Most students applying to college hope only for a letter of acceptance. But for some, admission to a university alone is not enough to allow them to attend.
Terrence Park, a 20-year-old senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was accepted to a two-year graduate biostatistics program at the Yale School of Public Health but cannot afford to matriculate — at least, not under current federal legislation. Park appeared in a video last week for an immigration reform advocacy campaign called The Dream Is Now, explaining that as an undocumented student, he is ineligible to receive federal or University financial support.
Park, who immigrated from South Korea to California 10 years ago with his mother after his parents divorced, discovered his undocumented status in his junior year of high school. After checking with the lawyer who had completed the family’s visa paperwork, Park and his mother were informed that the papers had been improperly filed and that the family was undocumented — a lack of legal standing that makes attending post-high school educational institutions much more difficult.
A decade ago, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was proposed in Congress to allow undocumented immigrants enrolled in school to apply for citizenship and receive federal benefits such as financial aid. Although some states approved their own versions of the DREAM Act — including California, which after two immigration reform bills in 2011 allows undocumented students to apply for financial aid, and Connecticut, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented students attending public schools — the federal proposal remains hotly debated and has not yet been passed.
“Hopefully the government does something soon, and my best hope is for the federal DREAM Act to pass as soon as possible,” Park told the News this week, adding that he will have to spend several years working to save up for Yale’s tuition if DREAM or a similar act does not pass this year.
In a statement earlier this month, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau urged for federal legislation to help young undocumented immigrants, explaining that the United States “cannot afford to waste” talented students like Park.
Phil Wolgin, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, said passing a federal DREAM Act would be a “recognition” that undocumented immigrants exist and would like to contribute to the country. Since visas are difficult to obtain for undocumented residents, the legislation would offer a new pathway to legal status.
“You look at someone like Terrence who by all measures is brilliant but unable to meet his full potential,” Wolgin said. “A lot of [young undocumented immigrants] — many of them growing up like others in the country — cannot achieve the American dream.”
Connecticut Students for a DREAM, a student immigration advocacy group, helped draft a bill this year that would allow undocumented students in Connecticut to receive state and institutional financial aid. The legislation includes a FAFSA-like financial aid application that does not require a Social Security number. The bill was recently tabled in the state’s Education Committee, to the dismay of those who worked to create it.
“It’s important because we really see that, even in Connecticut where we have in-state tuition, it’s not enough,” said Camila Bortolleto, the policy coordinator for Connecticut Students for a DREAM. “Most students end up not going to college because they can’t afford it.”
Supporters of the DREAM Act remain optimistic that this year will be favorable for immigration reform. Bortolleto said she hopes that the Connecticut student immigrant legislation will be attached as an amendment to another bill and can be passed before next semester.
Expectations are high this year for comprehensive federal immigration reform, said Ana Maria Rivera Forastieri, the legal policy analyst for New Haven-based Junta for Progressive Action, a Latino advocacy group.
“I think people in the community are getting extremely excited about [immigration reform], and more than ever they’re seeing that [reform] is a possibility,” Rivera Forastieri said, warning that the battle for immigration reform is far from over. “[We will] keep pushing and calling our senators and telling them that we support their decisions, because if people just sit down and wait for it to happen, it’s not going to happen.”
Yale Law School professor Muneer Ahmad said a major question surrounding national immigration legislation is whether it will come as a comprehensive act or as “piecemeal” reform. Either way, the issue is at the forefront of the national political conversation, with some Republican politicians eager to pass an immigration reform bill in the wake of heavy losses among Hispanics in last November’s election.
“I think there’s a chance that it happens this year — there’s been a lot of talk in Washington about wanting to get a bill introduced before Congress goes for its summer recess,” Ahmad said. “I think there’s a lot of momentum right now. If something doesn’t happen in that time frame, it’s possible nothing will happen at all.”
Many students interviewed said they know undocumented students who are currently attending Yale, with Bortolleto adding that she knows an undocumented student who is receiving full financial aid. MEChA, a Yale Hispanic advocacy organization, is working to create a scholarship for undocumented students, MEChA moderator Katherine Aragón ’14 said.
Graduate school may be even more difficult to fund than undergraduate programs, said former Connecticut Students for a DREAM Policy Coordinator Armando Ghinaglia ’14. He added that very few undocumented students earn degrees at graduate schools in the Northeast.
Others interviewed also noted the economic impact of reforming education for undocumented students. Those who would benefit from DREAM support will soon be in the workforce and pay into Social Security and Medicaid, said Aragón, adding that without access to education for undocumented students, the nation will soon feel the “stark economic effects of an undereducated population.”
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the cost of deporting one person is $23,000. Multiplied by the millions of undocumented youth, the report estimates, deportation results in a $200 billion loss to the economy.
Costs aside, immigration reform is crucial for students like Park and Park’s younger sisters.
“It’s very frustrating — sometimes I just get really mad knowing that these one or two people didn’t take care of our [visa] process, and we became undocumented,” Park said. “But I think I’m okay. Because one thing I realize is that if you come from a difficult background, then you get a chance to understand people from that background.”
Park must respond to the Yale School of Public Health’s offer of admission by early April.