By Jenny Cain
City on a Hill Press Reporter
At the end of a nearby Santa Cruz street stands a large house sheltering big dreams.
The plain brown stucco on the outside wouldn’t garner a second glance, and could never suggest the complexity of the approximately 20 international UC Santa Cruz students that live within.
Many of the house’s inhabitants are undocumented students who must deal with demanding daily struggles — namely, paying for an education without traditional government financial aid or the security of a paying job, which most of them cannot find without a nine-digit Social Security number.
What brought these students together under one roof was the need to survive. Together, they manage to put food on the table and pay rent for those who are in the grimmest financial states; together, they campaign for equal access to higher education and immigrant rights; and together, they form the on-campus organization known as Students Informing Now (SIN).
<b>Students Informing Now and Assembly Bill 540</b>
In 2002, the UC Board of Regents adopted the controversial law Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540), which grants undocumented students access to partially government-funded educational aid by allowing them to pay in-state, rather than out-of-state, tuition. The law lowers the cost of a UC education by approximately $18,000 a year, giving direct relief to immigrants regardless of legal status.
In 2006, a group of about 13 AB 540 students founded a UCSC organization called SIN (pronounced “seen”) in order to create a support system for other undocumented students.
Nora Lopez*, an immigrant from Mexico, was a founding SIN member and is just one of the 390 students currently in the UC system who, despite a lack of documentation, have been able to attend college with the help of AB 540.
Like many natives of Mexico now living in California, Lopez cites the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the reason her family had to leave their home country for the United States.
“We had no other option,” Lopez said of her family’s immigration. “After NAFTA took effect my family was forced to move off the land they once owned. They couldn’t find work … and needed money for food.”
In 1989, Lopez immigrated with her family to Los Angeles, where her mother now works as a housekeeper and her father works as a gardener. She said the struggle to pay for college is one she has had to worry about endlessly because her parents’ combined income is not enough to fund her tuition, and without documentation she cannot qualify for financial aid. AB 540 has, therefore, given Lopez her only real chance at a college education.
To qualify for AB 540 aid as Lopez did, an applicant must at the very least have attended a California high school for three or more years, attained a general education diploma (GED) or the equivalent, and enrolled as an entering student at an accredited institution of higher education in California.
Although AB 540 has been helping students curb the cost of an undergraduate education for about seven years now, UCSC’s undocumented population still faces many difficult issues on a daily basis.
“The university didn’t know how to implement the AB 540 law,” said fourth-year Eddie Garcia*, a community studies major and founding member of SIN. “When I was a first-year here, I was looking for resources and people to help me out. There really wasn’t any help for AB 540 students coming from the university itself.”
Garcia, who sought out people who could relate to his experience upon enrolling in his first year at the university, was three years old when he crossed the Mexican border with the only family member he has around, his mother.
Being undocumented was something that Garcia never recalls affecting him until he tried to pursue a higher education. Despite being a California resident for over 15 years when he started looking at colleges, Garcia was not eligible for government aid due to his status as an illegal resident. Without a Social Security number, undocumented students cannot apply for Cal Grants, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), certain scholarships, jobs and various other financial resources available to documented students.
“When I heard about AB 540, I felt hopeful,” Garcia said.
According to Alma Sifuentez, UCSC’s associate vice chancellor and dean of students, there are few large scholarships available to undocumented students, but many within the $1,500 to $2,000 range. At that rate, though, each scholarship amounts to only 5 percent of the approximately $40,000 needed for four years of in-state tuition at UCSC.
Since most students need to attain multiple scholarships in order to pay for their education, one of SIN’s missions is to help its members develop the necessary skills to apply for them while also balancing a full class schedule.
“It causes a lot of stress for the students, along with the fear of being deported,” Sifuentez said.
<b>Regent Policies Affecting Funding</b>
Though some faculty members like Sifuentez are interested in assisting undocumented students when it comes to paying for their educations, UC faculty are extremely limited in the help they can give due to policies of the UC Regents.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau was offered $1 million by a private donor to invest in AB 540 students, Sifuentez said. Ultimately, however, he was forced to tell the donor to start a fund outside of the University of California system because UC Regent policy disallows members of the faculty from channeling funding to immigrant students.
Rosie Cabrara has felt the effects of Regent policies. She considers this policy discriminatory, as it singles out the immigrant student population.
“We are not allowed to use any communication devices that are university property to raise money for this group of students,” said Cabrara, who counsels undocumented UCSC students through the Chicano Resource Center. “It is unfortunate [since] these students are some of the most desperate.”
Cabrara views the undocumented community as consisting of “talented people who are finding real answers to real problems,” she said.
Because most of those she has come in contact with have lived in California for nearly their entire lives, Cabrara believes they deserve financial aid provided through the state, she said.
UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal has been a significant player in raising awareness about AB 540 students, requesting reforms to Regent policy regarding undocumented students.
“I would like to see the UC Regents change their policy regarding fundraising for AB 540 students,” Blumenthal said in a student media press conference Feb. 13. “I cannot legally go out to donors and fund for AB 540 students. I think that is an unfortunate and inappropriate state of affairs.”
