EXAMINING THE CALIFORNIA DREAM ACT
Undocumented immigration is an issue that is often relegated to the realm of the abstract. Without a constant reminder in day-to-day life, you often forget that there are loving, dreaming, working, struggling and living human beings out there that face routinely face discrimination, oftentimes due to a decision that they had no part in, oftentimes the result of the actions of their parents and decisions in which they took no part. A moment of clarity for me happened during junior year of high school when I talked to my friend Tsuki, an undocumented immigrant brought here as a toddler by her parents. I asked her about what colleges she was thinking about applying to; we were both good students, so naturally I assumed this would be something interesting to talk about. It shocked me when she said, “I can’t go to school Michael, I’m undocumented. There’s no way I could afford it without financial aid.” That’s when the reality of her situation really hit home for me. I went home and did some research to see if this was true. Of course, it was at the time, and I was incredibly disheartened to know that there was an intelligent woman out there who wouldn’t be able to go to college on her own merit. She was an American, inside and out, but nothing could change the fact that her parents desired to live in America and that they didn’t leave when their visas expired. Luckily for her, soon after our graduation from high school came the California Dream Act.
The California Dream Act is one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to be passed in the State in recent memory. It resides on the same ground as Proposition 8, it has the potential to be an untouchable issue in California politics and is a microcosm of an even greater national debate.
The California Dream Act itself is a package of 3 different bills, passed within a nearly decade-long period, that does a myriad of things. The central focus is putting higher education within the reach of undocumented immigrants, primarily those brought to this country by their parents at a young age when they could not consent to their technical violation of the law. AB 540, one of the three bills, has become a buzzword and a title held by these students aspiring to receive a college education. This bill sets out the requirements for qualifying students and made the first big step in the long-term goal of putting education in reach of undocumented immigrants, allowing them to pay reasonable in-state tuition rates for California colleges as opposed to high out-of-state rates. AB 130 and AB 131, the two other bills, are the parts that ensure financial aid to undocumented students in the form of private scholarships, State-sponsored grants and loans and university grants. They were even more controversial and took nearly half a decade to pass in the state legislature. But they have gone into effect as of January of this year, and we are now seeing the fruits of legislator’s efforts on this touchy topic.
No issue inspires a greater range of emotions in California than immigration, particularly when it applies to undocumented immigrants. Almost everyone knows someone who is here illegally, whether they realize it or not. From the sympathetic residents who fight beside immigrants to ensure the promise of the American dream to those who stand for the rights of citizens over unlawful immigrants, Californians know that this can be a tough topic to discuss.
I talked to the Democrats and Republicans on campus and to a close friend of mine (who finds herself right in the middle of a political battle) to determine where they stood on this controversial issue. Between the talking points, inflammatory remarks, idealistic rhetoric and personal stories, one could be overwhelmed with every single facet of this topic that reflects on the character of our nation. Are we here to ensure that Americans prosper first and foremost and everyone else is sent to the back of the line? Or are the words etched on the Statue of Liberty eternal? Are we ready to welcome the tired and poor of the world? Or did we stop providing a safe home to the huddled masses yearning to be free?
Living in Southern California, most of us native to the region have our own experiences with immigration and immigrant populations. We find ourselves put in contact with people who originate from all over the world, but how do we treat those who bring fresh thoughts, ways of lives and culture into this country? It has been a topic of discussion that is ages old, from the race-based quota system of immigration of the past, to the xenophobic hysteria against the Irish, to the Bracero workers and the subsequent “Operation Wetback”, all of which helped lay foundation for our current policies of deportation. The California Dream Act is merely a piece of an extensive, complex and puzzling piece of our national identity and a small part of an answer to the question of “How do we feel and why do we feel this way about undocumented immigrants?”
I’ve known my friend Tsuki Velazquez for nearly 7 years. She reads like an open book and always keeps a cheerful disposition despite struggles in her life that often stand out as particularly stressful. So, naturally, when I approached her to talk about the California Dream Act and her personal experience with it, she had some honest and insightful feedback to share.
Tsuki is like many other college freshmen out there. With so many competing interests that pull her in so many directions, she’s not sure what she wants to do in college quite yet, but she does know that her education won’t over yet if she can help it. The only problem is she realizes that she’s different and she copes with the stigma attached to undocumented immigrants
“I remember my first time going to the financial aid office,” she recalled. “It wasn’t very well formatted for privacy; the person behind you in line was as close as someone in the backseat of a car is to someone sitting in the front. I was afraid to speak up, so when I told them I was an AB 540 student, I had to tell them my situation in hushed tones with a nosey person behind me listening. I don’t know whether or not he was judging me”
The process laden with bureaucracy has been no cakewalk for Tsuki, or any of the AB 540 students funneled through it. Dealing with state financial aid officials, college admissions folks and the federal government (and doing so in a climate where a person’s life can be dramatically altered by the rapidly fluctuating political climate and the constant developments in immigration) may seem overwhelming for many people. The end result is worth it though, in Tsuki’s eyes and a whole host of AB 540 eligible students eyes as well. Skilled people, particularly in STEM fields often get preference when attempting to obtain a legal US visa. And once undocumented immigrants achieve legal status, the 2010 US Census reports that a person with only a high school diploma earns approximately $30,627 a year, compared to the $56,665 earned annually on average by those with a bachelors degree.
