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Nayra is a UCSB senior and I.D.E.A.S. (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, & Success) chapter member.

Paul Wellman (file)

Nayra is a UCSB senior and I.D.E.A.S. (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, & Success) chapter member.


One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Undocumented Students

Newfound Support for Getting into College Met with Worsening Financial Struggles


After Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in July that would ease access to privately funded financial aid for undocumented students, both the bill’s advocates and critics are up in arms about the impact of immigration on higher education, as the state faces increasing cuts to public education and services.

AB130, just half of the California Dream Act, allows undocumented students in California to access private scholarships through public universities. AB131, the other half of the proposed legislation (which has yet to be passed), would open up publicly funded financial aid like Cal Grants to qualifying illegal immigrants in the state. But as tuition continues to rise at public universities — for the upcoming school year, it will jump 17.6 percent at the University of California and 22 percent at California State University campuses — Dream Act advocates say the barrier of paying for college is increasingly real for undocumented students.

Marla Ramirez, now working on her PhD in Chicano/a studies at UCSB, knows firsthand how hard paying for an out-of-pocket education can be. Ramirez came to the United States from Mexico in 1996, when she was 14. As the first in her family to attend college, Ramirez didn’t know her legal status would affect her educational opportunities until it was time to apply for college. It was when she first met with a college counselor that Ramirez discovered that, unlike a K-12 education (which is free for anybody in the country, documented or not), college isn’t free — in fact, it costs a lot of money. “I was panicking, and [the counselor] explained that there were scholarships … but during the application process I realized I needed a social security number for most of them,” Ramirez said. “And it was then that I really knew what it meant to be undocumented.”

Nonresident students are currently eligible to receive in-state tuition at public universities through AB540, effective in 2002. Qualifying students must attend high school in California for three years, graduate from a California high school, and sign an affidavit promising they will apply for U.S. residency as soon as possible. The cost savings are significant — last year, out-of-state students paid $22,879 more to the UC. While 12 states currently have similar “tuition equity” bills, very few states offer state-funded financial aid, and federal aid is not available at all. In California, only private scholarships are available for undocumented students, including a number of scholarships offered specifically for them by advocacy groups.

Seeing many students like Ramirez struggle to navigate the application process prompted Santa Barbara college counselors, college administrators, and students to form the AB540 Coalition, an area support network for undocumented high school students. For the past six years the organization has hosted a college night where parents and students can learn about AB540 and scholarships, and ask an immigration lawyer about legalization and naturalization. A panel of college students answer questions and offer advice about their own challenges.

As more efforts are made, I’m seeing more and more students coming to me and seeking out help,” said Sergio Castellanos, a guidance counselor at San Marcos High School. He meets with undocumented students periodically to help them with the application process. This past year, inspired by UCSB and SBCC, he started the district’s first high school IDEAS Club (Improving Dreams Equality Access & Success), a support group where undocumented students can find academic and financial support.

Castellanos has even received emails from students outside the county asking for help. “The more the word gets out, the more people — like undocumented and immigrant students — can find out that the resources exist and that there is somebody out there willing to help,” he said. This past year, with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara, the AB540 Coalition was able to create a resource Web site with information on AB540, scholarships, local advocacy groups, and more.

While the state has helped break down the barriers to enrolling in college, Castellanos emphasized other aspects that can affect a student’s decision to attend college, like parents’ educational background or cultural expectations. Many immigrant parents are uninformed about the education system in the U.S. or have lower expectations for their children because of their status. Castellanos recalled one student who was accepted into UCSB but who did not attend because her parents wanted her to stay at home. “These are other issues that are clear and present challenges — the familia dynamic: I want my daughter to go to school but not to go far away or leave the state,” Castellanos said. “These students need more support than a given college night where you get all the nuts and bolts.”

But certain improvements have taken place recently. “When AB540 was first put into place, it was a lot more difficult to get a student into college because of the lack of awareness of AB540; because institutions themselves didn’t know how to adapt to that,” said Nayra, a senior at UCSB and member of UCSB’s IDEAS chapter. She declined to give her full name because of her legal status. AB540 gave statewide acknowledgement to undocumented students and built institutional support that was previously nonexistent. As more educators and undocumented students become informed about the options, the challenge has shifted from getting students into college to helping students pay tuition and graduate with degrees.

In the nearly 10 years since she graduated from high school and AB540 went into effect, Ramirez has gone from paying her way through undergraduate school to working toward her graduate degree — a task easier said than done. She began working for cash at 14, and, while attending community college, became the head of her family. With all her earnings going to support her mom and two sisters, Ramirez had little remaining money to pay tuition. She began applying for hundreds of scholarships to stay in school. To date, Ramirez has received over $150,000 in private aid.

With undocumented students across the country competing for the same, limited pool of money, most students take time off to save up, paying for school unit-by-unit or quarter-by-quarter, or loading up on courses in the summer, when fees are lower. Many start out at community college to save money. It took Ramirez five years to get her bachelor’s degree. Nayra began working almost full-time in high school, and at times has worked three jobs over the summer to save up.

