A group of undocumented City College students gathered for a club meeting on a recent Thursday afternoon to discuss how they will pay the upcoming school semester.
“We kind of hustle,” said Juan, smiling.
“There’s a saying,” added Carlos, who’s done everything from paint barns to fix sprinklers to pay for his education. “You know you’re Mexican when you–”
“Know a lot of skills!” Elisabeth, blurted out. Everyone laughed.
“We HAVE to!” someone shouted back.
Their hustle might get easier. The second half of the California DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) passed the State Assembly and currently sits on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature, which political observers expect, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote today. If approved, AB131 would allow undocumented students like Juan, Carlos and Elisabeth the opportunity to receive public funds to pay for college. Gov. Brown signed the first part of the bill in July. It eased access to private aid for undocumented students.
“This access to [public] aid is going to give them so many more options,” said Catherine Marroquin, director of the College Connect program at Mission Graduates, which works with immigrant students.
“Some of them have been working so hard to get good grades, but for financial reasons, have to go to community college,” she said.
News of the likely signing gave hope to many of the 152,000 undocumented people between 18 and 24 in California. Already, some 38,000 were enrolled in college in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Since AB 540, signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2001, undocumented students in California have been eligible for in-state tuition after completing a least three years of in-state high school education and signing an affidavit for their intent to legalize their residency status.
There are a total of 12 states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, including New York, Texas, Oklahoma and Maryland. In August, Illinois became the only other state that legally permits undocumented students access to private funds.
Gonzalo González said he would gladly welcome the bill that would allow him to access Cal Grants and fee waivers.
“I think a lot of people will benefit from this because they will have more time to focus on school and work a little less,” the 28-year old said, who has been studying at City College for five years.
Claudia Franco, 32, agreed.
“It’s frustrating for people who are capable and want to better themselves,” she said. “It’s just too expensive.”
Every student knows the challenges.
“The barrier here is money,” Sara Muñoz, 24, said as she ran her fingers through her dyed blond hair. “The money is holding me back.”
But a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree may mean nothing if employers are unwilling to hire an undocumented worker. Carlos said no matter how hard he works his odd jobs to pay for school, it may not be enough for his future.
“You get your degree, and in the the end, it’s just a piece of paper,” the 22-year old said. “You can’t work. It’s kind of frustrating.”
Still, these students are finding ways to stay motivated.
For Raul, a City College student, it’s about keeping the doors open for those yet to come.
At 16, he started working ten hours a day as a construction worker. Now that he’s working towards his Political Science degree, he wants to help fight for the rights of his fellow immigrants.
“All the laborers that work for their family–you gotta organize and work towards immigration reform for them,” the 20 year-old said. “ You don’t wanna see that struggle in other people.”
There are an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and 2.6 million in California, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Those who are already in college can’t imagine life without the chance to finish their degree, said Katharine Gin, Executive Director of Educators for Fair Consideration, a group that supports immigrant students.
“They have seen the value of being amidst an educated population and of being respected for their intellect and ideas,” Gin said. “How do you turn that off?”
States like California took the lead to introduce statewide legislation after the Federal Dream Act was first introduced to the U.S. Senate in 2001. That bill would include a six year window for undocumented students to establish citizenship after completing two years of college or two years of service in the military. The bill was re-introduced in May of this year.
Residency, said Gin, is the ultimate goal for undocumented students.
“If the Federal Dream Act were on the table,” she said, “[students] would have the sense that the bigger picture was possible.”
Still, the idea of not getting a job after graduation is not as scary as it may seem.
Katerine Reyes immigrated from Honduras three years ago.
“People ask me why I go to school if I can’t work but I say, just like this bill is taking place then another bill can come and change things,” said the 19 year-old.
Juan Rodolfo Cendejas, who has lived here 11 years, added, “We can go back to our countries with all this knowledge and education. Nobody can take away your education. It’s what makes you who you are.”
“The way our students see it,” said Leticia Silva, advisor for the City College club where Carlos and Juan discussed their career goals, “is I’d rather be undocumented and educated.”