Undocumented students fight for equal access to institutional aid

Alison Martinez-Carrasco (middle) walks in front of the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut during a rally supporting the Afford to Dream campaign in 2014. (Courtesy/Morty Ortega)

Undocumented students at the University of Connecticut are fighting for equal access to institutional aid and facing what they say is national ignorance, statewide unfairness and a local lack of information.

Arrests

Eric Cruz López went to Washington D.C. to get arrested.

López, a fourth-semester biomedical engineering major at UConn, traveled to Washington D.C. to protest what he and other undocumented UConn students call ignorance and unfairness. López emigrated from Mexico when he was 7 years old. He remains undocumented because there is no pathway to citizenship for people who come to the U.S. without documentation.

López was able to attain “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or “DACA,” an executive action ordered by President Barack Obama, allowing him temporary status since he came to the U.S. as a child. This does not mean permanent residency.

In late February, López journeyed to the White House to engage in a civil disobedience action protesting the Obama administration’s raids – conducted by the Department of Homeland Security – of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the majority of whom were unaccompanied minors and women from Central America, although some Mexican families were caught up in the raids since they were in the targeted areas of the raids.

121 people were detained in January during these searches, according to Salon magazine.

“They’re afraid that they might die if they stay,” López said of the refugees and immigrants. “What place is safe?”

As López pointed out, 83 immigrants have been killed after their return to Central America from the U.S. since 2014.

Passionate about these issues, López said he planned from the beginning to be arrested as an act of protest during his civil disobedience action in Washington D.C.

“I knew I was going there to get arrested,” López said. “My mom wasn’t too happy about it but, whatever, right? You gotta do it for the people.”

It was López’s first time on a plane in 13 years. The last was when he and his family took a flight to one of the border cities in Mexico before crossing over to the U.S.

Along with members of United We Dream (UWD), an “immigrant, youth-led organization” that seeks to “address the inequities and obstacles faced by immigrant youth,” according to their website, López, a member of Connecticut Students for a Dream, an affiliate of UWD, scoped out a spot in front of the White House to demonstrate and eventually be arrested.

UConn student Eric Cruz López protests in Washington D.C. in February with members of United We Dream against the Department of Homeland Security’s raids targeting undocumented immigrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico. (Courtesy/Eric Cruz López)

There were two days of organization and discussion with lawyers and members of UWD before the demonstration took place. López met with the president of UWD, Cristina Jiménez, to delve into the issues facing the youth immigrant community.

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, the civil disobedience action took place. López and others had to confirm that they were prepared to be willingly arrested during this act. He was one of only two undocumented people planning on arrest, increasing possible danger.

“There’s always the chance that either DACA gets taken away from me because I get arrested or that I just get deported because I get arrested,” López said. “There was always that fear in me.”

Federal laws prohibits obstruction of the area in front of the White House with a banner, so López and other protesters sat in front of the White House with a banner, which read, “Obama, you have blood on your hands.”

“We like to call him the deporter-in-chief because he has deported more people than either Bush presidency,” López said. “His deportation policies are literally killing people.”

UConn student Eric Cruz López is walked toward a van after being handcuffed by United States Park Police during a civil disobedience action in front of the White House in February 2016. (Courtesy/Eric Cruz López)

Obama has deported more than two million people from the U.S. during his administration’s tenure, according to The Washington Post.

The activists wore red gloves to symbolize bloody hands. They were administered the standard three warnings and opportunities to leave by law enforcement. López was the first arrested.

He was handcuffed and then walked to a bus where he was packed in with other demonstrators. López said the experience was a “flashback” to an incident 13 years ago when he was handcuffed by authorities as he crossed the U.S. border.

“We’re walking through the middle of the desert, and then immigration comes and they’re like ‘get on the ground, get your hands up,’” López said. “Then you get cuffed and put in the van and driven to the detention center.”

“I was actually scared for a little bit,” López said about his February arrest, during which he said police were professional. When one officer approached López individually, asking for his ID, his senses were definitively heightened.

“There have been cases where people have done nothing wrong, and they’re deported,” López said. “So I’m scared. Because I did get caught by immigration the first time I was here, so I’m not sure if I’m in the system or not.”

López said he did not, in fact, face further discipline. He, along with 13 others, were taken to jail, put in holding and processed. López paid his bail and was free to go.

“It was a really deep experience. I did it because I was really f---ing tired of the raids and deportations,” López said. “I’m undocumented. My mother’s undocumented, my father’s undocumented, my brother’s undocumented. My cousins are undocumented. I’ve been in this country for 13 years and I have not returned to Mexico. I don’t remember what half my family looks like. The connection there has been cut.”

