Financial burden delays dreams of undocumented youth

A.M., 17, a Kelvyn Park High School senior, dreams of going to college and becoming a lawyer.  The hitch: He’s undocumented.

“The first thing that I heard about colleges was if you’re an immigrant and you don’t have papers, you can’t go to college,” A.M. said. “That was hard for me because I wanted to try to do something in the future.”

A.M.’s family emigrated from Mexico when he was 11. Since then the federal and state governments have tried to make college a more attainable goal for undocumented youth.

In 2012, the Obama Administration announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Undocumented youth can apply for DACA every two years protecting them from deportation and allowing them to live and work legally in the U.S. However,  individuals granted DACA  are not on track to get a green card or U.S. citizenship.

In addition, the 2011 Illinois DREAM Act established a commission to raise money  for undocumented youth to receive scholarships for college. It also created professional development training for high school counselors to better help undocumented students applying to college.

On Oct. 26, A.M. and other undocumented youth participated in the Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s College Fair at KPHS. Students attended hour-long workshops to learn more about writing personal statements for college applications, applying for DACA and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Attending the college fair gave A.M. the jump-start he needed to begin the application process, he said.

“The reason that I want to apply to college is to help my family, to help my future and to motivate young people,” A.M. said. “I don’t want to be like other people – I want to do something in the future.”

The Urban Institute estimates about 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Many of them meet the requirements to apply for DACA, but the application fee itself is $465. Once students have paid that fee, they have to determine how to pay for college.

Like A.M., KPHS senior, Kareli Rea, 18, is also going to be a first-generation college student.  Her parents immigrated to the U.S. 25 years ago, but she was born here.

Rea’s biggest obstacle is financing her education.

“We live in a low-income community so money has always been an issue,” Rea said. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s not something I’m going to give up on.”

At KPHS there are about 300 seniors and one counselor to help students with college applications, scholarships and financial aid, Rea said.

Everyday at lunch, seniors work on applications but with only 40 computers, Rea said, she’s strapped for time trying to meet the Nov. 1 deadline for many college applications.

Jorge Mena, 25, also struggled to find a way into college as an undocumented immigrant. Mena is the post-secondary coordinator for Enlace Chicago, a community support organization in the Little Village.

“When I was in high school, I was always in the mindset of ‘if you do really well, you’re going to be rewarded,’” Mena said. “So I signed up for AP classes; I had good grades.”

As a senior in high school, Mena said he remembers sitting in the hallway with other undocumented classmates, trying to figure out a way to get into college while the other students learned about FASFA.

“I definitely felt like an outsider in my own high school,” he said.

Mena worked the summer after graduation to pay for his first semester at Harold Washington College. Then he started applying for scholarships. He graduated from college with the help of a private donor who funded his final semester.

Now, Mena is helping other undocumented youth apply for college. At the college fair, he presented about financial aid, telling students what steps they have to take to reach their goals.

Although last year the Illinois DREAM Act provided $2,000 in scholarships to students attending two-year colleges and $6,000 to those attending four-year colleges, Mena said, it’s still not enough to cover the tremendous cost of tuition and fees. At the University of Illinois the base cost for undergraduate tuition is $11,834, but the cost varies based on credit hours. Even with a scholarship that leaves undocumented students scrounging for an additional $5,834. Undocumented youth cannot apply for FASFA so they turn to applying for as many scholarships as they can to stay in school.

“I think it definitely delays people’s dreams and definitely has an affect on how long it takes you to reach your goals,” Mena said, “if you even reach them at all.”

Editor’s note: A name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy. 

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