Undocumented Students Wait for System to Change


Millions of people across the country marched in support of undocumented immigrants last May, causing heightened awareness of immigration issues throughout the nation. However, one group of immigrants still remains under recognized: those who were brought to the U.S. as young children who now struggle for access to education and the chance to gain legal status in this country.

At GCC alone, there are around 300 undocumented students struggling to pay for their education. They face an uncertain future in which access to a university or to decent jobs is difficult and in some cases, almost impossible.

“These students face a huge challenge,” said culinary arts instructor Andrew Feldman, who has worked closely with undocumented students in his classes. “They’re unable to work [legally], and they’re confined to community colleges because they can’t afford or don’t get accepted to universities.”

These students are only admitted to community colleges through state-mandated AB 540, a law that allows undocumented students who have completed three years of high school or earned a high school diploma in the state to enroll and pay resident tuition fees at colleges.

The law is limited and does not give these students access to financial aid, tuition fee waivers and most scholarships.

However, unknown to many undocumented students, the stage is now set on both the state and federal levels for the passage of laws that could lighten their educational financial burden.

Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) Counselor Greg Perkins said that the Senate and Congress have been discussing legislation that could help immigrant students. One of these was California Senator Gilbert Cedillo’s State Bill 160, also known as the Gil Cedillo Dream Act.

“It’s a bill that allows AB 540 students to be eligible for Board of Governor’s fee waivers and California financial aid programs,” Perkins said. This may increase state costs of student financial aid by millions of dollars every year.

However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in October of this year. Perkins added that Schwarzenegger’s predecessor Gray Davis had also vetoed the bill twice during his term. On the federal level, senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy are also campaigning for illegal immigrants’ rights.

“They are advocating a bill that would allow students to get limited financial assistance at college or university, or if they graduate from the military,” Perkins said.

The senators also included provisions in their immigration bill allowing undocumented immigrants who are in the United States at the time the bill is signed into law, to register for temporary work and travel visas valid for six years. This would give AB 540 students the opportunity to work legally and to find employer sponsorship for a green card.

Until these bills are signed into law, however, undocumented students have to make do with the limited resources and opportunities they have.

Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer Shaun Setareh said that the easiest and most common way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status is by marrying an American citizen.

“Technically, if you’re undocumented, marrying [a citizen] is the only way to go,” Setareh said.

According to the lawyer, applying for a work visa is possible but risky, because it would entail exposing oneself as an illegal immigrant before an employer could agree to file the petition. The immigrant would also be forced to compete with other potential employees who are either equally skilled or do not need a visa.

Total costs for filing and processing a work visa can be as high as $5,000 including lawyer’s fees, which usually range from $2,500 to $3,000, and filing fees from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
“Illegal immigrants face the risk of deportation,” Setareh said. “If they get deported, they’re barred from entry from the United States for ten years. Even after ten years, re-entry would be difficult.”

Setareh added that those who get deported or those who choose to go home to their respective countries before being identified as illegal immigrants must then apply for temporary visas, such as investor visas or student visas, or be petitioned by family members who already have green cards, so that they can re-enter the United States.
The lawyer added that the federal government is currently considering an amnesty for illegal immigrants, which would give them legal status and permission to stay and work in the country.

“The amnesty would allow [illegal immigrants] who have been in the country for several years to get a green card if they’re working, or if they came here under the age of 21,” Setareh said.

This provides hope for undocumented students, many of whom came to the United States as young children. Some crossed the border from Mexico, while others came to the country on tourist or student visas that eventually expired and were denied visa renewal.

Lawyers charge around $2,000 for filing amnesty applications, Setareh said.
GCC student “Javier” hopes that the amnesty will be granted. “Javier” crossed the border into America with his parents at the age of nine. He was smuggled into the country in the trunk of a car.

“I want to transfer to UC Berkeley,” he said. “After that, I want to graduate and get a good job and have a future and a family in this country, without having to worry about my status.”