Californians are nearly alone in their progressive attitude towards college funding for undocumented immigrants. Other states facing growing unlawful immigrant populations have taken more draconian actions against the immigrants present in their states. Arizona was in the national spotlight in 2011 for its passage of SB 1070, the infamous law that mandated immigration status checks in mundane situations like traffic stops and almost any interaction with police. While other states are compelled to crack down on undocumented immigration, with copycat legislation being passed in South Carolina, Alabama, Utah and Indiana to name a few, California, as evidenced by the Dream Act, has been on a road towards the tolerance of undocumented immigrants.
Even in a state that has routinely pursued a liberal agenda such as California, there is still significant debate over the true nature of the Dream Act. As many students may remember, there were posters around campus advocating a stop to the Dream Act, courtesy of the Long Beach State College Republicans. I contacted them and talked to their Vice President Andrew Spencer and Secretary Chiu Ma. There was one position that they could not stress enough to me.
“We are not against immigration, we’re against breaking the law.”
“Though their argument was fair, there are several factors that make it clear that many of the problems are within our own immigration system. The average wait time for the child or spouse of a US permanent resident to receive legal status is 6 years according to a study done by the National Foundation for American Policy. God forbid the brother or sister of a prospective immigrant is a US citizen; it would then take that person 14 years, on average, to be able to enter the country.
“We believe students should really pay attention to this because it could make classes more difficult to acquire”, they said later in the interview.
Though it is hard to predict a precise effect of the California Dream Act on class sizes and class availability on our public university system, it is unrealistic to claim that classes would be hard to acquire. Only 65,000 thousand undocumented immigrants meeting the residency requirement for the California Dream Act graduate from high school every year nationwide. And of course, not all of them apply for college or live in California.
I also spoke with the College Democrats about the Dream Act, who were enthusiastic to talk about the measure. Victoria Chung, the organization’s president, questioned: “When you’re brought in underage, without your consent, how is it your fault?”
She touched on a topic that merits more discussion and doesn’t seem to get a lot of discussion in the debate surrounding undocumented immigrants. How can one punish the children of parents who may have broken the law? What have these children done wrong? Could my friend Tsuki defy her parents’ decision to move to America when she was only a toddler? The threat of deportation, being forced to live under the radar, and facing a daily stigma are bad enough, so must we force other young adults to deny themselves the education that their peers have gone on to receive; do we really need to deny a young adult’s right to get an education because of something they haven’t technically done?
We face a moral decision as a country in regards to immigration. Do the words inscribed onto the Statue of Liberty still apply today? Or are we closed for business and new members of the American family?
In the course of this feature, I can’t help but feel proud of California for passing the California Dream Act. For all of its flaws and all the bureaucracy it inspires, it has been a great thing. Tsuki is in her first semester of college and is enjoying it, though the victory is bittersweet. “I worry about my financial aid a lot,” she tells me with anxiety. “I just don’t know whether or not the Dream Act will remain around for enough time for me to finish my education.”
“At the end of the day, it’s about whether or not I will have the money to study.”
The California Dream Act has plenty of benefits for undocumented immigrants and is well intentioned, however much of this is bogged down in bureaucracy, paperwork and administration. It’s obvious that a good education is worth working for but after seeing this myriad of steps and procedures to do simple things like obtain the right to work in the United States or to get financial aid to attend college, you may want to compare your own experience with getting a job or getting financial aid for schooling.
Requirements to receive Financial Aid
You need to have obtained a GED, HS Diploma or passed the California High School Exit Exam
You must have attended a California high school for at least 3 years
You must be registered or currently enrolled in a higher education institution (Community colleges tend to be popular due to the low cost and the uncertainty of financial aid)
(Editors Note: These qualify you for an out of state tuition exemption and put you under the protection of AB 540, granting you resident tuition cost as opposed to out of state tuition costs and linking you to AB 130 and AB 131, the financial aid elements of the Dream Act whose eligibility clause refers to the one in AB 540)
With the undocumented status, it is usually necessary to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This process grants you temporary immunity from deportation if you meet the following requirements:
You entered the US before your 16th birthday
You’ve continuously resided in the US since June 15th 2007.
You’re under the age of 31.
You are currently in school or have graduated from high school
You have not been convicted of felony or serious misdemeanors (General good behavior). Then you must submit 3 forms to the United States Immigration and Citizenship Services department and pay approximately 465 dollars in fees and then make an appointment to file your biometric information with the department.
After this, your financial aid application is complete and you wait for a response telling you how much aid you qualify for and in what form. Remember, the California Dream Act only qualifies undocumented immigrants for state financial aid, not federal aid.