Article - Office of College Advancement

Illegal immigrants seek access to aid

Bill would allow some noncitizens to apply for financial help for college

By Angela Woodall, Staff writer.

Saturday, September 30, 2006—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area: The Argus.

Fremont—Sandra Ponca was the captain of her Kennedy High School soccer team. She earned near-perfect grades. She planned to study interior design. Then she graduated.

That was when the reality of being an illegal immigrant collided with her dreams.

Like the rest of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools annually, Ponca is ineligible for college financial aid.

Coupled with the fear of being exposed, the 18-year-old Ponca decided to attend Ohlone College instead of a four-year university where she could earn a bachelor's degree.

"It was too risky," she said.

Without help, many students such as Ponca are barely making it to college, say backers of a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who graduate from high school to apply for state financial aid at public colleges and universities. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until midnight today to sign the bill, dubbed The Dream Act.

"This is big. This is our education," said Ponca, whose parents immigrated to California from Mexico when she was 4 years old.

"We won't be able to do anything else with our lives—except work at McDonald's," Ponca said. "We want a better future."

Many parents who are illegal immigrants can't or won't help pay for college, said Tracy Virgil, a teacher with Ohlone's Puente Project, a program that targets minority students.

Several of her students, largely Latino and illegal immigrants, dropped out last semester because they couldn't afford college without working—but their low-wage jobs took too much time from school.

Although Ohlone charges $26 per unit, the cost adds up quickly—about $1,000 for each full-time semester for fees and books.

"They wanted to stay but they couldn't," Virgil said. A couple of students are barely hanging on this semester, she added.

It creates a cycle of failure, Ponca said. "It doesn't matter how hard you work in high school—you still can't go to college."

Half of all Latino students—most of that pool foreign-born—don't make it through high schools in the United States, said Melissa Lazarin, a senior policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

"College is an impossible reality for them," Lazarin added.

The bill has its critics, such as the Fremont-based East Bay Coalition for Border Security. The Dream Act would be an incentive to immigrants to enter the country illegally and remain here, spokesman Charles Birkman said. Providing new privileges and benefits "just adds to the problem we have," he said.

Not all the students who would be affected are illegal immigrants. More than half are U.S. citizens who have temporarily left the state and would be required to pay out-of-state tuition.

In addition to allowing them to compete for financial aid, students of state community colleges would be eligible for a fee waiver.

Legislative analysts say the bill could cost California's public college and university systems an estimated $7.3 million.

The Dream Act makes no provisions for federal aid and doesn't provide a path to citizenship.

It does require students to sign a sworn statement that they will apply for citizenship. The process typically takes at least five years.

The question is, "Do we allow them to remain in an underground work force or educate them?" said Eric Guerra, an aide to state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, the bill's co-author along with Alberto Torrico,

D-Newark.

Ponca said she understands the argument against the bill. "But I didn't make the decision to come here. It's not my fault, and I'm trying to do the best that I can," she said.

Ponca said she is pessimistic about the prospects of the bill's passage. "It's going to be the same thing, and there is nothing we can do about it," she said. "I feel helpless sometimes."

Staff writer Angela Woodall covers Newark and Ohlone College. She can be reached at (510) 353-7004 or at awoodall@angnewspapers.com.

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