Sunday, July 31, 2016

DREAMers' Lives Matter: Undocumented Students in Postsecondary Education by Nalani Goonetilleke



These are our children.  They grew up in our towns, they speak our language, they have worked and learned in our schools.  To leave them permanently exiled within their own world is not a policy – it is an abdication.                                                              
                                                                                        Eric Johnson


Indeed, as the current phrase goes, these undocumented students’ lives matter.  However, everyone has a different notion of what the American Dream entails.  For some it is the security of a white-picket fenced home with 2.5 children, but for newer generations it is often the opportunity to become an engineer, nurse, or even a doctor.  For undocumented students or DREAMers, this vision is often barricaded by federal and state laws that make continuing an education beyond high school a challenge within itself.


Undocumented students are classified as foreign-born students who came to the United States without the proper citizenship documents or entered legally as a nonimmigrant but remained in the United States upon completion of their terms.  Many of our undocumented students who are looking to pursue a higher education have lived in the United States most of their lives, came to the United States at a young age, are English speaking, attended primary and secondary school in the United States, and have excelled in high school.  Traditionally the laws have been peculiar.


The DREAM Act, known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, was proposed in Congress in 2001.  It has continuously been reintroduced on the federal level but has not been passed.  The mission of the bill would permit undocumented youth to enlist in the U.S. armed forces or to pursue a higher education.  It would also work towards permanent resident status for undocumented children who were raised in the United States.  Although the federal DREAM Act did not pass, many states have their own version of the DREAM Act.  “At least 20 states have passed tuition equity policies for immigrant students, according to Tanya Broder, senior attorney at National Immigration Law Center.” (2015)  The state DREAM Acts are generally geared to supporting in-state tuition or eligibility for scholarships or state financial aid for undocumented students.  However, the qualifications are based on the state and the institution.  Upward social mobility for this targeted group would be the end result of the DREAM Act, but the legislature is resistant to passing it.  In the interim, another policy was established to alleviate some of the hardships that DREAMers face.


DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that was established in 2012 by President Obama, supports deferred deportation to individuals who came to the United States under the age of 16 and are currently under the age of 31; there are also requirements that the individual must meet in order to qualify.  “DACA provides legal presence, but not legal status.” (2015)  Legal presence permits individuals to apply for employment, receive a Social Security number, and obtain a driver’s license.  This can increase their mobility economically and socially.  The policy grants a two-year period; however, the individual can renew if he/she still meets the requirements.  However, even in applying for DACA, the individual must openly expose their immigration status and contact information to the government.  Applying does not guarantee that they will be eligible. 


Laura Bohorquez contends: “The main difference is the DREAM Act would have given the community a path to residency and eventually citizenship… DACA is just work permit and protection from deportation.  It allows us to be able to work and afford our school, but it’s not a path to any type of status.” (2015)  Legal presence does not equate to legal status.  It is merely an acceptable way of being present in the United States.  DACA is a band-aid solution that essentially is enabling trouble. 


In Plyler v. Doe, the presence of minors in the education system also proved to be permissible. This 1982 Supreme Court case determined that all students in grades K-12 were guaranteed an education, regardless of their citizenship or residency status. (Perez 2014) This set the stage for undocumented children to have hope.  “According to the ruling, denying them that education would create a ‘lifetime of hardship’ for undocumented children and a ‘permanent underclass’ of individuals.” (Eusebio and Mendoza 4) The decision promised an education to all students, but this did not extend to a postsecondary education, where they could fulfill their dreams of becoming an engineer, nurse, or doctor.  Legally these students are required to attend school in grades K-12 but barriers are immediately in place once they work on continuing and advancing their education. 


My education progressed in the Freeport School District in Long Island from grades 1st through 12th.  The district’s demographics ranged from approximately 5% Whites, 32% Blacks, 2% Asians, and 59% Hispanics, with 17% limited English proficient students.  (Freeport School District) My graduating class at Freeport High School was filled with what I then believed to be students who lacked motivation because they did not continue their education beyond the high school diploma or GED.  In hindsight, perhaps it was a much more complex situation at hand.


