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Handout or Helping Hand?

Handout or Helping Hand?
College scholarships for undocumented students come under fire as some corporations retract awards.
By Kerri Allen

New York City
Fabiola Cadet’s dream of going to college will finally come true this fall when she starts classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Born in Haiti, Fabiola overstayed the visa she received to visit with her older sister nine years ago, and enrolled in a New York high school. Raising a son and working part-time jobs to cobble together a steady income was challenging, but not as difficult as finding a scholarship for undocumented students.

Fabiola finally happened upon the Brooklyn College Community Partnership Scholarship, which offers awards to students regardless of their immigration status. Those who receive a BCCP scholarship, however, must file an application to become a legal permanent resident. “During these frightening times for immigrants in this country, we found Fabiola’s quiet determination to be quite refreshing” says Jack Shuler, director of development and communications for the BCCP. They granted her $500, which covers more than one-third of her first semester tuition towards an associate degree in applied sciences.

The Brooklyn College scholarship is not the only one of its kind. Across the country, many community groups in cities with large immigrant populations are quietly offering aid packages to undocumented students. Their status means the students cannot qualify for federal grants. But while more groups are joining the push to change those rules, others believe the law is correct the way it is.

“It’s absolutely unfair for children of illegal immigrants to take advantage of educational and social services. They’ve broken the law,” says Susan Wysoki, spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C.

With college tuition costs soaring and the current heated public debate about immigration policy, it’s not surprising that scholarships accessible to undocumented students are controversial, but recipients like Fabiola say they depend on them. The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education released a report, “Losing Ground” in 2002, which found that the cost of higher education in the United States is hastily outpacing the cost of living. In 1980, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities represented 13 percent of income for the lowest-income families. Today, tuition at such institutions accounts for 25 percent of those families’ annual income.

Three years ago, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide six-year permanent resident status to qualified undocumented high school students who wish to attend college. This would represent a stepping stone towards citizenship and, in many cases, eligibility for in-state tuition rates (see Diverse, May 4).

The act was reintroduced last fall and could become law before the end of this year. But it has opponents.

“If you’re offering preferential treatment to illegal aliens,” says Wysoki, “you’re denying the same opportunities to American citizens, and that’s fundamentally unfair.”

For college applicants with financial means, lack of documentation is not much of a barrier to college. Few colleges inquire about a students’ legal status — and even if admissions offices discover something amiss, they still may accept the student. No colleges are said to have alerted authorities.

Even with help, a student’s search for financial aid is still foreboding. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in Los Angeles has compiled a list of 93 private scholarships that do not require applicants to include a Social Security number, legal residency or citizenship information. MALDEF only cautions applicants that “lying about your legal status or providing a false Social Security is a federal offense.” Some corporations, however, are rescinding awards from students who are in the country illegally. The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation recently retracted a $4,000 award from California high school student Hector Vega upon discovering he was undocumented. However, they reinstated it after he declared that he was seeking residency.

Smaller private funders generally operate under less political scrutiny than large corporations like Coca-Cola. The Geneseo Migrant Center in New York state offers nine scholarships to children of migrant farm laborers. Sally Fox, a program coordinator at the center, says of their application process, “Don’t ask, don’t tell. It’s not a question we raise. It’s not whether or not they’re legal, it’s whether or not they’re putting food on the table.” While “migrant” does not mean “immigrant,” Fox concedes that many of the farm workers and their families who work in upstate New York are Mexican. “There is probably a large [percentage] of migrant farm workers who are undocumented.”

Some fear that more students’ qualifying for in-state tuition rates under the DREAM Act could drain some states’ college coffers. Officials at Rutgers University disagree. Last year, the university provided $292 million in financial aid to 30,000 students. The average award package was $9,600.

As scholarship administrator, Dr. Nancy L. Lord oversees the annual dissemination of nearly 150 scholarships to Rutgers students. The university’s applications do not ask for citizenship status.

“If we’re going to close the door, the door should have been closed much sooner than that,” Lord says. “We shouldn’t even be in the business of closing the door; it’s a public university.”

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