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Undocumented Students Push Forward Fight for Education and Immigrant Rights

While Congress still hasn’t passed immigration reform, undocumented activists continue to push for access to higher education.

Undocumented students and families protest during the 4th Annual Coming Out of the Shadows March & Rally in Chicaco, Illinois, March, 2013. (Photo: sarah-ji / Flickr)

Oliver Merino of Charlotte, North Carolina, graduated from high school in 2007. Though 24 percent of the students at his school were Latino, and a majority of those were undocumented, teachers and counselors were not aware of the post-high-school options available to their graduates. “There was absolutely no type of support,” Merino said.

According to the Center for American Progress, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year. Although some states have passed their own versions of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), students across the United States continue to face many barriers in accessing higher education.

Merino attended community college after he graduated from high school, and struggled to figure out his next steps because of his legal status. It was during this time that Johnson C. Smith, a historically Black university, was recruiting undocumented students with scholarships.

Mario Bahena, an assistant professor at Johnson C. Smith University, agrees that high schools often provide wholly insufficient – and sometimes inaccurate – information for undocumented students. Many, for instance, incorrectly believe that undocumented students can’t go to college. According to Bahena, graduation can be “an emotional nightmare” for many undocumented students.

Bahena says that Johnson C. Smith decided to recruit members of the Latino community in 2010 to diversify its campus, and that by doing this, Smith continues to be “faithful to the mission of students left behind by the politics of the time.” He also points out that documents don’t really matter at private universities – the challenge is often financial. Bahena says the requirements depend on the university, but that since universities recruit international students, the application often does not request citizenship. Though most of them do ask for a social security number, students can leave it blank or enter 000-000-000, which many who apply internationally do.

“It changes the narrative of what Latino students can do in the United States,” said Bahena, referring to Smith’s scholarship program. Some of the students who graduated from the university are now going to graduate school at Ivy League institutions.

Though Merino thinks measures like this are a step in the right direction, he says that many students are still excluded from attaining a higher education. “There are a lot of opportunities in private universities, but only for very, very high-performing students,” he said. Many of the students who are admitted have a GPA above 4.0.

Comprehensive immigration reform is at a standstill, so many undocumented students continue to depend on progressive provisions and programs at the state level. Many activists are concentrating their efforts on passing state legislation that would make higher education more attainable. In Illinois, for instance, the Access to College and Career – Education for Statewide Success (ACCESS) bill would grant four-year universities the ability to offer financial aid to all students enrolled, including those who are undocumented.

Jocelyn Munguía Chávez, an undocumented student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, transferred to the university in 2013. She and her classmates created an organization called Fearless Undocumented Alliance to help students grapple with anti-immigrant sentiment on campus and provide them with support and resources. She then joined a communications and messaging committee to help pass the ACCESS bill.

The ACCESS Bill will be reintroduced in January 2016. Though it didn’t pass under a different name in 2015, Chávez says she’s hopeful it will become law this time around. She says measures like this fuel campuses in other states to keep advocating for more resources that are not available.

Christina L. Sisk, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, says that her undocumented students are also confronted with many obstacles. “A lot are on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], which has allowed them more of an ability to work and function in society than before,” she said. “But it doesn’t resolve everything and it’s temporary. Who knows what’s going to happen after the election?”

Sisk believes that the undocumented student movement is helping redefine what immigrants can do. “DREAMers, as they’ve been called in the past, have been very active politically. I can see a change in how these protests have been used,” she said. “This visibility helps them maintain what the government doesn’t give them. Many think of undocumented people as being invisible and quiet and the very high-profile cases show how people have been able to survive and function.”

According to Sisk, the movement goes beyond attending and paying for college. One of her former students, for instance, had access to higher education but struggled with the expenses of his day-to-day living. “How are you going to live? How are you going to pay rent?” Sisk said. “It’s hard to study when you’re worried about what you’re going to eat the next day.”

Undocumented students have multifaceted concerns and fears. Even students on DACA are worried about their parents being deported, she said. Because of this, undocumented student activism extends past the scope of college. In November, the youth-led organization United We Dream, for example, organized a “die-in” in front of a jail in Houston to protest deportations.

“This goes to show you that the strategy isn’t just about getting DREAMers documented,” Sisk said. “The DREAM Act would have helped, but there needs to be a path towards legalization. I’ve never been convinced by any of these measures because they’re partial. The solution wouldn’t just [be] to legalize the people who are already here, but having more humane ways of people entering the country.”

Merino is very involved in immigration rights activism and says it extends far beyond higher education.

He is particularly concerned about the “good” versus “bad” immigrant narrative. He feels many liberals are putting immigrant youth at the forefront. “What I’m worried most about is people like my parents and friends. Are they not allowed to build a life here?” Merino said. When he found out about President Obama’s executive action, for instance, he had to tell his mother that she didn’t qualify. “It wasn’t just fighting for student rights. It’s larger than that, looking at the whole system itself.”

Chávez also says her activism encompasses much more than her rights as student. She feels that conversations tend to focus on students and not so much on families, and that needs to change. “We’re human,” she said. “We’re not here to take anything from anyone. We deserve to belong.”

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