It is my own experience that really evokes a distinct passion surrounding undocumented students.  Through my cousin Dushan, I have witnessed the personal struggles of an undocumented individual and the difficulties that he had obtaining a college education.  Dushan came to the United States as a child without the proper legal documents.  Growing up he experienced a life that was fully entangled into the American culture.  His parents worked to best adapt to American customs while encompassing our Sri Lankan heritage.  Upon completion of his senior year of high school, he, like his peers, strived towards a college degree.  He began taking courses at a community college because he was ineligible to receive financial aid.  During his time at the community college he excelled in all of his classes.  His parents were not able to keep up the college tuition expenses.  Unfortunately, a college degree became out of reach.  Twenty years later, he is a father of a high school senior.  He has high hopes of his son achieving the university diploma that he was unable to attain.  Perhaps the admission of Dushans’ son into college will be more accessible, simply based on his residency status.


College admission policies, tuition, and financial aid are three areas in which there are tremendous barriers for undocumented students.  These barriers do not make it impossible for the student but rather extremely difficult especially for a DREAMer who is already under difficult circumstances.  In respect to college admission, “there is no federal or state law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. college, public or private.” ("Advising Undocumented Students – Explaining Financial Aid | Education Professionals – The College Board”) However, on the contrary, each institution has different policies on admitting this demographic of students.  This policy can either work in favor of the student or be a great disservice to them.  Public institutions follow the guidelines of the state laws, giving them very little leeway to provide more access if the state does not do so.  Private institutions are autonomous and are not heavily-ruled or impacted by the government. 


Undocumented students are unable to receive federal funding for their education, which comes in the form of federal financial aid, work study and government loans.  They are often forced to pay out-of-state tuition rates regardless of them being in-state students.  Tuition for full-time enrollment can range from $15,000 to $40,000 per year.  More often these students are generally classified as international students, especially at private colleges and universities, despite any recognition of being a state resident.  International students receive significantly less aid.  The Institute for International Education (IIE) reported for the 2004-05 school year, it found that 80.9% of international students used payments extending from personal or family resources.  (“Financial Aid for Undergraduate International Students”) When classified as an international student, the undocumented student competes with students worldwide to fulfill the international quota at the institution.  Tuition at private institutions ranges from $80,000 to $200,000 over the span of four years.  Each state has different laws pertaining to funding and tuition for undocumented students.  Twenty states permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, including Florida and Utah.  States such as Alabama, South Carolina, and certain institutions in Georgia do not even permit undocumented students from even enrolling.  California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma (certain grants), Washington state, and Texas provide state-based aid.  Illinois is the only state that has private scholarships for this population of students.  (Eusebio and Mendoza 2) Most undocumented students rely heavily on private scholarships which are still hard to attain due to most requiring one to be a U.S. citizen or a permanent legal residence.


Different states providing different levels of access to undocumented students create an uneven playing field for the undocumented community.  One student may have a more promising future simply based on the region that they live in.  States that provide in-state tuition or state-based aid demonstrate to their residents that they are willing to deliver more opportunities to future generations and future leaders. “In 2011, three states passed their in-state tuition laws including Connecticut, Maryland and Rhode Island.” (Rincon, 2016) In addition, “both California and Illinois passed laws to permit undocumented immigrant students’ greater access to such resources.” (Rincon 2016) California has the largest number of undocumented immigrants, representing 25% of all.  When states pass laws that are influential in determining the success of a prospective student, it impacts not only the student but it affects the family members, communities, the state and then the nation as a whole.  Breaking barriers to permit greater access to undocumented students has a profound effect ultimately on the nation.  The more that is invested into all millennials, the better equipped they are for the workforce, which positively effects our economy.


The state of California has tuition and financial aid policies that help undocumented students enroll at public institutions.  In addition, the costs are affordable and reasonable to the students.  On the other hand, states such as Georgia do not permit undocumented students to attend public institutions.  In the state of Missouri, there are constraints on tuition discounts and aid at state universities and colleges.  The state legislature of Missouri passed a law that undocumented students even with the DACA status were not eligible to receive scholarships toward community college tuition. (Gordon 2016) DACA recipients who qualify for in-state tuition increase the chance of pursuing a higher education because it becomes more affordable.  The affordability aspect makes college more accessible.  In addition, it increases the student’s persistence in completing their degree.


