Undocumented students lack support, resources

AB 540 leaves enrollees searching for solutions, pathways to success

By Roxana Amparo, Editor-in-Chief

Limited financial resources and support for undocumented students raise the question of whether this invisible population is served fairly at Contra Costa College.

An undocumented student is a person who does not have full citizenship, despite living in the United States.

To help ease undocumented CCC students’ college experience, there is an ongoing effort to create an Undocumented Student Resource Guide that would provide essential information for those students.

CCC Hispanic Serving Institutions/ STEM Manager Mayra Padilla said a one-time equity fund from the state was given to help undocumented community members.

Padilla said $22,440 was allocated toward creating an undocumented student resource booklet.

“The state gave us an opportunity to ask for one-time additional funds to augment the work we are doing around equity,” she said.

UC Berkeley mechanical engineering major and CCC alumna Valeria Avila said, “In my experience, there was little support for undocumented students at the college that was visible. All the support I found was because I asked questions.

“As an institution its (students) should be able to go up to anyone and feel confident and supported.

“I didn’t find any support for undocumented students at the administrative level, or at least any visible support where students could get some information,” Avila said. “This is why I realized that according to the undocumented student body at CCC, there must be some sort of visibility of the already existing support at CCC. There are many professors and staff willing to help students get through college with or without legal status, and that should be visible.”

Avila said she understands that it is a delicate situation and other undocumented students may not be willing to ask for help.

Dean of Student Enrollment Services Dennis Franco said, “They should reach out to a trusted counselor, one of the counselor assistants in the Welcome Center or financial aid representatives.”

The Welcome Center is located inside of the Student Services Center.

Here, students can ask for information about academic programs and support services that help students meet their academic and personal goals.

Although the Welcome Center is open for all students, there is a group of prospective students who are turned away before they fill out any paperwork.

CCC counseling assistant Leticia Mendoza said, “When (some) undocumented students (visit the Welcome Center) I refer them to adult school — there is really not much we can do.”

Mendoza said adult school is not equivalent to taking classes at a community college, and most students who attend are English as second language (ESL) students.

“Not everyone knows of the resources available for undocumented students,” Mendoza said.

Economics major Oscar Martinez said that although the Welcome Center helps students know which resources they have available, there needs to be a more targeted source of support for undocumented students like himself.

“We need a more direct source that helps target us — a source of support,” Martinez said. “We need a center.”

When Martinez immigrated to the U.S. from Chimalhuán, Mexico in 2002 he was 5 years old.

“I didn’t adjust so easily. I spoke Spanish and was always an ESL student growing up. I was always told by my parents ‘don’t ever tell people about your status’,” Martinez said.

“I knew about my status from a very young age. And I heard stories of my cousins going to college, but I knew I couldn’t afford college.

“College was not on my bucket list.”

Psychology major Ivan Rochea Martinez said, “Se siente uno mal — inferior. (Being undocumented) makes a person feel bad — inferior.”

When Rochea Martinez immigrated to the U.S. from Cuautitlán Izcalli in Mexico in 2002 he was 9 years old.

He said the transition was difficult and he noticed the language barriers immediately when enrolling into the fourth grade at Ford Elementary School in Richmond.

Rochea Martinez fits the qualifications for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and was able to qualify for the Board of Governors Fee Waiver to pay for his CCC classes.

According to CCC’s website, under “student fees and tuition,” the cost per unit for a California resident is $46.

But nonresident students pay $269 per unit. This combines the $46 per unit for enrollment fee, $213 in tuition per unit of credit and $10 for a capital outlay fee.

A student needs to take 12 units to be considered a full-time student.

Financial aid assistant Patricia Herrera said, “If (undocumented) students take a full load of classes, that’s thousands of dollars.”

An undocumented student enrolled in 15 units in a semester is paying about $4,000. But residents’ fees per unit totals about $690.

Financial Aid Supervisor Monica Rodriguez said nonresident fees apply to undocumented students and international students as well.

In the process to ease an undocumented student’s educational path, state legislation has been passed to help students qualify for financial aid.

Living in the margins

Assembly Bill 540 was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 12, 2001.

AB 540 exempts students from paying nonresident tuition at CCC and other California community colleges and universities if the student attended high school for at least three years and graduated, or received a GED or certificate of equivalency.

