By Yesenia Gonzalez
College students come from various backgrounds and walks of life. For students who arrived in the United States as young children, acquiring a college education comes with many obstacles. The barriers students face, including being ineligible to apply for federal student loans, federal student aid, bank loans and work study programs makes it difficult for immigrant students to afford higher education.
Acquiring a lawful immigration status is out of the question for many because it requires the student to apply for a Green Card, the first step toward becoming a naturalized citizen, through a direct relative (spouse, parent or a sibling who is at least 21 years old), which is impossible considering that neither parent of the household has a legal status in many cases. Preference categories make it so that there is a scale of how likely someone petitioning for a Green Card may receive one depending on which relative petitioned for them. As the number of available immigrant visas approaches its limit, the number of visas available for those who are not First preference recipients decreases. Here is how it breaks down:
You know, I have students in my office in tears trying to figure out ‘How is this going to affect me? What if nothing comes out of this? What if, you know, Congress doesn’t come together and reach an agreement? What if there is no immigration reform? What is gonna happen to me? Am I even gonna be able to be employable? Am I gonna be able to find a job if I do finish my college degree?’- Erica Alvarez Director of Graduation and Adviser of the Hispanic Student Association at Rose State College
“Now, let’s be clear-this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix,” Obama said during a press conference on the day DACA was announced on June 15, 2012.
Dreamers, as immigrants brought to the United States as children are known colloquially, derive their name from the DREAM Act, a proposed bill that has never passed both the House and the Senate . The original DREAM Act, proposed in 2001 and reported to the Senate with amendments in 2002 by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, required students to be 12 years old before the bill would be enacted, apply before the age of 21, earn a high school diploma, been physically present in the United States for at least five years preceding its enactment, be a person of good moral character and not be inadmissible or deportable under certain conditions.
Rescinding the DACA program paved the way for legislators to propose various replacement bills, including Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford’s SUCCEED Act. Judith Huerta, director of volunteers with Dream Act Oklahoma, Oklahoma City chapter, is skeptical of the legal implications this proposed bill would bring to all immigrants, not just students. Dream Act Oklahoma is a volunteer-based organization that started at Tulsa Community College in 2009.
The Dream Act Oklahoma team lists their concerns with the proposed SUCCEED Act:
Hart leads a congregation with a sizeable number of immigrants who attend the church. Earlier this year, he and other leaders prayed about and formed an organization known as El Camino to advocate for immigrants and address the issue of immigration from a Christian perspective.
“I think like a lot of Americans, I was just fairly uninformed of the reality of our immigration system until about 17 years ago when I started having a lot of relationships with people who were very directly impacted by it, so the longer that I’ve had close relationships with people whose families have been ripped apart or with people who haven’t been able to use their God-given abilities to make our community stronger because of a[n] immigration status that was based on decisions that they did not make has just awakened me to the fact that this is not just a political issue, this is a moral issue that affects normal people in a very profound way,” Hart said.
Even with DACA, applying to and staying in college is challenging for immigrant students. Erica Alvarez, director of graduation and adviser of the Hispanic Student Association at Rose State College, noted that the lack of finances are a leading factor in college dropout rates at Rose State.
“The number one reason why students drop out of college is because they can’t afford it, they can’t pay for it,” Alvarez said.
Navigating legal terminology is an added challenge for immigrant college students.
“Some students still kind of have that misconception that ‘I’m gonna have to pay out-of-state or I’ll be considered international’ And depending on how you word things as a college employee, different students can take that to mean different things. And so, if I ask a student, ‘Are you here on a visa?’, some students might say, ‘Well yeah, actually, I came in on a visa, I overstayed my visa so now I’m undocumented. But to them if they hear the word visa and they had one at one point they might think, ‘Okay, well you’re on visa, you’re international’ without asking those follow-up questions. So I think that that is huge. So, as an administrator, we have to have that culture of understanding and compassion, as an institution. We have to educate ourselves so we know how to support our students,” Alvarez said.
Rescinding DACA creates variables in the futures of Dreamers. There is no guarantee that Congress will be able to pass any type of legislation in the six-month period before the program is fully terminated. Before DACA was enacted, immigrant students could not legally work and put their college degrees to use. Now, history may repeat itself and thousands of students will not be able to work in their field of study.
“Well, we definitely need some type of immigration reform, that’s a given. You know that, everybody knows that. I think it would definitely put students at ease. Like right now students are just living in fear. You know, I have students in my office in tears trying to figure out ‘How is this going to affect me? What if nothing comes out of this? What if, you know, Congress doesn’t come together and reach an agreement? What if there is no immigration reform? What is gonna happen to me? Am I even gonna be able to be employable? Am I gonna be able to find a job if I do finish my college degree?’” Alvarez asked.
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