Chasing the D.R.E.A.M.

    Photo Illustration by Erik Jepsen/Guardian

    For seven years, California students have been fighting for a bill that would provide financial aid to undocumented immigrants. The existing law AB 540 allows long-time California residents without official citizenship to pay in-state tuition at public universities, but does not provide that they receive aid.

    Under the California Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, AB 540 students would be able to receive financial aid from the state — which proponents say is a major step toward making a college education accessible to students who have not been granted U.S. citizenship.

    Carmina Ocampo, a lawyer for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said that — despite the high profile of the bill — there remain misconceptions about it would work and who it would impact. One common assumption is that most students protected by AB 540 are immigrants from Latin America. In fact, almost half are Asian-American.

    “It’s surprising, because there’s a widespread stereotype that Asian-Americans are the model minority,” she said. “They seem privileged in terms of education and finances and are overrepresented in academic institutions — but they can actually be a vulnerable and marginalized group that come from poor families struggling to pay for tuition.”

    Ocampo said the center where she works often encounters immigrants who come to the U.S. with their families on work or visitor visas, only to have the documents expire without their knowledge.

    “Some students don’t know they’re undocumented until they apply for a driver’s license, or to college,” Ocampo said. “It’s a shock to them, and Asian-Americans are an invisible group because they don’t want to expose themselves.”

    Ocampo’s hypothetical parallels the experience of Michelle*, an Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore and undocumented immigrant from Singapore who wished to remain anonymous. Michelle said that many students in her situation are unwilling to speak publicly about their immigrant status, which keeps others from understanding how many students the bill would postively affect.

    “I came to the United States with my mom under her working visa, and she was fired for economic situations,” Michelle said. “We suddenly lost our statuses. I haven’t told all my friends yet — it’s something I’m trying to find the right time to do.”

    According to Connie Choi, an immigration rights lawyer for APLC, the 2000 U.S. census found that there were 2.5 million undocumented students under 18 living in the country — of these, 40 percent lived in California, and 21 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.

    According to documents released by the university in 2010, there were 572 potentially undocumented undergraduate AB 540 students within the UC system as of 2008. Of these, 263 were Latino, 263 were Asian, 3 were black, 23 were white and 20 were from an unknown ethnic background. In total, under AB 540, these students paid $26.9 million less than they would have with out-of-state tuition. Of these, 81 are potentially undocumented undergraduate students at UCSD.

    “A lot of people have stereotypes,” Michelle said. “[People say] illegal immigrants [are] from across the border, [that] ‘they’re Mexicans’ — that’s just not true. The D.R.E.A.M. Act is something that will affect a lot of people, regardless of background.”

    UC Office of the President spokeswoman Leslie Sepuka said the university supports the passage of the D.R.E.A.M. act, though it is too early to speculate on when — or if — the legislation will pass.

    Steve*, a Warren College junior who wished to remain anonymous, said that although undocumented immigrants currently make up less than three-tenths of the UC student population, their status prevents them from receiving state financial aid and therefore makes it more difficult for them to attend college. As an undocumented immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Argentina at age 10, Steve said he considers California his home, and should not be penalized because of circumstances over which he had no control.

    “I definitely think of California as home,” he said. “I know Argentina is a big part of my life, but my time for development and education was in California. It is my life; it is my home.”

    Steve said that UCSD’s proximity to the Mexican border is frequently a source of stress for undocumented students on campus, because they could easily be deported.

    “It’s especially difficult for San Diego students because we are so close to the border, and we are in danger of being deported at any time,” he said. “We want to make sure that fear is taken away for students who just want to go to classes to better themselves.”

    Steve said he is working to pressure state legislators to take action on the bill, because he feels that receiving residency status is crucial to anyone hoping to seek employment in the U.S. following graduation.

    “We have students who may not be able to work in their field,” he said. “Even though we are working so hard for this degree, we may not be able to practice.”

    A.S. Vice President of External Affairs Gracelynne West is currently lobbying for the D.R.E.A.M. Act in conjunction with the United States Student Association and other UC campuses.

    “Education is a right for all students, and everyone should have access to financial aid… not based on citizenship,” West said.

    She said she has plans to lobby political candidates who don’t support the act, such as Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner. Both have declared undocumented students to be a financial burden on the UC system, and said they will not support the act.

    “[The office of] External Affairs will lobby the legislators who do oppose the D.R.E.A.M act,” West said. “I know Meg Whitman is running — we’ll try to convince her that prioritizing students’ access and affordability is an issue. We’re going to make sure that we’re being heard.”

    The offices of Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner could not be reached for comment.

    In addition, West said, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been an obstacle to the bill’s passage through the state Senate. Schwarzenegger has stated in the past that it is not fiscally responsible to provide tuition relief to undocumented students.

    “It’s been consistently voted down by the governor of California,” West said. “He’s the only one preventing the California D.R.E.A.M Act from passing.”

    Francisco Castillo, Schwarzenegger’s press secretary, said the governor supported the AB 540 bill that allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, but not the D.R.E.A.M. Act, which he vetoed in both 2005 and 2008.

    At the time of the veto, Schwarzenegger said it would be irresponsible to offer further aid to undocumented students when the university is already raising student fees just to maintain the quality of education.

    Castillo added that, should the act be passed, fewer funds would have to be distributed among a larger pool of applicants, which Schwarzenegger sees as penalizing legal students who require assistance.

    “[Schwarzenegger] believes [illegal immigrants] should not be penalized for the acts of their parents, but the act would penalize students who are here legally by reducing the financial aid available to them,” Castillo said.

    The UC Board of Regents meeting last month — held at UC San Francisco from March 23 to March 25 — was also the site of protests by affirmative-action supporters By Any Means Necessary. They convened to pressure the board to adopt a D.R.E.A.M. scholarship program for immigrant students.

    Yvette Felarca, the Northern California coordinator for BAMN, said she was disappointed with the lack of D.R.E.A.M. discussion at the meeting. She said there were approximately 50 students present on March 24, coming from nearly all the UC campuses.

    “The main discussion about the D.R.E.A.M. scholarship happened on Tuesday, and it was very disturbing what they didn’t say,” Felarca said. “The regents made it loud and clear that they are not interested in abolishing the segregation of UC campuses — a segregation that leads to a hostile climate and means that there is no true public higher education.”

    Vice President of External Affairs-elect Michael Lam said that although he could not comment on the D.R.E.A.M. Act at this time, he plans to meet with West before determining what actions he should take upon entering office.

    Various versions of the bill have been proposed since 2001. In 2005, Senator Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) proposed a similar bill called SB 60, which Schwarzenegger vetoed. He then authored a different version, SB 1301, which was introduced in February 2008. It passed through state Assembly and Senate, where it passed 46 to 29; however, it was then vetoed by Schwarzenegger on Sept. 30. The newest version, SB 1460, was introduced Feb. 19 of this year, and is currently being discussed in a Senate committee.

    If passed, eligible students must fulfill the requirements of the AB 540 bill. Students must be currently enrolled at an accredited institution of higher education in California and must file an affidavit stating that they will apply for legal residency as soon as possible.

    *Names have been changed.

    Additional reporting by Ayelet Bitton, Angela Chen and Regina Ip.

    Readers can contact Neda Salamat at [email protected].

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