by alex lee
A student’s struggle against the system
Regem is not your typical student. He graduated a year early from high school with a 4.3 GPA and was accepted to all the UCs he applied for, including UC Berkeley, but he chose to attend a community college instead. The reason? As an undocumented student, he was ineligible for any financial aid.
“It sucks to have a dream, but you can’t follow it because of money,” said Regem.
At the age of six, Regem and his family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines with a traveler’s visa. Once in the U.S., the family filed paperwork for citizenship on numerous occasions, but the lawyers repeatedly lost their paperwork, and their visa eventually expired.
This is just one of many stories from the small population of undocumented students in our state. AB 540 students, those who are undocumented yet qualify for in-state tuition, are raised in American culture, speak English fluently and graduate from accredited high schools. With their parents’ country of origin just a faint childhood memory, most AB 540 students consider America their real home.
Despite being de facto community members of California, AB 540 students face a serious obstacle on their path to higher education: financing it. With no access to aid, many undocumented students find themselves paying their way entirely through college, and until recently, were paying out-of-state fees, a tuition of $60,000 for those who mostly come from low-income families.
However, the recent passage of AB 130 and 131 is setting a new precedent in California this year by allowing undocumented students to apply for both private scholarships and public aid to help fund their education. AB 130’s effects are unfortunately limited by the scarce amount of private scholarships offered. The more contentious of the two bills, AB 131, allows undocumented students to apply for public aid, such as Cal grants, which would greatly shoulder the burden of costs and offer a much wider scope of aid than AB 130.
And this is where the trouble begins.
Many Californians are revolted by the idea of using taxpayer money to fund “illegal immigrants,” feeling these people don’t belong in the U.S. in the first place. They feel all available funds should be prioritized towards citizens already struggling to pay for college due to the “fact” that there is simply no money to be given away in these tough economic times. People are also skeptical about educating “illegal immigrants” to compete for the diminishing number of white collar jobs in California they can’t legally apply for. The “objectivists” make it seem that this is a bad deal for all citizens.
But is it?
“These people are ignorant of the issues and blame all these problems on immigrants, when immigrants aren’t the reason for the problem in the first place. Do their research. All citizens will get their fair share. AB 540 students will receive aid after everyone else does,” said Regem.
They’re not simply given the money. These students pay taxes, work hard in school, and sign affidavits saying they will undergo obtaining legal citizenship. Nonimmigrant aliens (those with active visas) have no such options.
Plus, the UC system has been struggling with budget cuts for several years, compiled with a dysfunctional state continually cutting revenues both for itself and its colleges. If anything, California’s inability to raise revenue due to a hostile Republican party is a bigger contributing factor to the decline of higher education than approximately 1,620 undocumented students in the entire UC system.
Yet the criticisms are endless. Many are illustrative of the fear Americans have over their own future and their children’s future in a time of growing economic uncertainty. It is understandable that people would be apprehensive about government spending. What is not understandable, however, are the defamatory remarks, thinly-veiled racism and obnoxious distortions made to scare people into dismissing the undocumented students’ issues.
We would be idiots to ignore the plight of the undocumented. It would be asinine to not take advantage of a talented group of individuals who are more than capable of solving the problems of today. It would be fiscally irresponsible to think mass deportation would be free, or even remotely inexpensive. But most of all, it would be inhuman of us to treat these people as a symbol to loathe when in fact they are people. Living, breathing, family-caring people in our society that we see everyday as friends and neighbors.
After AB 131 passed on Oct. 8th, I gave Regem a follow-up call. Despite the drama behind Gov. Jerry Brown waiting until the last minute to sign the bill, Regem wasn’t surprised at all that it was eventually approved.
With the bill’s passage, Regem’s immediate plan is to apply to the UC again and await the hopefully good news to come next spring.
Still, while higher education is now more accessible for undocumented students, AB 130 and 131 remain woefully incomplete without a federal DREAM act which would allow undocumented students with college degrees the opportunity to become citizens. Only then will they finally be able to give back to the country they call home.
In the meantime, deportation remains a legitimate threat for these undocumented students. However, when asked for an alias to maintain his confidentiality, Regem didn’t answer right away. He finally said, “Well, I’ve already come out in some campuses, and personally testified to the State Senate so you might as well just use my real name.”
Now that takes courage.
Regem continues to work with other AB 540 students in a support group at his community college. He fights for them because he believes educated youths will lead to an educated workforce, which ultimately keeps them safe and off the streets.
“Let’s invest in education and invest in the youth who want to contribute to society. Let’s invest in the future because these students are the future.”