Undocumented students face daunting application process

Simon Greenhill and Emma Peyton

Every student’s life is stressful. From challenging classes to a looming breakup, there’s always something to be worried about. Yet for as many as 600 Sequoia students, such concerns pale in the face of a much greater challenge: being undocumented.

Undocumented immigrants—people who live in the United States without legal authorization—cannot legally reside, work or drive here. Every day, they run the risk of being deported. In 2012, over 400,000 undocumented immigrants were sent back to their countries of origin; many of these immigrants had lived in the United States since they were children.

Sequoia’s undocumented population—which makes up an estimated 30 percent of the school—is supported by a network of supportive faculty and staff, but for those with dreams of attending college, the odds can seem insurmountable.

“Being undocumented sometimes makes you think you don’t have the capability of going to college,” senior Andrea Lara said. “Being undocumented makes you think you’re below other people. And if you think you’re below others, it makes you think that you can’t get into college because you’re not good enough.”

For undocumented students, applying to college can be daunting: the majority of them are first-generation applicants who don’t know how to approach the application process, let alone figure out how to pay exorbitant tuition rates.

“Some [undocumented] kids come in unready as freshmen or sophomores and feel so discouraged that they’re not keeping their grades up” Dream Club adviser Jane Slater said.

Until 2012, when the California Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was passed, undocumented students could not qualify for in-state tuition rates at California public universities. Even now, when in-state tuition and state financial aid aren’t enough to get students through college, most third-party scholarships and federal aid programs are closed to undocumented students.

“[Undocumented students] have nothing to fall back on—they can’t get loans,” IB Coordinator Lisa McCahon said. “It can be really overwhelming for students. They need support and guidance through the process.”

Immigration reform has been slow; a federal DREAM Act that would provide undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children with a path to citizenship has been debated since 2001 but has yet to be passed by Congress.

Many undocumented students, including senior Carla Paredes, are determined to go to college regardless of legislative and financial barriers.

“If I didn’t end up going to college, then moving my whole life [to the United States] would have been a waste,” said Paredes, who immigrated from Peru when she was seven years old. “Being undocumented has made me more determined. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to go out and do it.”

With the support of allies and advocacy groups like Bay Area-based Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), undocumented students can envision themselves as college students and successful professionals.

“Every person I’ve worked with is very goal-driven, and they have a vision for their lives and for their families” said Jazmin Segura, an E4FC spokesperson.

Closer to Sequoia, the Dream club works to help undocumented students apply to, enroll in and pay for college, sponsoring several scholarships for Sequoia students each year. With private scholarships and need-based aid, it is becoming more viable for undocumented students to attend college.

Tania García-Piña, who came to the United States at 13 and graduated from Sequoia in 2009, was involved in starting the Dream club in her senior year.

“[The Dream Club] turned everything around,” García-Piña said. “Knowing that I had support from other people who knew the system and had gone through college made me feel better, and made me realize, ‘okay, I really want this. If I’m here, I’m just gonna take the opportunity to get a good education, an education that my mom couldn’t get.’”

García-Piña, who graduated with a degree in Anthropology from UC Berkeley this year and plans to pursue a doctorate in hispanic literature, said that she felt lost when she started at Sequoia but found a supportive community in the Dream Club.

“There’s something holding me here,” García-Piña said. “The community that saw me develop from a very quiet, and really sad and really depressed student to someone who wanted to do a lot for the community.”

To McCahon and other advocates, stopping undocumented students from pursuing their goals is counterproductive and detrimental to society.

“If we have the students who have the passion, the desire and the skillset to become, say, lawyers, or teachers or nurses or businesspeople, and we don’t allow them to be that, then we lose out as a society,” McCahon said.

Roberto Pablo Pimienta moved to California from Jalisco, Mexico in 2009, and was co-president of the Dream Club during his junior and senior years at Sequoia. He emphasized that getting undocumented students to college is more than a legislative process.

“The issue is so much bigger and so much more complex,” he said. “There’s economics behind it; there’s politics behind it. Immigration is always going to be an issue.”

Now a Materials Science and Engineering major at Stanford University, Pimienta dedicated himself to pushing for immigration reform even though he is an American citizen.

“[I was motivated by] seeing what could be done, and how far forward we could go,” he said. “It was an issue that people were aware of, but they didn’t really talk about it; it was taboo.”

Pimienta, who connected with many undocumented students, said that he was amazed by their determination and felt a need to help them get to college.

“A huge issue that [undocumented students] have is uncertainty,” Pimienta said. “They’re taking IB classes, they’re engaged in extracurricular activities, but they never know, ‘will I get that scholarship?’ or ‘am I going to get enough financial aid?’ or ‘Is my family going to get in trouble with immigration?’”

Despite this uncertainty,Segura and others expressed hope for immigration reform and advocacy.

“[Undocumented students] understand that the immigration system is broken, and that there needs to be a system that acknowledges the contributions that they and their families make to their country,” Segura said. “They are agents of change; there’s a lot of leadership in them.”