Undocumented students work for the right to learn

by Caitlyn Starkey

There is a hole in the barricade, just large enough for a person to crawl through. A mother climbs through with her 11-month-old daughter in her arms. This child grows up in the public school system and has no idea of her immigration status.

She wants to apply for college and discovers that she does not have a social security number. She is an undocumented student.

In 2010, there were over 2.2 million undocumented college-aged students in the United States, according to Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Immigration is currently a hot topic in the media. The election coverage featured each candidate’s immigration policy specifically relating to undocumented or “illegal” immigrants.

“Immigrant rights advocates said the senators’ legislation, without a pathway to citizenship, would create a group of second-class Americans. Those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration said any legal status would reward lawbreaking and that it is essentially an amnesty,” according to the Washington Times.

Freshman Cinthia Illan-Vazquez is originally from Mexico and is an undocumented student.

“I came to the United States when I was 6 years old, so pretty much I have grown up in America my entire life. The reason why I came here was because my parents wanted a better education for me,” she said.

Illan-Vazquez arrived in the United States on a Saturday and started first grade the following Monday. The immersion in school allowed her to her learn English.

“It was really difficult  growing up simply because my parents didn’t know English. So at a very young age I was their translator for everything, especially for medical stuff,” Illan-Vazquez said.

Upon graduation from high school, Illan-Vazquez received an Act Six scholarship. This is a privately funded full-tuition scholarship.

“The Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative is the Northwest’s only full-tuition, full-need scholarship for emerging urban and community leaders who want to use their college education to make a difference on campus and in their communities at home,” according to the Act Six website.

Illan-Vazquez is now studying political science on the pre-law track. She is pursuing politics with the intention of advocating for undocumented students like herself.

Sophomore Alma Aguilar is an undocumented student as well. She has lived in the United States almost her whole life yet does not have a social security number.

“Basically I don’t have permission to be living in the United States. I wasn’t born inside the United States and I don’t have any other way of saying that I am a resident or a citizen,” Aguilar said.

Originally from Mexico, Aguilar’s mother crossed the border when Aguilar was almost a year old.

“I was about 11 months. My mom said there was a hole in the wall on the border between the United States and Mexico, she just crossed under and here we are,” she said.

However, growing up Aguilar did not realize that her immigration status was different.

“Especially in the state of Washington, I can still go to school. I still have health coverage. I have education from K-12, I have medical coupons until I am 19. So no, I didn’t really realize until I started applying for scholarships and for schools,” she said.

Lulu Gonzalez, coordinator of international student affairs, pointed out that students often don’t know because their parents have kept the topic secret.

“For a lot of undocumented students reality hits when they are encouraged by high school counselors to apply to go to college.  They often do not know they don’t have a Social Security number.  The family keeps it a secret.” Gonzalez said.

A student without a social security number does not qualify for any state or federal financial aid. That significantly decreases the amount of aid that a student can receive to attend college.

“Basically the funds that I can get, at least from Whitworth, are private sponsors and alumni funds and those kind of things. Any resource that Whitworth has that isn’t federally funded,” Aguilar said.

Though a student qualifies for less aid, the process of admissions does not change.

“Whitworth accepts applications from undocumented students and uses the same admissions criteria for them as for any student when reviewing the application file,” said Greg Orwig, vice president of admissions and financial aid. “One important difference, which is beyond our control, is that undocumented students don’t currently qualify for federal and state student aid. Whitworth does award them any institutional aid that they qualify for.”

The political sphere has tackled the issue of immigration recently with two different pieces of legislation: the Dream Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The Dream Act would allow undocumented students in good standing to pursue citizenship.

The bill was originally introduced to Congress in August of 2001 as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. It was reintroduced in 2009.

“The Dream Act would allow you to become a citizen eventually, which would be awesome because you would get a social security number,” Aguilar said.

With a social security number a student could apply for federal loans.

“It would be the perfect solution for a lot of students in my position,” she said.

The bill does not address parents or family of a student who seeks to gain citizenship. The situation of undocumented youth was changed by the DACA program, which President Obama implemented on June 15.

“Illegal immigrant youths who were brought to the U.S. by their parents are among the most difficult cases. President Obama announced this year that he would stop deporting such immigrants and instead would grant them work permits — though they wouldn’t have permanent legal status,” according to the Washington Times.

This program allows a current student in good standing to apply for a legal two-year work permit, giving them a social security number.

“The DACA is not an amnesty and is not a path for residency; it’s just a relief that allows undocumented students to work for two years,” Gonzalez said.

The permit is valid for two years and can be reapplied for once, four years total. Unlike citizenship and the Dream Act, it can be revoked and the next president can repeal the program.

“It’s kind of like a spin off of the Dream Act, except it doesn’t give you citizenship; it just gives you a work permit. This is more of a short-term fix to a hard situation,” Aguilar said.

Contact Caitlyn Starkey at cstarkey13@my.whitworth.edu.

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