One of the continuing debates surrounds the issue of in-state versus out-of-state tuition:  Should longtime residents be charged in-state or out-of-state tuition?  “In February, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the higher tuition when it ruled that the higher-education governing board could not be sued by immigrant advocates.” (Gordon 2016) The PBS article (Gordon 2016), states that at Georgia Southern University out-of-state tuition is $9,222 compared to $2,613, the tuition dollar for in-state residents.  In addition to the tuition debate, there is another debate surrounding DACA status for state financial aid: Should the student be eligible for state financial aid based on their DACA status?  State decisions largely contribute to this minority group transitioning into college.  Since undocumented students do not qualify for federal aid, when a state provides more financial assistance, more DREAMers become qualified to advance their education.


The “Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students” is a valuable source to students who are trying to get into a university. (Rincon 2016)  It provides information on selected state’s college guides, financial aid, scholarships, and support organizations.  The admission information focuses on available university guidelines and sample affidavits that undocumented students are required to complete.  The site contains information on scholarships and it further indicates the states that do provide financial aid.  Furthermore, the resource provides associations that work towards assisting undocumented students into higher education.  As previously illustrated, undocumented students are generally first-generation students, and therefore, the families often are not as knowledgeable about the resources or services available in order for these students to pursue a higher education. 


Additionally, this lack of familiarity extends to guidance counselors and support staff.  High school counselors may not be experienced in guiding undocumented students in how they can further their education, especially with all of the barriers that are dealt with.  The resources that are available are limited which only add to their limitations.  Educators, admission officers, and financial aid counselors need to be more familiar with the immigration laws.  These students need advocates as they navigate through an already perplexing system.  Once they are enrolled, administrators need to work on retaining the student.  Certain institutions have not updated their scholarship information on their website, which can deter students from even realizing that they are eligible to apply.


Throughout the history of higher education, each diverse group has experienced difficulties in breaking into higher education.  College initially began as solely geared for the elite.  From there different careers and jobs were added, which brought in and appealed to a different group of students.  This became a pattern in higher education; certain events were a catalyst to welcoming or embracing new students.  One very prominent time in history was the initiation of the GI Bill, which granted more access to veterans. 


Women and ethnic-minorities were once taboo in academia.  Today, institutions are filled with minorities of different backgrounds, gender, race, and disability status.  Higher education at one point was not an option for these groups of people; however, through time, college became more accessible.  It is with much hope that undocumented students will be able to attain greater access in higher education, so that they too can be just as remarkable and contribute to the collegial education system.  Obstacles for this targeted group carry throughout their educational experience.


With so many challenges being present for entering into college, many wonder about the challenges post-college.  There are opportunities available to undocumented students after they have obtained their degree.  Options include graduate school and various forms of legal employment which can consist of self-employed as an independent contractor, starting a company or working abroad.  In addition, in California DACA recipients can acquire their licenses in law, medicine, nursing and pharmacy.  A college degree determines and mitigates occupational status and socioeconomic status.  This population has been raised to strive for a better life.


According to the American Psychological Association, “There are one million children under 18 and 4.4 million under 30 living in America out of the estimated total of 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in America….Nearly half of undocumented adults are parents of minors, many of whom are citizens.  There are an estimated 5.5 million children with at least one undocumented parent, 4.5 million of whom were born here making them U.S. citizens.” (“Undocumented Americans”) One million children under the age of 18 possess exceptional characteristics and have lived a life where they have triumphed adversity. 


“Brought to this country years ago, spirited across a border they were too young to comprehend by parents who wanted better for them, the children are beginning to understand their outlaw status.  They’ve begun to realize that our laws treat them as indefinite accomplices to a crime committed when they were toddlers.” (Johnson 2016) Living in a country illegally is not commended but often certain circumstances force families to choose that alternative in hopes of attaining a better life.  Once the student is here and has been educated through our system and adapted to our culture, how can we now make the “American Dream” so hard for them to reach?  Their family altered a certain lifestyle in order for them to succeed in the United States, but with obstacles in place, many of their hopes and dreams are put aside.  As Langston Hughes expressed, “what happens to a dream deferred?” (“Harlem – Poetry Foundation”) In examining students who are undocumented, each individual case is different.  However, many of these students come into the United States when they are younger and may even be unaware that they are undocumented.  Ironically, their immigration status may not be a factor that they are aware of until it is time for them to apply for college.  I hope this is not an answer to Hughe’s last line : “Or does it explode?” (“Harlem – Poetry Foundation”)