Students in IDEAS fundraise by selling food and other items. “It’s essential for all undocumented students to know that in order to really maintain yourself in school, you have to work, you have to apply for scholarships, and you have to fundraise. You have to do all of them,” Nayra said. “We don’t have the luxury of not worrying about money at any point.” And without loans or aid to soften the blow of tuition hikes, undocumented students are hit hard by fee increases. “I’ve had to take quarters off when a 32 percent fee increase went into effect,” said Nayra.

Joe Guzzardi, a retired teacher and a senior writing fellow with CAPS (Californians for Population Stabilization), believes that, especially considering state budget problems, there’s nothing wrong with asking students to do what it takes to stay in school within the current system — they should get jobs, attend community college, and take classes at a pace they can afford. “While [the state] is facing some pretty severe restrictions on education and jobs, [they are] lobbying for a taxpayer-funded education,” Guzzardi said. “Taxpayer funds used to subsidize DREAMers’ educations represent wasted money, since graduates who do not have legal status will not be able to become employees [or taxpayers].”

CAPS argues that immigration and overpopulation have exacerbated problems with the economy, environment, and quality of life in California. “California’s legislators should prioritize limited public education resources for those here legally. AB130 will permit scarce private financial aid to be given to students here illegally,” contended CAPS in a written statement.

Jonathan Wang, president of the Adsum Education Foundation, disputed the argument that laws like AB540 allow immigrants to crowd the system and drain its financial resources. Rather, many U.S. citizens who leave the state for a few years and return to California can, and do, use AB540 to qualify for in-state tuition. According to the UC Office of the President’s annual report on AB540, documented students (citizens, legal permanent residents, and immigrants with visas) “have accounted for approximately 70 percent or more of the AB540 recipients in every year since the program’s inception.”

The Adsum Education Foundation provides scholarships to students who do not have access to federal or state aid. In its first round of awards this year, Adsum awarded $23,000 to 16 undocumented students across the county. Based on applications from their first round of scholarships, the average Adsum applicant comes from a five-person family with an average income of $21,000 a year, falling below the federal poverty guideline. “There’s a lot of maneuvering that these students do to get their education,” Wang said.

In the interest of creating a safe space for the undocumented community, the AB540 Coalition and the Adsum Educational Foundation aren’t pasting up fliers on street corners or taking out one-page ads in the paper. For the most part, information about their work travels by word-of-mouth. Rather than soliciting the wider public for funding, the Adsum board is connected with other nonprofits and solicits individual, private donors. “One of our main goals, almost on the same tier as funding the students, is protecting their identity, status, and personal information — the more attacks that we put ourselves up to receive, the more danger we put our students in,” Wang said.

In the last few years, more and more undocumented students are “coming out” and revealing their status, as a part of advocacy for the national DREAM Act and as a push for more paths to citizenship. In late July, seven undocumented college students were arrested for civil disobedience at an immigrant rights rally outside San Bernardino City College. This March, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance hosted the second National Immigrant Coming Out Day, where undocumented youth are encouraged to tell people about their status.

I’ve had [UCSB] students tell me, you have no right to be in this university, and that can be really hurtful … Sometimes it’s out of ignorance, and other people are just really tied to their beliefs,” said Nayra. “If they don’t want to listen when I open up and tell my story, I know I can’t let myself be hurt by those comments.” Despite the naysayers, she said she believes that when people in Santa Barbara hear more about the issues, they become supportive of the immigrant community.

Advocates emphasize the need to break stereotypes about the “typical” undocumented student. Although most undocumented student education advocacy groups in the county are linked to the Hispanic community, undocumented Asians make up 12 percent of the nationwide population. According to a UC report, 40-44 percent of undocumented students in the UC system are Asian.

When we say undocumented students, we usually think of a homogenous population … but it’s more complex than that,” said Ramirez. The archetype is the overachieving student with legal status or the cost of college as the only barrier. But, according to Ramirez, there are students who have been pushed to the margins academically for different factors — whether it be racial factors, sexual orientation, language barriers, age of migration — and cannot finish high school. For them the barriers of entering college are very real.”

Castellanos believes that although AB540 was a step in the right direction, the move to make higher education more accessible needs to include students of all calibers. “Not everybody is going to Stanford,” Castellanos said. “If it’s beauty college or ITT Tech or FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) or graphic design school — whatever their passion is, let’s help them with that.”

Although Gov. Brown has said he would sign AB131 should it come to his desk, the bill is stuck in the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee. Often confused with the national DREAM Act, which would open financial aid to undocumented students and clear a path to residency, the California Dream Act would open up state aid but do nothing to improve students’ ability to work (legally) post-college.

The California Dream Act does not address residency status at all,” Wang said. “The crux of it all is that only the federal government can really clear the path for these students to receive legal residency. The state doesn’t have the power to do that.”

Ramirez now has a pending immigration case, which means she has a work permit and a social security number. She’s balancing her studies with work as a teaching assistant at UCSB. For now, things are looking up. But her ultimate goal — to become a U.S. citizen — is still years away.

We often hear things like, ‘Oh, why don’t you stand in line?’ And many times we forget that a lot of people don’t even have a line to stand in,” Ramirez said. Her case was first opened in 2002, and Ramirez continues to wait to become a legal permanent resident, meaning an additional 10-year period, plus another five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. “A person can’t be asked to stand still for 25 years, waiting for the immigration system to work.”

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