 23, 2013 at 12:58 PM

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Immigrant to compete for Miss Seafair crown

For the first time in 63 years, a pageant contestant who lacks legal immigration status in the U.S. will compete for the title of Miss Seafair.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For a time after she was crowned Miss Hispanic Seafair, Tania Santiago wasn’t sure she’d be able to pursue the ultimate title: Miss Seafair.

The winner of Miss Hispanic Seafair, along with winners of other local competitions, goes on to compete in the Miss Seafair Scholarship Program for Women, which requires contestants be either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

A native of Mexico who has been in this country without legal immigration status since she was 4, Santiago successfully challenged the policy — the first contestant to do so in the 63-year history of the competition.

She will be among 15 or so other young women competing for the title of Miss Seafair, whose one-year reign involves more than 100 appearances at events across the state — including a starring role in the monthlong summer festival.

The coronation is scheduled for July 27.

“I actually didn’t cry until I was told that I was going to be able to compete in Miss Seafair,” said the 21-year-old Redmond resident who got the news the morning after her Sunday night crowning as Miss Hispanic Seafair.

“I feel both privileged and humbled that the first non-U.S. citizen, nonpermanent resident gets to be me.”

A paralegal in the offices of Bellevue immigration attorney Karol Brown, Santiago graduated from Lake Washington High School and is a senior studying sociology and education at the University of Washington. She plans to attend law school.

Her family is on a course they hope will result in legal status this year. Additionally, she’s among tens of thousands of young people nationwide who have been granted employment authorization, as well as a reprieve from deportation under a program the Department of Homeland Security launched last year.

They’ve coined a term for their status, “DACAmented,” a play on the acronym for the federal program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — that is giving them this break.

Pointing to Seafair’s goal for diversity, Santiago said minority communities feel included and embraced when their members are given opportunities to compete.

“I’m excited about Seafair being inclusive and allowing a broader cohort of students to apply,” said Santiago, who has testified before lawmakers about immigrant-student issues.

Melissa Jurcan, spokeswoman for Seafair, said she is not aware of any past challenges to the pageant’s policy about immigration status, which existed for decades because Miss Seafair in the past was required to travel internationally for the organization.

But such travel has not been part of the crown-holder’s duties for some time and, Jurcan said, the program committee is revamping and updating the requirements for contestants.

“They are absolutely welcome to participate and we’re excited to have them in the program this year,” Jurcan said.

While any woman age 18 or older and enrolled in a college or university can compete for the title of Miss Seafair, contestants are often winners of smaller neighborhood and ethnic competitions.

In addition to the honor of the title, Miss Seafair is awarded $20,000 in scholarships.

While the Miss Hispanic Seafair competition is sanctioned by Seafair, it’s not an official Seafair event.

The winner of that competition represents the Hispanic community at events across the state and is awarded $5,000 in scholarships. Contestants must be at least one-quarter Hispanic and a resident of the state, but there is no requirement for legal immigration status. They also must have made academic achievements and be bound for college if they aren’t already enrolled.

Michelle Marie Font, director of the Hispanic Seafair Scholarship Program, said all contestants are made aware of the immigration requirements for the Miss Seafair competition.

And while students without legal status have competed in the Miss Hispanic Seafair contest in the past, none has won it, so there was never a reason to challenge the larger pageant’s policies.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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