AB 540 cultivates academic opportunities for undocumented students

SAFE Place SF State
Karla Castillo is a counselor for the SAFE Place, a sexual violence prevention and crisis intervention center, located in the Student Services Building. Castillo started the Continue The Dream For Academic Excellence scholarship last year. Photo by Andy Sweet / Xpress

With the current immigration-conscious political climate and a possible Barack Obama victory this fall, undocumented students could be looking forward to fewer roadblocks along the path to higher education.

Acts of legislation like Assembly Bill 540, which grants eligible undocumented students access to in-state tuition, and the recently enacted DREAM Act, are changing the scenario for students who are otherwise marginalized. By working through AB 540, which was passed in 2001 by Gov. Gray Davis, SF State staff and alumni have been helping undocumented students both get into and graduate from the University.

Even the Department of Homeland Security is getting on board. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced in June that eligible undocumented students will be able to live in this country without fear of deportation for at least two years and could be eligible for work.

Some students have already faced the stigma that comes with being from another country.

“One of the main things you do when you get to know somebody is ask where they are from. I would say Mexico and their perspective on me would change immediately,” Josue Estrada, an 18-year-old freshman, said.

Estrada, who studies psychology at SF State, is an AB 540 student who moved with his family from Mexico 11 years ago before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

“I’m the first in my family to go to college. The most difficult thing is paying for it,” said Estrada, who is an intern at Project Connect Recruitment and Retention Resource Center.

Project Connect is an Associate Students, Inc. program that lends out books, awards scholarships and provides internship opportunities for AB 540 students. Estrada said there are about 20 staff members working with student groups to help raise funds and provide internship opportunities. For the past seven years, this community has created an environment for students to not just take advantage of University resources, but build social networks.

Undocumented students don’t have the luxury of official citizenship. They are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which costs roughly three times more than in-state tuition. This is where SF State students, alumni and staff come together to provide a support network for all students and help bridge this massive financial gap.

“I noticed a lot of difficulties that (undocumented) students were having were financial. Not being able to get a job and having to pay out-of-state tuition fees all stopped students from graduating,” said Karla Castillo, a counselor for the SAFE Place, a sexual violence prevention and crisis intervention center on campus.

Castillo started the Continue The Dream For Academic Excellence scholarship last year, which is funded by donations of alumni, staff and fundraisers. This year the the scholarship will provide four $500 scholarships to AB 540 students.

Student groups focused on facilitating professional development and graduation of students like Project Connect and Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success change the landscape for undocumented students.

Eurania Lopez, staff adviser to I.D.E.A.S., is not satisfied with current legislation.

“It is a psuedo-solution for a few people. Can we get a better solution? Probably not, because of politics. This is not free; it costs $465 just to process a deferred action application,” Lopez said.

According to Lopez, some lawyers are taking advantage of the situation and charging undocumented students upward of $1,000 to process applications.

I.D.E.A.S. offers weekly workshops for undocumented students to help fill out applications, consult with a lawyer free of charge and to apply for internship opportunities.

“There are going to be people who are trying to rip people off, and others trying to help,” Lopez said.

Noe Ortero, president of I.D.E.A.S., emphasizes that all students are welcome to be a part of the solution. When he heard about Brown’s decision on deferred action in August, he immediately applied for a license.

“It’s definitely a relief to students. Their mentality is ‘I want to work,’ so they can spend more time with family. Being able to do this is a big deal for them,” Ortero said.

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