California Dreaming: Will the State Give Scholarships to Its Undocumented Youths?

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Ciro Cesar / La Opinion / Newscom

A group gathers in Los Angeles to support the California Dream Act, which makes undocumented students eligible for scholarships

Justino Mora is an undocumented Mexican. He crossed the U.S. border illegally with his family when he was 11 years old, fleeing poverty and physical abuse from his father. Upon arrival, he was bullied by other kids because he didn't speak English. Soon he started working under-the-table jobs in manual labor, making just $5 an hour to help support his mother. Now he's 22 years old. You would assume he hasn't had much time for school.

Quite the contrary. Mora will attend UCLA this fall, pursuing a double major in computer science and political science. He just graduated from community college with a 3.7 grade-point average and became one of the school's best cross-country runners. In high school, he was in the top 10% of his class after he quickly learned English in middle school. To top it off, he's a political activist working for immigrant rights.

An estimated 20,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year in California, about one-third of the nationwide total, according to the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. Only 5% to 10% of them continue on to college. That's because most are from poor families and can't afford it. Until last month, they were unable to receive scholarships of any kind, even if they qualified. That changed when Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill making undocumented students eligible for privately-funded grants. Now, a bill being dubbed the second round of the California Dream Act would allow these students to receive state-funded scholarships that draw from a larger and more reliable pool of money. (Dream stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.) It could double the number of undocumented students who attend college, according to the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA. The bill passed the state's senate appropriations committee on Aug. 25 and now moves to the senate floor.

Mora says passage of the second bill would help him finish at UCLA. He thinks he has a good chance at getting a private grant, but that still won't be enough to make him a full-time student because he has to keep up with increasing tuition. He plans to enroll only two quarters a year instead of three so he can save up money by working part-time jobs in computer repair and tutoring. "I'm working. I'm paying the bills. It's really hard to pay for everything," Mora says. "I have applied to several scholarships in the past and they've told me several times, 'We're so sorry. You're one of the winners, but because of the fact that you don't have a Social Security number we can't give you a scholarship.'"

As with any immigration issue, there is plenty of disagreement. Opponents say it's unfair to legal residents to allocate public funds for undocumented workers, especially at a time when the state is strapped for cash. Doing so will attract more illegal immigrants to California from other parts of the U.S. and from other countries, they say. "California taxpayers cannot solve Mexico's economic problems," state assemblyman Jim Silva, a Republican from Orange County, said in an interview. "For every dollar that goes to the illegals, it's taking away a dollar from the citizens for education." Opponents like Silva also argue that the bill would give undocumented students false hope because, under current law, they wouldn't be able to legally hold a job after graduating college.

Immigrant-rights groups don't like that reasoning. "Do I not help them get educated because the immigration system is still broken?" asks Angelica Salas of CHIRLA. "The answer is no." If undocumented youth do eventually become citizens, it would be better for the economy and government budgets to have a pool of immigrants who are already educated and can start earning paychecks legally and paying taxes, Salas says. Helping illegal immigrants get scholarships would also dissuade more kids from dropping out of school and "wasting away," she says. "They are already residents of California," Salas says. "They're not going to go anywhere else."

The California initiatives, combined with a similar bill signed into law this month in Illinois, may help persuade Washington to pass immigration reform or the federal Dream Act, which would help give citizenship to undocumented college students who were taken to the U.S. as dependent children, says Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. "California, in addition to Illinois and other states, will go a long way in terms of showing Washington that it's an issue that's not going away, that these young people are growing in numbers, and that ultimately it makes more sense for them to be educated and contributing to the economy," says Gonzales, who has studied undocumented youth in California.

As it stands, senators must pass the bill — and the assembly needs to approve minor changes made by the senate — by Sept. 9, the last day before the legislature goes on recess. Regem Corpuz, an 18-year-old undocumented Filipino, is certainly pulling for it to be approved. He was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, after high school, but declined because he didn't have enough money. Corpuz, who now attends a community college in Los Angeles, says the bill would help him get back that lost opportunity. "It's already hard to get classes at a community college, so just imagine when I'm trying to transfer," Corpuz says. "It would definitely be a great help."