Connecticut Students for a Dream (C4D) conducted a press conference in the Legislative Office Building Wednesday afternoon.
The group held the event to urge the Connecticut General Assembly to pass a bill legalizing institutional financial aid for undocumented students, formally calling the movement the “Afford to Dream Campaign 2016.”
“Undocumented Connecticut students without immigration status pay full tuition, contributing towards this institutional aid,” a preemptory press release read. “Yet Connecticut does not allow undocumented students access [to the accumulated tuition money] to receive institutional aid themselves.”
University of Connecticut student and member of C4D Varun Khattar, an eighth-semester sociology major, talked about the organization and his involvement in it.
“Connecticut Students for a Dream is a statewide network of undocumented immigrant youth and allies fighting for educational equity founded in 2011 after the failure of the Dream Act to pass the U.S. Senate,” Khattar said. “It is run mostly by volunteers, with a few part-time staff and paid organizers.”
This press conference essentially re-launched a campaign to pass the bill. Last legislative session, the state Senate voted to pass the bill 24-12, but it was never called to a vote in the House.
UConn student Alison Martinez, a tenth-semester urban and community studies major, is directly affected by the state policy barring undocumented immigrants from receiving institutional aid.
She hopes for the bill to come to fruition, meaning undocumented students can “finally access the pool of money that we have been paying into with our tuition,” Martinez said.
“My journey as an undocumented student at UConn has required me to pay for tuition out of pocket without receiving any institutional financial aid, and due to my immigration status I am limited [in terms of] scholarships,” Martinez said. “Each semester I worry because I never know if I will be able to afford to stay in school. I am not alone facing this uncertainty in higher education.”
Students across Connecticut came to Hartford to share stories about their fight as undocumented immigrants for equality in education. Also joining the press conference was Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven and Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven & East Haven. Student allies were in attendance as well, because, Martinez said, “they support education equity for all Connecticut students, regardless of immigrant status.”
Looney spoke in support of C4D’s efforts.
“This is an issue of equity,” Looney said. “No more roadblocks should be in the path for these students.”
“It is morally indefensible for undocumented students not to access institutional aid,” Lemar said. “Whether these students succeed is on all of our shoulders in this great state of Connecticut.”
Carolina Bortoletto, a co-founder of Connecticut Students for a Dream in the fall of 2010, talked about why the event was held and why it was important.
“We had undocumented students come out to the community as undocumented. This is a large step forward from the days when undocumented youth hid in the shadows and hid their status,” Bortoletto said.
Bortoletto and others believed the event gave members a platform to be heard, to draw media, public attention and awareness, to ensure that legislative and organizational allies stood with C4D on the matter and to build momentum in order to get the proposed bill past the higher education committee, eventually having a public hearing scheduled.
In a Facebook event advertising the press conference, the C4D posted a list of demands of sorts, entitled “What we want.” This amounted to passing legislation stipulating institutional aid eligibility for undocumented students.
The Facebook event had a call to action as well: “We must demand the change we want! This is the time for us to show our numbers, our power and make some noise!!” the event description read.
Institutional financial aid is need-based and comes from pooled tuition money. Existing Board of Regents of Higher Education regulations allocate 15% of revenue from tuition at each institution to be administered for qualifying students. This money does not come from taxes nor is it government-funded. Martinez explained the issue at hand authoritatively.
“Why can’t undocumented immigrant students access this (financial aid)?” Martinez asked. “The problem is that this aid is distributed based on the needs analysis from the FAFSA form, which undocumented students cannot fill out, so there needs to be a different form available to undocumented students. Different states such as Texas, New Mexico and California have come up with an alternative for undocumented students. Connecticut could do the same.”
In terms of money, equalizing access to financial aid for undocumented students would not cost anything for the state or its citizens.
According to the CT Mirror, a 2015 Gov. Malloy budget proposal put aside hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial aid for undocumented immigrants. This was supposed to benefit “hundreds of students.” In 2011, the state legislature took an incremental step towards balancing the playing field of higher education by passing a law that afforded undocumented students the right to pay in-state tuition rates.
Khattar, who was involved in a very similar campaign last year before the bill failed to reach the House floor, spoke on what the Afford to Dream campaign could mean to UConn students, saying it should be “of importance to any UConn student who believes in students’ rights to equal opportunities and discrimination-free educational and work environment.”
“The current policy denying undocumented students access to institutional aid and in-state financial aid does not make sense logically, as these students contribute to the pool of money distributed in the form of need-based scholarships by paying tuition and taxes, like all other students,” Khattar said. “Furthermore, it does not make sense ethically, as these students and their families are often the most socially and economically vulnerable due to the broken U.S. immigration and k-12 public education systems, as well as global patterns of violence and poverty.”
Why does UConn, which could conceivably allow undocumented immigrant students institutional aid, if they qualified, in any number of creative ways, require a mandate from the state to do so?
“Individuals and institutions are often satisfied with the status quo because the dominant group benefits from it, and thus, they are resistant to any change that will redistribute resources more fairly, especially if it will cost them,” Khattar said.
“I believe change will only occur when there is significant pressure by the student body, the general public, or the state or federal government. Unfortunately, the voices of the marginalized are too often silenced or ignored,” he said.
Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.