Students submit AB 540 affidavits to the Admissions and Records Office here at CCC. This form requests their immigration status be waived to permit them to go to school and pay the in-state resident tuition of $46 a unit.

CCC counselor Norma Valdez-Jimenez said, “AB 540 opened a lot of doors, but there still is a whole population (of undocumented students) left out.”

Franco said, “Not every undocumented student is AB 540 eligible, which means that the per unit cost is much higher for them.”

Valdez-Jimenez said, “We can’t assume all AB 540 (students) are undocumented, and we can’t assume every nonresident (student) is undocumented.”

Rodriguez said students who meet the nonresident label are students who have left California for at least one year and one day prior to the start of the semester. Nonresident students will be required to pay out-of-state tuition ($269 per unit).

Herrera said, “AB 540 law seems to be almost like something to make undocumented students feel like they have a lucky chance — hope. But only if they qualify for it. Otherwise they have to pay through scholarships, out of pocket or loans.”

Franco said when undocumented students come to a community college they often don’t know that AB 540 exists.

CCC lead Admissions and Records assistant Trinidad Ledesma said once students submit their application, if they are nonresidents, the application triggers an email.

Ledesma said the CCC staff knows just enough information to assess whether a student has that nonresident status to get them started on their (AB 540) paperwork.

Rodriguez said if a student qualifies for AB 540 then they can apply for Cal Grants, the Board of Governors Fee Waiver and state financial aid from the DREAM Act.

Anyone who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and was younger than 31 on June 15, 2012 qualifies for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Avila said once the college has the Undocumented Student Resource Guide, it will include information on how to fill out the DREAM Act application.

In the guide she said, “There will be real testimonies from successful CCC undocumented alumni regarding all kinds of topics like getting support, motivation, getting financial aid, coming out and art pieces.”

Rodriguez said, “There is a stigma about AB 540 students. There is the fear about going through the process because for a lot of these students they are the first in their families going to college.”

Rodriguez said the deadline to register for the DREAM Act is March 2, 2017 and it is important for AB 540 students to start their applications now.

Overcoming hurdles

The secretary of Homeland Security released the immigration policy, DACA on June 15, 2012.

It allowed undocumented immigrants who had entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

Students who meet DACA requirements also qualify for state aid through the DREAM Act, Rodriguez said.

Avila said there will be a list of local scholarships open to undocumented students and a section for non-AB 540 or non-DACA students on how to fund for school.

There is also a list of CCC supporters who are willing to work with undocumented students so they have more access to resources.

Martinez said, “When I applied for the DREAM Act I felt tossed to the side. They told me ‘dreamers’ are on the bottom of the list (to process and approve their applications.”

“Even though it (the DREAM Act) was made for us, we are still seen as less worthy than those who are documented,” Martinez said. “I detest how we are viewed. We are marginalized and viewed as unworthy of having a college education.”

Martinez said he remembers talking to a counselor at Richmond High School who told him he had the grades to go to college during his senior year.

“That day when she told me I could go to college, I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I rushed home to tell my parents, but they were working late.

“It saddens me how our parents work so hard, but still live paycheck to paycheck. I don’t want that life. I told myself ‘I am going to go to school. I am going to provide for my parents and help them have a good retirement’.”

Martinez said he applied to San Francisco State University during his senior year, but because of financial issues he could not enroll.

“My parents didn’t want me to go far away because they didn’t want to spend money.”

Valdez-Jimenez said, “Fear is a real thing (for undocumented students).”

Padilla said, “My hope is that students from different backgrounds feel more welcomed so they can attend school with less fear.

“There are a lot of students who are talented and have a lot of potential. The message (the undocumented student resource booklet would bring) is that they deserve to be heard.”

She said, “(Undocumented students) feel a sense of isolation. They can’t express their reality. Especially in this (current national) political climate.”

Padilla and Avila are currently working on the Undocumented Student Resource Guide for the college to support a marginalized population.

“Right off the bat they (undocumented students) are the ones who are treated different,” Padilla said. “My advice to professors is to not shy away from controversial topics. To make them mainstream — you can be an ally.”

This booklet will be unveiled during the Dreamers Conference on Oct. 22 in the Student and Administration Plaza from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., she said.