Undocumented Students Struggle to Pursue Education

El Vaquero News Editor

Weaving her way through the thin crowd of students scattered throughout Plaza Vaquero during midterms week, “Carla” does not stand out. She looks like most other students on this campus: toting a backpack, clutching a few books in her arms, and wearing a tired look that says she just pulled an all-nighter.

But “Carla” is not a typical college student. Unknown to many of her classmates and teachers, she is a fugitive in the eyes of the government — an illegal immigrant who could be deported at a moment’s notice.

At the age of four, she and her parents crossed the Mexican border into California; to this day she has not received legal status as a resident of the United States and continues to face an uncertain future.

The 20-year-old culinary arts major is one of the approximately 300 undocumented immigrant students currently enrolled at the college.

“I came here [to GCC] to get an education,” “Carla” said. “This is for my future.”

“Carla” who finished high school at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was able to enroll at GCC through AB 540, a bill signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 which allows non-citizen students who have attended high school in California for at least three years and received a general education diploma (GED) to qualify for resident fees at colleges.

AB 540 mandates that “any student without immigration status must file an affidavit with the college or university stating that he or she applied to legalize his or her status as soon as he or she is eligible to do so.”

There are around 250 to 300 such students at the college right now, according to Greg Perkins, Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) Counselor.

“It’s been challenging for these students because they can’t get financial assistance,” Perkins said. “They struggle to pay tuition.”

According to the counselor, although these undocumented students pay resident fees (recently lowered to $20 per unit), they still have much difficulty paying for tuition, books and other school needs because they cannot qualify for financial aid, fee waivers and other forms of financial support from the government.

This is exacerbated by the fact that they are not allowed to apply for jobs, even after they graduate, unless they are employed “under the table,” meaning they have to be discreetly employed, paid in cash and not allowed to fill out any tax-related forms. Such jobs do not give any benefits and often pay only the minimum wage; employees may be fired at the employer’s whim.

“I have to pay for all of my classes myself,” “Carla” said. “And books are expensive. I don’t work, but both my parents work very hard so that I can finish school.”

“Carla” added that her family is forced to make sacrifices; her parents work multiple jobs and struggle to pay regular household bills.

“Jose”, another undocumented GCC student, recently earned an associate’s degree in computer science.

“I couldn’t, and still can’t, fill out job applications,” he said. “So I’m trying to survive by doing private consulting.”
Culinary arts instructor Andrew Feldman, who is acquainted with several undocumented students from his classes, sympathizes with their plight. During his seven years at the college, Feldman has had about 60 undocumented students in his classes.

“These students operate under a very heavy burden,” said Feldman. “They face innumerable roadblocks to their education.

They’re usually the most needy [in the community], and usually the first in their family to attend college, and they’re usually Hispanic, which comprises [one of] the lowest economic groups in California.”

Feldman added that these students go through “a cycle of poverty.” Since they are usually unable to attend a university because of the lack of financial support, and because they cannot legally apply for jobs. Their opportunities are very limited.

“They are usually confined to community college,” Feldman said. “And lower education means lower pay.”

Perkins added, “If they can’t get money here at community college, imagine what it’ll be like if they went to UCLA.”

To instructors like Feldman, the students’ abilities are wasted, especially since some of them have done very well academically and have grades that more than satisfy UC and CSU transfer requirements.

Some graduated as valedictorians of their high school class, and go on to become honor students and members of the dean’s list at GCC. Many are active in on-campus organizations and activities.
“They’re good students,” Feldman said. “They typically work very hard [in classes]. Some have done extremely well in my classes.”
“Carla,” Feldman’s student, said that she herself “does pretty good” in all her classes and added that her grades are getting better. She plans to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and go on to work in a hotel or restaurant, but only if she can raise the funds to earn the degree.

“I hope to transfer to Cal State L.A. or Cal Poly Pomona,” she said. “But it’s hard because I don’t know how I’m going to afford it.”

Some undocumented students have been able to make it to universities, but experience a multitude of challenges just to be able to accomplish the tasks related to attending school that are relatively simple for legal residents and natural born citizens.
One former GCC student, “Manny,” was able to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona. But because of his status, he is unable to get a driver’s license and has to take the bus two hours each way from Eagle Rock to Pomona.

Added to the harrowing commute, “Manny” has been struggling to pay the more than $300 per unit tuition fees. He has decided to sit out the upcoming winter quarter and work “under the table” to save money for the spring semester. Books, computers and even clothes for school are added expenses that “Manny” has to worry about.
“These students don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Perkins. “Most of them are part-time students because they either don’t have enough time or don’t have enough money to stay as full-time students.”

Perkins is the adviser of an on-campus club called Voces del MaAÒana, which consists mainly of undocumented students.
The organization, whose name translates to Voices of Tomorrow, hosts fundraising activities for scholarships for active members of the club. It sponsors events and projects that promote awareness about and provide support for undocumented students. Its members participate in community service as well.

The scholarships offered by the club are usually in the amount of $100 per student, per semester. “Every little bit helps,” said Perkins.

Additionally, even though they do not qualify for most scholarships, undocumented students are able to qualify for a few private scholarships, such as those offered by the Alpha Gamma Sigma honors society for academic achievement or community service. They may also qualify for scholarships given by organizations or individuals who seek to help immigrant students.

However, very few of these scholarships are available, and undocumented students are still forced to compete with other students who are legal residents or citizens for amounts usually less than $500.

“Carla” said that some staff and faculty members like Perkins and Feldman tell her about opportunities for financial support. However, “Carla” is hesitant to disclose her status by inquiring about available help for undocumented students. She and many others live in the constant fear that they will be discovered and deported back to their countries of origin.

One undocumented high school graduate was even turned away by the college admissions office when he inquired about enrolling as an AB 540 student, according to Perkins. “He went to the wrong person on the wrong day,” said the counselor.

Feldman said that even though he maintains a good relationship with his students, some of them are still very hesitant to disclose their status as illegal immigrants. For the same reason, some of them even refuse to join Voces del Mañana.

Feldman added that he applauds counselors like Perkins, “who have worked very hard to help these students.”

However, college staff and faculty can only do so much to help. “The college works hard to the best of its legal ability,” said Feldman. “But in the end we are still obligated by law.

Things can only be done [to help undocumented students] in an unofficial capacity. It’s a sensitive political issue.”

For Feldman, the main reason behind this is the hostility shown towards illegal immigrants in American society.

“People think that illegal immigrants are a problem that should go away,” Feldman said. “But they’re never going away. They’re part of society.”

Perkins believes that these immigrant students “are a valuable resource to the community.”

“I have so much respect for them,” he said. “Even though they’re in a [difficult] situation, they serve the community and are active on campus. They’re trying to contribute, so we should all support them.”

“Carla” expressed hopes that someday, undocumented students will have opportunities equal to those of legal residents and citizens. “I hope we can get financial aid, no matter what our status.”

“People should see that just because we’re not here legally doesn’t mean we’re not human,” she said. “They should understand that we only want a better future for ourselves and our families.”