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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Chronicle
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Dream Deferred for Undocumented Students

When friends asked Francisco Curiel if he would be applying to college, he wanted to tell them he’d submit applications to schools like New York University or Columbia. Instead, he said he didn’t know.

In early November, Curiel, 18, of Astoria, said he felt anxious that he might not be able to continue his studies after high school because he came to the country as an illegal immigrant at age 15. “How am I supposed to break stereotypes if I don’t have the basics, which is an education?” Curiel asked.

Curiel, who emigrated from Mexico City with his younger sister, has big plans just like any other high school student on the verge of graduation. However unlike most students, his future in the United States may rest upon the passage of a piece of legislation known as the DREAM Act.

If passed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors would grant temporary legal status to undocumented young adults in good standing who grew up in the United States. The legislation would make it easier for these young adults to pursue higher education nationwide, and eventually, citizenship. To qualify for citizenship, students would have to graduate from a two-year college, have studied at least two years toward a bachelor’s degree, or served in the U.S. military for at least two years.

Now a senior at Pan American International High School in Corona, Curiel said he has many talented friends who may not go to college because they are undocumented too. Many undocumented students choose not to pursue a higher education because it’s expensive and they won’t be able obtain legal work in the United States after graduation anyway.

“In my country I was known as ‘Paco’… now I’m just undocumented,” Curiel said.

Curiel is worried the DREAM Act may never pass. The Nov. 2 elections gave Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives, and many do not support the bill. They say it would reward parents who bring their children into the country illegally and some worry those same parents could get resident status as relatives of their children who would be legalized. But Curiel isn’t giving up.

As weekday commuters and evening shoppers made their way home on Nov. 1, Curiel and his classmates joined students from the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn to reach out to New York voters.

The group of around 40 gathered in a brightly lit, compact room at Make the Road New York in Jackson Heights. The organization aims to promote economic and social justice through community outreach.

Excited teens packed all corners, but Curiel stood out with his liveliness and big smile. He circulated the room throughout the evening, stopping to speak and joke with his peers. At times he offered chairs or voter T-shirts to guests who stood in the back. He looked comfortable working the crowd. He was in his element.

Make the Road’s outreach efforts were conducted with the hope that voters they contacted would elect politicians who support the DREAM Act.

Every year, 65,000 students who would qualify for the DREAM Act graduate from high schools around the nation, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Only 10 states, among them New York, allow undocumented students to attend public institutions of higher education at the same in-state tuition rate as documented students. Many undocumented teens cannot afford to pay the in-state tuition rate of $4,600 per year as full-time undergraduate students at CUNY four-year colleges or $4,970 per year at SUNY four-year colleges. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid and tuition does not include activity fees or living expenses.

Poverty often plagues undocumented immigrants, according to Natalia Aristizabal, a youth coordinator at Make the Road who works closely with students from Pan American and the Bushwick School through the organization’s youth empowerment programs. All 350 students at Pan American are Latino, and 80 percent of them are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch, according to Anthony Riccardo, assistant principal at the school.

Curiel, who maintains a B average, said his inability to receive federal financial aid or scholarships from universities was his biggest obstacle to obtaining an education. With few private scholarship opportunities for students like Curiel, the fact that some universities do not require legal documentation is often small consolation.

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) said that undocumented students are experiencing a growing frustration in the United States. Students are forced to work and go to school to afford the in-state tuition rate, which, according to Ferreras, has created a separate class tier. Talented students who cannot afford to pay tuition are out of luck.

Only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates attend college, compared with 75 percent of their documented classmates, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Juan, 21, who declined to give his last name because he is undocumented, has been a part of Dream Activist, a social media organization that has for three years advocated to pass the DREAM Act. Juan, who is the network’s communications director in Florida, said that the more time it takes to pass the DREAM Act, the more the United States will lose talented students.

However, good news came for Curiel just after Thanksgiving. His activism paid off. Though the DREAM Act remains a dream, Curiel was granted a full scholarship to the four-year university of his choice by the Civic Opportunities Initiative Network, a component of The New World Foundation, a global organization that helps community activists. The initiative aims to provide resources to young leaders, so that they may serve their communities on deeper levels.

“If there’s something about our society that we don’t like, we can change it because we are young people,” said Curiel, who took to the street in Jackson Heights on Tuesday to continue pushing for reform. Despite the challenges he may face upon graduation, Curiel is excited about going to college. He said his ideal career would be in accounting, business management or finance. But he would especially like to pursue a liberal arts degree because he wants a job where he can do, “a little bit of everything.”