USC Officials Discuss Financial Aid For Undocumented Students

This story was written by Dominique Fong, Daily Trojan
Proponents of the California Dream Act, legislation that would allow undocumented students to receive financial aid at public universities, said Friday that the University of Southern California should consider creating its own plan for its undocumented students.

"We need to discuss it as a university. Is there a plan? If there isn't, we need to bring the administration, staff, faculty and student leaders on an approach," said William Vela, director of El Centro Chicano. "First, we should ask, 'What do we have'? Second, we need to make people aware of it, and third, we should be proactive."

The act, proposed and sponsored by Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 and would have allowed undocumented students to be eligible for the competitive Cal Grant program.

The latest bill excludes the Cal Grant program and allows undocumented students to be eligible for and apply for grants, scholarships, work study and loan programs offered by campuses at the California Community Colleges, California State Universities and the University of California.

"We continue our commitment to education by creating opportunities and giving resources to these students," said Cedillo, who is still collaborating with Schwarzenegger to pass the act.

Federal legislation similar to the California Dream Act is being considered in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

USC Latino and policy student organizations invited Cedillo to campus Friday to speak about the proposed act.

"We're hoping bringing awareness of this issue on campus will not only get dialogue at private institutions but help students organize at USC and get involved in shaping policy and move toward education," said Jorge Madrid, president of the Latino Association for Policy, Planning and Development.

Although the act would not affect private universities, undocumented students at USC can already apply for merit-based aid such as the Presidential, Trustee, Dean's and Leadership scholarships, but cannot receive need-based aid such as work study programs because of federal laws, said Tim Brunold, associate dean and director of undergraduate admission.

University officials said USC does not track the number of enrolled undocumented students, but many are referred to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, El Centro Chicano, the financial aid office and Student Affairs for help.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 2.5 million undocumented youth under the age of 18 in 2000, and about 40 percent of all undocumented students live in California, according to studies conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization.

Four undocumented students from Espiritu, an organization at CSU Dominguez Hills that raises funds for undocumented students, were invited to Friday's discussion to share their experiences.

Espiritu raised $40,000 this year, giving out partial scholarships and two full scholarships to help pay for the $3,377 tuition fees at CSUDH.

Many described the challenges of being an undocumented student: paying for college, the ineligibility of applying for a driver's license and the inability to work even with a college degree because they have no social security number.

"People are not just stereotyping, but are ignorant of the difficulties we go through. We just want equal rights as they do, to be able to graduate and use your degree to contribute to this country," CSUDH freshman Yorceli Montiel said.

Jhovanna Rojas, former president of Espiritu and a CSUDH senior, said that many believe illegal immigrants are filling positions in jobs and are attending universities that belong to U.S. citizens.

"If we're in college, it's because we deserve to be in colege, and we don't take education for granted. We fight for it and earn our place in every college and university we are in," Rojas said.

The students said ignorance, biased media coverage and racism account for most of the anti-immigrant attitudes.

"The reality is, illegal immigrant is a code word for south-of-the-border immigrants," said Harry Pachon, professor of public policy. "People don't consider Asians, Irish or Eastern European immigrants."

Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, said local level action is occurring because federal legislation has not been passed.

"There's a deadlock, no movement for immigrant reform in Congress," Shamasunder said.

Students at the event and several student organizations said people should be more educated about immigration, which is often debated with misconceptions.

"People who are most heavily opinionated are often the least educated," said Amanda Peralta, a sophomore majoring in psychology who attended the panel discussion. "They have [biased] sources and don't go deep in the issues. People like to speak up but they don't know what they're talking about."

Madrid said although there are currently no specific plans to start a scholarship fund like Espiritu, LAPPD will work with Espiritu and guest speakers to continue the dialogue on immigration.

"We're going to work toward more socially conscious students," Madrid said. "So far we haven't got to the point where we're raising those kind of dollars to bring people financial aid for the cost of coming here, but it's definitely something we're interested in and it's worth exploring."
© 2008 Daily Trojan via U-WIRE