Blumenthal said the next best thing would be to set up a fund for AB 540 students outside the university.
Pablo Reguerin, the head of Latino Alumni Network (LAN), is working on one such non-university fund and says the efforts thus far have gone well.
“There are so many brains that get accepted to UC and have financial trouble,” Reguerin said. “We are trying to invest in that group because we know the return will be great.”
<b>Threats to AB 540</b>
Despite the benefits of AB 540 for many undocumented students, debate over its justness remains.
In September of 2008 Robert Martinez, a U.S. citizen currently paying out-of-state tuition to attend one of the UCs, filed a complaint against the UC Regents.
Martinez and more than 40 other complainants are arguing that it violates federal law for states to offer higher education benefits to undocumented students without offering those same benefits to U.S. citizens and nationals who meet certain criteria.
However, AB 540 was drafted to extend benefits to any student who meets certain requirements, not specifically undocumented students. In fact, according to a handbook published in 2008 by the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, only one-third of all AB 540 students are undocumented.
“They are giving all this help to undocumented people by allowing them to pay in-state tuition. I don’t think it is handled the best way,” said first-year Megan Edmiston, a politics major. “For this year, I had to file for my FASFA and get a lot of loans that constantly are being changed. I can’t afford out-of-state tuition, and I have good grades and have worked really hard, so it is a bit frustrating.”
Edmiston, originally from Boulder, Colo., says she is considering transferring out of the UC system next year because she can no longer fund her education. According to recent e-mails, the school is uncertain, due to the financial crisis, of whether or not they can give her the $9,000 scholarship they promised for each year she attended UCSC.
Angi Deng, a third-year chemistry major and chair of the UCSC College Republicans, has a neutral position on the AB 540 debate. Deng’s parents immigrated to the United States from China 10 years before she was born. She says she remembers being told about the 10-year legal process her parents went through in order to attain citizenship.
“I feel like our first priority should be for our citizens who are here legally, and if we have money after that then we should consider the undocumented,” Deng said. “Students who are here and want to get an education should be able to. Citizenship is a different issue.”
Plaintiffs in the Martinez v. UC Regents case are seeking to abolish AB 540.
“It could be bad,” Blumenthal said of the pending Supreme Court ruling of the case, which will be heard in the next few months. “These students are in desperate need of financial aid.”
<b>The DREAM Acts</b>
SIN has recently been working on a large campaign that supports the Federal and California Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Acts.
Nora Lopez said SIN is pushing for the two separate Acts, specifically the federal one, as it provides a path to citizenship.
To qualify for the Federal Dream Act, applicants would have to have entered the United States five years prior to the passage of the legislation, at the age of 16 or under at the time of entry. Upon completion of an associate’s degree or two years of military service, applicants would be granted six-year conditional residency. At the end of the six-year period, assuming a record clear of felonies, the applicant would then be eligible to apply for United States citizenship.
“Obama endorsed [the Federal Dream Act], so we are going to hold him to his word,” Garcia said. “It is my only hope of becoming a citizen.”
The last time the Federal Dream Act came before the Senate, in October 2007, Obama voted in favor of it.
The California Dream Act, alternately referred to as the State Dream Act, would allow undocumented students to qualify for institutional financial aid without having to complete a FAFSA. Gov. Schwarzenegger, however, has vetoed this legislation several times.
“If you don’t have hope it gets really complicated,” Garcia said. “I do have hope that I can benefit from the Dream Act. Regardless, I am not going to let policies interfere with what I have to do as a student.”
Aside from opposing the aspect of the bill that would grant citizenship after two years of military service, SIN wholeheartedly supports the Dream Act. The group has designated the first week of March “Dream Week,” during which they will rally, hold a teach-in and host a film screening to raise awareness and support for the Dream Act.
While Dream Week represents a concentrated attempt at spreading awareness about undocumented students and the issues they face, SIN extends its efforts throughout the year.
The group puts on workshops in communities, such as the Beach Flats, where volunteers talk to youth and motivate them to think about attaining a college degree.
SIN also raises awareness through media and class presentations. In fact, many of SIN’s allies, either students from various UCs who have earned citizenship or are simply fighting on behalf of AB 540 student rights, will soon appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to spread awareness about what it means to be an AB 540 student.
Though ABC requested that undocumented AB 540 students appear, none were able to agree as doing so could potentially result in their being deported.
Saul Torres*, a fourth-year Latin American and Latino studies major, was among those asked to appear on the show but was unable.
In 1998, Torres fled a Salvadoran war zone with his brother and entered the U.S. after paying a “coyote,” or someone who guides immigrants through the Mexican-American border illegally. The boys would not see their parents until eight years after they crossed the border.
Now, 10 years after arriving in the United States, Torres says that through SIN he has learned powerful lessons about advocating for his rights and the rights of other immigrants.
And despite the many setbacks Torres has faced throughout his time in America due to his lack of documentation, he remains happy with the way his life has unfolded.
“Advocating for my rights makes me who I am,” he said. “If you were to ask me where would I like to be born if I were to be born again, I would tell you that I would not choose any other life.”
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