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Undocumented college students get support from tech titan, state lawmakers

By Sarrah Nomanbhoy | 30 May 2012

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Students rallied for the passage of the federal DREAM Act in front of the White House in Washington D.C. in 2009. (Photo: Sarrah Nomanbhoy/ Peninsula Press)

Frustrated by Congress’s failure to offer undocumented students a path to citizenship, Bay Area technology leaders, activists, and nonprofits have joined forces to help young people without legal immigration status go to college and start careers.

Silicon Valley millionaire Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot, donated around $300,000 to Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps undocumented students achieve their academic and career goals. He said he intends to increase his financial support as the organization finds new ways to help undocumented students.

“We are currently in an exploratory phase,” Hawkins said in a telephone interview. “There is so much more we need to do.”

Hawkins’s interest in this cause began when he discovered that one of his daughter’s high school friends was undocumented. These students, he argues, should be considered separately from the highly politicized immigration debate in the United States.

“These kids didn’t do anything wrong… They grew up in the U.S., have no other home and have overcome tremendous obstacles to get into top colleges,” Hawkins said.

Many Bay Area leaders were inspired to help undocumented students after Congress failed to pass the federal DREAM Act in December 2010. The bill was designed to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children but pursued college or service in the U.S. military. The latest version of the bill, which passed in the House but failed in the Senate, would have made 2.1 million young people eligible for conditional legal status.

The Bay Area tech community’s support for undocumented students following the defeat of the federal DREAM Act surprised Bay Area activists working on this issue.

“When the DREAM Act didn’t pass, I didn’t foresee that a lot of private donors would be interested in this,” said Kathy Gin, co-founder and CEO of Educators for Fair Consideration, the primary local non-profit working on the issue.

“I thought that people would think, ‘If there were no hope for federal reform, what’s the purpose of supporting undocumented students?’ But they stepped up and said that if the federal government is not going to take action, then we’re going to do something about this.”

More than one in four of all potential DREAM Act beneficiaries, or DREAMers, live in California.

Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who went to Mountain View High School, was lucky. In 2000, a local venture capitalist paid for him to go to college. Speaking at a recent Stanford University symposium on undocumented students, Vargas described supporters like Hawkins as a “21st Century Underground Railroad,” referring to those who helped black slaves escape to the north during the U.S. Civil War.

Co-founder of DreamersAdrift.com, Julio Salgado, shows some of his activist artwork. (Photo: Sarrah Nomanbhoy/ Peninsula Press)

Millionaires are not the only allies stepping in to help undocumented students. Julio Salgado, co-founder of the website DreamersAdrift.com, which enables undocumented youth to express themselves through art, made it through college undocumented at California State University in Long Beach because friends shared their financial aid with him.

“I’m a privileged undocumented person because I live in California,” Salgado said.

Despite the failure to pass legislation for DREAMers at the national level, California has seen a surprising advance in helping undocumented students at the state level.

This comes at a time when other states, emboldened by signals that the U.S. Supreme Court may uphold parts of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, are pushing for tougher state immigration enforcement measures. The Arizona law, commonly known as S.B. 1070, is one of the harshest crackdowns on illegal immigration and would require state law enforcement officers to ask for the immigration papers of anyone stopped, detained, or arrested whose immigration status is suspect.

Several states have also followed Arizona’s lead and have passed laws to block undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition and state financial aid. Alabama and South Carolina have banned undocumented students from enrolling in state colleges or universities.

In 2011, California moved in the opposite direction, making undocumented students eligible for $88 million in private scholarships. In 2013, $38 million in publicly funded financial aid will also be available to these students, when AB 130 and 131, state laws known collectively as the California DREAM Act, take effect. Still, states do not have the authority to grant U.S. citizenship to students who receive this financial aid.

In the last five years, the number of scholarships from foundations and private donors available to undocumented students has also grown dramatically, according to William Perez, an associate professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif, and author of a book that examined the challenges of undocumented Latino students.

But while strides are being made to help at least some of the estimated 26,000 undocumented students living in California, those who do get to go to college still face stiff challenges when they graduate.

“College was a protective environment in many ways, providing financial support and a readily accessible community of peers and staff promising to protect me,” said Fermín Mendoza, an undocumented 2011 college graduate who received a full scholarship from Stanford University. “When the DREAM Act failed [during] my senior year in college, I became really anxious and afraid of postgraduate life as an undocumented immigrant.”

Mendoza graduated from Stanford with a degree in public policy last year. He now lives with his parents in Houston, where he is continuing to explore ways to generate an income despite his inability to work legally in the country.

With the unexpected support of Silicon Valley donors, Educators for Fair Consideration, which launched in 2006, has expanded to offer more scholarships, legal advice, and online resources for undocumented students and recent college grads.

“Many kids don’t know that there are legal pathways for them,” said Hawkins, who funded the expansion of legal services at Educators for Fair Consideration.

Mendoza said he appreciated the free legal advice he found at the organization. “It allowed me to clearly understand what pathways are — and are not — available to me to adjust my immigration status… The case analysis service has allowed me…to focus my energies on those things I can control.”

Most recently, Educators for Fair Consideration published a 73-page “How-To’’ Guide for undocumented college graduates who have limited career opportunities because of their immigration status. The organization began to “switch gears” and devote more resources to exploring post-college options “as the hope for the DREAM Act [became] more and more dismal,” Gin said.

The guide does not offer advice to undocumented immigrants on how to find jobs, since employers are required to ask for proof of legal status. It is illegal for any employer to knowingly hire a person who is not lawfully authorized to work. Instead, the guide, which was written in collaboration with several attorneys, describes a range of legal possibilities to help undocumented students earn a living.

“Although undocumented students are unable to legally be employed, they are able to earn a living legally. Federal and state laws often do not require proof of immigration status for individuals to go into business independently and receive payment for goods or services,” Gin said.

“A lot of students didn’t know about the majority of options mentioned in the guide,” Gin said.

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