If we turn a blind eye to these students, then what it is to become of them?  Life with a college degree provides an entry way to a much better life; without a college degree life is significantly harder.  How can we expect those living in poverty and receiving government assistance to better themselves?  The Pew Hispanic Research Center, found that “nearly 30% of undocumented children live below the poverty line.” (Navarro 2013) A college education provides a life above the poverty level.  It is an entrance way to new opportunities, social mobility, and a better economic state.  If the DREAM Act were passed, students would be able to receive more financial assistance.  Although 30% live in poverty, that 30% would have boundless opportunities.


Consequently, the research reveals that undocumented students face an overwhelming number of adversities including “poverty, assimilation, language barriers, violence in their community or home environment, lack of access to health care, and mental health issues.”  (Eusebio and Mendoza 5) In facing a plethora of adversities, the pursuit of a postsecondary education is a major achievement.  The challenges that undocumented students face can also impede or impact their learning.  It has been shown that a great deal of undocumented students suffers from high levels of anxiety.  The frustrations and fears that undocumented students encounter on a daily basis include “isolation from their peers, the struggle to pursue an education, fears of detention and deportation, and the trauma of separation from family and loved ones.” (“Undocumented Americans”) 


The APA (“Undocumented Americans”) article further adds that this population is more likely to experience “racial profiling, ongoing discrimination, exposure to gangs, immigration raids in their communities, arbitrary stopping of family members to check their documentation status, being forcibly taken or separated from their families, returning home to find their families have been taken away, placement in detention camps or the child welfare system, and deportation.”  Having to deal with stressful situations on a regular basis plays a significant role on the individual’s emotions and behaviors. 


Many undocumented students demonstrate anxiety, fear, depression, anger, social isolation, and a lack of truly feeling as if they belong.  Undocumented individuals that have been detained or deported have a greater likelihood of possessing more emotionally disturbed characteristics.  “Researchers have found that they often experience in the short term, frequent crying, withdrawal, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, anger, anxiety and depression.  Over time, these can lead to more sever issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, feelings of persecution, distrust of institutions and authority figures, acting out behaviors and difficulties at school.” (“Undocumented Americans”) The feelings that these individuals have represent the traumatic real-life experiences that they have encountered.


Mental health is a major concern and a growing health issue with college-age students, which have been increasing over the years.  It is also linked to retention and academic performance. (Sierup 2015) Anxiety is the number one mental health issue amongst college students.  In addition to the previously mentioned persistent stressors that undocumented students deal with, there is also stress in just being a student.  The undocumented student is a minority and first-generation student.  There are so many expectations and pressures to succeed tied in with financial hardship and the traditional pressures that most students face.    


Depression is the second common mental health issue found on campuses.  College students are typically underinsured or uninsured and do not have access to mental health providers.  A psychiatric consultation ranges from $200-$600 and a psychological consultation fee ranges from $125-$300. (Seirup 2015) With the stress that this population already has plus the lack of access to healthcare, it is imperative that greater support be given to this population.  For the traditional college student, mental health is a huge issue, let alone for an undocumented student who is already struggling financially.


The benefits of a college education are limitless but as a nation we limit these benefits to those who fall under certain standards.  An undocumented student should not have a surplus of barriers just to advance themselves in society.  More education equates more opportunities.  Unemployment rates for those with less than a high school diploma are 11.2%, high school graduate 7.9%, some college 6.7%, and bachelors or higher 3.8%. (Seirup 2015)


Not only do students who graduate with a baccalaureate degree have a higher likelihood of being employed but they also earn more money over their lifetime.  The US Census found that the median earnings year round for full-time employment for individuals with less than a high school diploma $25,702, high school diploma $35,035, associate’s degree $42,419, bachelor’s degree $55,864, and master’s degree $68,879. (Seirup 2015) Financially the earnings separate college graduates from non-graduates but their also differences can be seen in their career, personal life, and their community involvement.  College graduates earn more money over their lifetime, earn more promotions, and have a less inconsistent job history. 


