California DREAMing–“Education Can Be This Kind of Light”

Two bills that would grant undocumented youth greater access to higher ed are moving through the state legislature.

By Julianne Hing Jun 13, 2011

The federal DREAM Act may yet be a long way off, but states are grappling with, and passing policy, to address the needs of undocumented immigrant students. The Illinois DREAM Act, approved by the state legislature last month, awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature. And in California, the state’s DREAM Act is on the move.

Under current federal law, undocumented immigrant students are ineligible for any kind of federal financial aid or grants. The California DREAM Act would counter that exclusion with state-level aid. It was introduced as two separate bills in January by Assembly member Gil Cedillo. He’s introduced a version of the state DREAM Act every year since 2006, and even though the state legislature has approved it numerous times, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Advocates are hoping that should the DREAM Act make it to newly minted Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, he’ll honor his campaign promises to sign the bill into law.

This week one half of the California DREAM Act cleared an important hurdle when AB 130 was approved by the Senate Education Committee in a 7-3 vote. AB 130 would allow undocumented immigrant students to be eligible for non-state, privately funded scholarships that are available to other students at University of California, Cal State University and California Community College. Another bill, AB 131, which is expected to come up for a Senate Education Committee consideration in the next two weeks, would allow undocumented students to become eligible for state financial aid, including Cal Grants, UC Grants and fee waivers.

Jirayut Latthi is a fourth-year undergrad at UC Berkeley who’s studying biology with the hope of going to medical school someday. He’s working in a research lab this summer and filling his spare hours with community service. He’s also undocumented, and exactly the sort of student the California DREAM Act would help. Latthi is advocating for the bills through his work in ASPIRE, an Asian-American undocumented youth organizing and support group. Here’s what he had to say about the his work.

On the unfairness of UC’s financial aid system: 

All undocumented students at UC pay tuition, and the UC system tells us that all students pay into a return-to-aid pot that gets redistributed as low-income financial aid money. But as undocumented students, we pay into that but we get none of that back. Under AB 131 we’d be able to be eligible for that money, as well as for California Pell Grants, but only if all qualified citizens have exhausted the funds and only if there’s anything left over. I don’t have much hope that we’d ever get any money because these days people are fighting for funds, but we have to go step by step.

On the urgency of the bill:

With the federal DREAM Act not passing this past December a lot of students who were active especially have been somewhat discouraged with the idea that we will probably have to wait until 2012 to really hope for a federal DREAM Act going through again. What are we supposed to do until then?

One, people need to keep going to school so we need to finally make that actually viable for undocumented students. And we need to stop deportations, which President Obama has the full power to do.

People don’t realize how hard it is to find a job, because you’re limited to part-time jobs or under the table jobs and even then it’s not like there’s an excess of them. Not being able to get a job, not being able to drive, not being able to have an ID and even watch a movie. Those are the small things. But in college we can’t get financial aid–that’s why the California DREAM Act is more important than ever.

On education and the American Dream:

Undocumented immigrants are like any other immigrant students who come here and have this mindset of becoming successful through family expectations and sacrifices they’ve made. Education has shown to be a key to success and for a lot of undocumented students who come here, that’s the light, the hope. A lot of things are really uncertain, you don’t know what’s going to happen to your family or how things are going to work out, and you spend so much time waiting for things to happen or living in fear of deportation, so education can be this kind of light. There’s the hope that if we work hard, our education will liberate us and help us become successful because by that point we’ve earned it.

On growing up undocumented:

I think people don’t realize that growing up undocumented, we live with a constant feeling of not belonging. And, not in the way where we don’t feel like we’ve assimilated because a lot of undocumented students have been here since they were really young and are essentially American. But in the sense that at the end of the day there’s still that fear, the feeling in the back of your mind that something could happen to you or your family at any minute through deportation.

I’m in school, hanging out with my friends and when a cop car drives past, I get immediately grounded, I get pulled back. No matter what I do, there’s still a fear in the back of my mind that I often can’t tell other people, and it builds into this pressure and uncertainty so that being here is not like being like everyone else, no matter how you seem to be doing on the surface, in the back of my mind, there’s always this feeling.

On visibility as a young Asian-American immigrant:

I think people associate being undocumented with being Latino because yes, there’s a high population of Latino students who are undocumented, but there’s also a lot of Asian students, students of all races. There’s a cultural stigma and different values that I think plays into why Asian students haven’t been as transparent and as active.

That’s something I want to change, and that’s why I’m so active with ASPIRE, because I realize it’s better to be active and show other undocumented students who are Asian that, yeah, we are here.