California’s first-class DreamersLiving in immigration limbo, grateful and anxious
Beatriz, the daughter of house cleaners, and Chava, the son of tamale and ice cream makers from San Jose, will enroll this fall in the University of California at Merced – an event they viewed as unattainable until two months ago. They did aspire to a four-year degree. But as undocumented immigrants from Mexico whose parents moved them to America before they were in middle school, they were realists, too. Community college would be all they could afford, if that.
Beatriz and Chava are the new California Dreamers, among the first to receive college aid under California’s Dream Act, which Jerry Brown signed into law last year on its fifth trip to the governor’s desk.
Starting in 2013, Cal Grants will be available to undocumented immigrants and other income-eligible nonresident Californians who graduated from a California high school after attending at least three years. But Beatriz’ and Chava’s counselor at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, had heard that UC campuses were planning to award Dream Act money through private scholarships under their control sooner than that under AB 130, a separate part of the Dream Act. So each student hurriedly filled out a financial application this spring, and, sure enough, soon after their UC Merced acceptance letter came, offers to each for $22,000 – a little more two-thirds of the estimated cost of fees and room and board at a UC campus for next year. Now, with their fathers’ encouragement and mothers’ ambivalent mixture of pride and trepidation, and with additional scholarships from DCP and money the families and students have saved, they’ll be heading away from home to college.
The state Department of Finance estimated last year that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants under the Dream Act. That’s about 1 percent of the total recipients, but less than one third of those will be undocumented students. The rest will be California high school graduates who want to return to the Golden State for college.
Finance estimated the state cost of Cal Grants for Dream Act recipients at $14.5 million per year. Opponents of the law argue it will attract more illegal immigrants and siphon money that could be used for citizens. Proponents, like Gov. Brown, respond that the state should encourage and reward all students for their hard work; the state will need more college grads, and a Cal Grant is a pittance compared with the nearly $100,000 the state paid for their K-12 education.
Though they lack a U.S. birth certificate, Beatriz and Chava are American success stories, embodying “ganas,” that intense desire that teachers and students celebrate at Downtown College Prep. Beatriz’ family moved from the state of Oaxaca when she was 11, and the future social worker knew not a word of English. Soon she was interpreting for her parents as they went door to door in Fremont, drumming up business for the family. One of five children and the first to go to college, Chava, a future entrepreneur, and his family left Tijuana when he was eight or nine.
“Both students have tremendous amount of grit,” says Prisilla Lerza, the college financial manager at DCP. “At different moments, they have dealt with their immigration status but given their all. All of our teachers would describe them as top students.”
At DCP, which targets low-performing middle school students from low-income Hispanic families, about 20 percent of students are undocumented immigrants. This year it was 11 of 49 graduates. During junior year, when it’s time to get serious about college applications, immigration status has become a demarcation, and sometimes a difficult subject to broach.
“Some students don’t know they are undocumented until they apply to college, and others are taught to be in the closet – that something bad can happen to them,” said Lerza. “The emotional part catches up at some point and for some can subtly manifest in despair. We see that in not meeting deadlines for applying or in terms of what schools they apply to; they pursue community college as their only option.”
This year, Cal Grants for high school graduates with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher provided tuition and fees of up to $12,192 at a UC campus and up to $5,472 at a CSU campus. For students with only a 2.0 GPA, the income ceilings are much lower – $42,100 for a family of four – and the first year aid of $1,551 is a lot lower. With state aid for eligible undocumented students still a year away, the Dream Act was cruelly illusive for many of Beatriz’ and Chava’s friends at DCP. Beatriz, with a 3.8 average, and Chava, with a 3.4, took their chances anyway, and applied to CSUs and UCs on the chance of private scholarships.
Never quite at ease
But California is not an island, and the debate over immigration roils the nation. The federal Dream Act, providing Pell grants and loans to undocumented students, along with a path to citizenship, remains tied up in Congress, and worry over getting inadvertently ensnared in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tempers these students’ optimism.
Beatriz is not her name, and Chava is only his nickname. Their reluctance to identify themselves – Chava did permit his family graduation photo to be published after talking it over with his parents – reflects the eerie twilight they live in: What the state may giveth in scholarships, the feds may taketh away in opportunity to find work and live without fear after they graduate.
“My teachers say, ‘Things will change.’ When I talk to teachers, I am an optimist. But my uncles and aunts tell me, ‘You won’t be able to find work when you get out,’” Beatriz said.
I spoke with Beatriz and Chava the day before President Obama announced his historic executive decision to halt deportations of 800,000 federal Dream Act eligible students like them and to grant two-year renewable work permits. Reached yesterday, Chava said he would apply for a permit so that he can work while studying for extra money. But he is only partly encouraged by Obama’s action.
“A two-year work permit is not that much, and I’m not sure how long the process will take,” he said. “You can’t tell what will happen – whether Obama will be re-elected.”
Chava said that one day he may open a restaurant for his parents, who are street vendors. He discovered his interest in business when he was chosen one of three DCP students to attend an expense-paid conference sponsored by Rotary at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. “This was a brand new experience, one of the highlights in my life,” he said. The conference taught him how to engage with other people, how can you become entrepreneur and start and maintain a business, he said. Chava plans to double major in business and engineering – “to take advantage of the opportunity.”
UC Merced will wait until January to announce how much in private scholarships it awarded this year to Dream Act students. Dream Act applications went online in April for action after Jan. 1. So far, 6,500 students have begun the process of filling out the application and 5,108 completed it, according to Ed Emerson of the California Student Aid Commission, which will administer the program. These will include students seeking fee waivers from community colleges.