April 23, 2004

Undocumented Students Struggling for Education

By Raymond R. Beltrán

It’s been ten years since seventeen year old Erika and her twin sister, Stephanie, have seen their hometown in Tijuana, México. Their mother crossed them over the border at age seven to help care for their relatives, all of whom live in San Diego, and eventually stayed permanently. Since then, the sisters have mastered the English language to the point that they are not able to carry on academic conversations with their own mother, who holds onto her Spanish language. They’ve only left San Diego County three times in ten years because of the Border Patrol checkpoints in the Imperial Valley and North County, and because their mother never applied for permanent legal residency, the girls remain without it as well.

The sisters don’t mourn their situation though. When contemplating their constrictive living situation, it is only the norm. But, as they are about to graduate from high school, and having been accepted to colleges like Universities of California, Santa Barbara, Riverside, San Diego and San Diego State University, the young women are beginning to feel the pressures of not having a social security number in a country that is based on citizenship over excellence.

“We’re going to graduate in two months and we want to go to college, but we can’t get any financial aid,” says Stephanie. “We would have to get jobs, but if we do, we’d have to get paid under the table, and we’re scared of ruining our chances of someday gaining citizenship.”

Lawyers have told the sisters that it’s up to their mother to take the steps toward legal residency, a hard working woman who barely earns a living in a taqueria and remains in the U.S. but is far from assimilating to the American way of life. By law, they are not allowed to stand independently for another four years, at age 21.

“It’s not a thought to return to Tijuana,” says Erika. “We don’t have anything over there for us. It’s better for us to stay here illegally, with less of an opportunity than it would be to return.”

Erika juggles her aspirations of becoming an educator or a lawyer, and Stephanie has decided to become an architectural engineer.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan, non-profit research and education organization, estimates that in the U.S. there are currently 80,000 undocumented children reaching high school grad age every year, 65,000 of whom will actually graduate and have been living in the country for five years plus.

An initiative introduced to Congress in 2000, the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act, S. 1545), by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) is said by many bipartisan advocates to be the remedy in the stagnation of talented, but undocumented persons attending institutes of higher education.

The DREAM Act works in two ways to eradicate the bylaws included in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) by deleting federal provisions that dictate to a state which students qualify as citizens of the U.S., followed by a six year temporary permanent residency to students who’ve remained in this country for six years and have attained a high school diploma, ultimately becoming permanent citizens under certain conditions.

As it currently stands today and according to its support from the Senate Judiciary Committee (voted 16 to 3) last October, the DREAM Act grants undocumented people living in the U.S. the ability to attend college and receive financial aid. Those that are eligible for the act, at first, gain temporary status for up to six years, in which the act requires they do one of three things, attain a college degree, join the armed services or work 910 hours of community service.

California Senators Dianne Feinstein (D) and Charles Grassley (R) have co-sponsored the DREAM Act, although, only if two provisions be made before taking the vote to Senate this year. First, they want to eradicate the 910 hours of community service, which would only leave college or the military the only means of obtaining LPR (living permanent residency). Second, they want to eradicate the Pell Grant as an option for undocumented students attending college, leaving student/work programs and loans the only means of financial aid. 

California, New York, Texas and Utah currently have had bills signed into law within the past three years which allow them to provide in-state financial aid programs to students, regardless of immigration status, to attend college if they have graduated from a U.S. high school, are planning to attend college and are ultimately applying for U.S. citizenship immediately following graduation. Erika and Stephanie have taken advantage of California’s Assembly Bill 540 during their high school years, which allowed them to apply for college, but they won’t be able to attend without the help of financial aid, something that only legal citizens can attain.

Opposing citizens argue that “illegal aliens” would be taking college opportunities from those who are merely born in the U.S., making them citizens, but a University of California, San Diego student of Bio-Engineering, Abdul, who happens to be undocumented, argues that colleges only accept those who qualify.

“How are they taking a seat if colleges are taking students based on academic excellence? The colleges are taking the best person,” says Abdul. “When UCSD accepted me, they chose me because I was the best qualified, because I would add something to their school, something positive.”

Abdul is a member of Coalition of Student Advocates (CoSA), a student organization dedicated to struggling for social justice within the educational system. Last Saturday, CoSA organized an action in front of Downtown San Diego’s Federal Building in support of the DREAM Act, which Abdul stated was just a reminder to politicians that the community is still very aware of the initiative that has yet to be voted on by Senate.

Anti-DREAM Act organizations, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in particular, have stated on their websites that the act will not only hurt the economy, with cutbacks already being implemented in schools across the board, by granting state financial aid to undocumented students but will also encourage migrants to cross the borders illegally.

CoSA rebuttals the point, stating that the DREAM Act, in one of its weaknesses, is not retroactive and is a one generation act, meaning that only undocumented students that meet the DREAM Act’s prerequisites on the day it is implemented are eligible for its benefits. It will not apply to every new immigrant six years from their arrival after the act’s implementation.

Abdul also makes the point that Texas Comptroller, an agency “responsible for collecting state revenue, tracking state expenditures, and monitoring the financial condition of the state [Texas Archival Resources Online],” has concluded from its estimations that every $1 that aids an undocumented student will benefit the system five fold when that student becomes a documented professional as well as a taxpayer.

Undocumented students as well as social justice advocates are currently waiting for Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist (R-TN) and Thomas Daschle (D-SD) to bring the issue to a vote in Senate this year. The United We Dream Campaign and Center for Communtiy Change recently organized a rally, having gathered 65,000 petitions, imploring for President Bush to legislate the DREAM Act before more talented students become victims of deportation instead of promising young graduates.

When asked if the DREAM Act, initiated by a Republican Senator, could be used to target and document immigrant communities, which could possibly lead to pressure from an already aggressive U.S. Border Patrol Agency, Abdul says, “I don’t think it will make the situation any worse than it is right now ... I personally welcome any initiative that would be a positive step in the right direction.”

Erika and Stephanie, whom universities and state colleges have granted the opportunity to excel due to their academic superiority over others applicants, currently have futures in hiatus with the lack of a social security number, which would legitimize them as “legal.” They are very aware of the DREAM Act and its benefits and relay that if implemented, college would definitely be their path of choice.

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