The personal life of a college graduate is generally filled with more developed relationships with people, fewer children on average, more involved in children’s lives, and stay married to the same person for a longer time.  College graduates are more likely to be leaders in their community, elected to public office, and enjoy the arts.  Traits or circumstances that college graduates are less likely to have would be unwillingly unemployed, use tobacco products, be swindled, be imprisoned, and become dependent on alcohol or drugs.  (Seirup 2015) The overall impact of a college education develops the individual’s knowledge, skills, increase self-awareness, understanding of the world of work, appreciation of lifelong learning, leadership roles, upward social mobility, and an increase in self-confidence and wellness. (Seirup 2015)


The benefits of attaining a college degree exceed that of not having a degree.  The positive qualities, attributes, and knowledge that is acquired during your undergraduate studies shapes and molds better citizens and individuals, undocumented students should not be counted out of these opportunities.  There is so much potential for success in their communities that needs to be evolved.  The lifelong effects of a postsecondary education truly cultivate an individual.  The college experience can shape a student’s attitudes and values.  HCAS Review of Research found that college influences a student’s view on “cultural, educational, sociopolitical, gender roles, religion, community and civic engagement.” (Seirup 2015)


It is at the institution that students are able to step out of their traditional element and onto new experiences.  Students are exposed to an array of events, people, and experiences which broadens their views, ideas, and actions.  For example, civic engagement during these formative years can also lead to greater community involvement post-college.  There is an increase in multicultural perspective, which results in an “increase in positive attitudes towards racial equality, tolerance, and preference.” (Seirup 2015) Furthermore, there is more value placed on “job autonomy, responsibility, and opportunity to use talents.” (Seirup 2015) The value of education is generally passed onto one generation to the next.  With undocumented students being the first-generation, it would promote a way out of poverty and into a more fulfilling life.


Today’s college or university places a strong focal point on diversity.  The enrollment and retainment of minorities as a whole has increased.  The Census Data has projected an increase in minority students and decrease in non-Hispanic whites by 2050.  (Seirup 2015) As minority groups increase on campus, presumably this will add to the volume of undocumented students as well.  Future administrators who are cognizant of trends will better prepare the institution in meeting the needs of the students they serve.  These groups of intelligent “DREAMers” have unique needs that administrators, support staff, and faculty members have to be willing to identify and effectively meet.  Multicultural competencies at colleges are significant; it shows the importance of being aware and knowledgeable of different cultures.  In working with undocumented students, it is key not to generalize and to be able to communicate amongst different cultures.  Demonstrating cultural sensitivity and appropriation brings a sense of comfort to prospective and current undocumented students as well as their families.  For many, this is the first family member to attend college in the United States; there is much pressure and uncertainty for both the student and the parents.  There are high expectations for the student to succeed.  If the institution in its entirety maintains a diverse culture and climate, then it will provide a better welcoming and sense of warmth to these dreamers.


The term “DREAMers” is frequently used to describe undocumented students.  A dreamer, deriving from the term dream, has various associations.  One of the most influential and memorable connotations is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The remarkable and thought-evoking address describes a world in which people of all backgrounds are able to get along.  Not only does Martin Luther King Jr. envision a world of peace for all people but he states, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (King 1963) Similarly, this notion of a dream, nonetheless the American dream, holds strong barriers to the present day dreamers.  They too are looking to attain the American Dream. 


Although the American Dream comes in different forms and ideas, it centers on the concept of equality for all.  Equality of all people shouldn’t be contingent upon citizen status or ethnic background, rather the drive or enthusiasm that each individual has that pushes them to greatness.  “By the content of their character,” Martin Luther King Jr., urged. (King 1963) Over fifty years later, this statement still holds significance in the minority population.  It is no irony that that joins the term DREAMers in both of the senses but rather the connection that is shared.


It was in the fourth grade that we learned about the terms melting pot and equality.  We were also educated on how people migrated to this country just to have equal rights.  Twenty years later, I am left perplexed by what I learned in the education system of melting pots and equality and how it does not seem to apply to everyone.  As an American citizen, I will presumably work on my American dream of the white-picket fence.  And for the DREAMerS, they will silently scream for equality and silently scream for a chance in pursuing their education, while maintaining high hopes of not being deported.  Although raised and educated in the United States, they still have not received their piece of the American dream.



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