López said he sees his life through a distinctly political lens.

“People keep saying this is political, whatever, but the personal is political,” said López. “My existence is political. My existence is a resistance to all of these issues that are oftentimes instigated by this country… Why do I do this? Because I experience this oppression firsthand.”

Administrative unawareness

Back home in Storrs, Connecticut, undocumented UConn students also have to worry about administrators unaware of the ins and outs of the laws that govern them. López and Vice President of Enrollment Planning and Management, Wayne Locust, signed a contract in recognition of this.

“This agreement exists to acknowledge and respond to the lack of information spread amongst the general staff of UConn and the alienating and disparaging experiences shared by undocumented student leaders at UConn upon their application and enrollment at the university,” the first paragraph of the contract reads.

The contract engineers an agreement between the office of the VP of Enrollment Planning and Management at UConn and the Connecticut Students for a Dream leaders who attend UConn. It stipulates that the UWD’s “Undocupeer” program be administered to all Admissions and Financial Aid staff. This training is being conducted by the aforementioned grouping of students.

Joseline Tlacomulco, a second-semester music education major who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was eight months old, went through one of these “alienating and disparaging” incidents.

Tlacomulco called the school asking if she was eligible for financial aid. She was told, “of course” she was. When she explained that she was undocumented, but a DACA student, she was asked, “What is that?”

She was then passed to a colleague, who also didn’t know the solution, and “on and on and on. I never got an answer at the end of the day,” Tlacomulco said. “I had to get the information outside the university. It goes to show the staff was not trained on how to deal with undocumented students.”

Tlacomulco and her peers, including López, went through extensive workshopping with UWD in order to prepare a four-hour program to be taught to Financial Aid and Admissions staff. The program purports to “increase the educational success of undocumented immigrants” and to “provide the tools necessary to begin or continue conversations on how to better support and work alongside undocumented immigrant students by streamlining departmental support and resources across the institution,” according to the UWD website.

The overarching aim of the lesson, Tlacomulco said, is to alter university policy, better inform administrators and increase advocacy around undocumented student issues.

“What the Undocupeer training teaches is the barriers undocumented students face in the enrollment process and it creates a plan of action to address some of these barriers,” Tlacomulco said. “Not only that, but it aims to further understand the significance of education in the immigration discussions taking place today.”

According to the Migration and Policy Institute, there’s an estimated 17,000 undocumented students (18 to 24 years of age) in Connecticut. 5,000 of these students are enrolled in school, between one and two percent of whom are enrolled in college.

Nathan Fuerst, the assistant vice president of enrollment, said administrators were not ill equipped to deal with the intricacies of being an undocumented student.

UConn student Joseline Tlacomulco protests raids targeting undocumented immigrants and refugees in New Haven, Connecticut in January 2016. (Courtesy/Joseline Tlacomulco)

“I would not say that administrators were unprepared to answer questions, but rather the time had come to further enhance our regular training program on issues facing undocumented students,” Fuerst wrote in an email. “As issues facing undocumented students and their enrollment in higher education keep changing, we are very excited to be partnering with Undocupeer to bring larger numbers of our staff up to speed with these latest issues.”

Fuerst said the Undocupeer training is polished, and recognized the national certification UConn students attained in order to enact such a program. He also put forth an update on Undocupeer’s progress.

“A pilot program was held for managers and will be repeated for the staff at large in the coming weeks,” Fuerst said. “The goal is to provide staff with information necessary to appropriately advise students on how their immigration status impacts them at different stages of enrollment, as well as provide an understanding of the social, family and other factors facing undocumented students.”

With the process of Undocupeer finally underway, students like Tlacomulco say they have turned their attention to other troubling happenings at UConn, particularly an Instagram photograph with four students dressed in sombreros, fake mustaches and shirts displaying phrases like “DTF down to fiesta.” The caption of the picture read, “Laughing so hard my sombrero falls off and I drop my taco #illegal.”

“How will the administration handle the situation of the girls in the picture discriminating undocumented immigrants?” Tlacomulco asked. “While undocumented immigrants are being discussed in the political fields, there are students on this campus who are discriminating against us and nothing is being done about it.”

“To the four girls on the Instagram picture, we are here,” Tlacomulco said. “We are on this campus every day having to work 10 times harder than you because we're undocumented. I will not let my culture be mocked with no consequences.”

When asked about an investigation of the incident, UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said she was unacquainted with specifics.

“I don’t have information yet about the photo,” Reitz said.

Financial aid

Members of Connecticut Students for a Dream, like López and Tlacomulco, are fighting for undocumented rights at the Connecticut State Capitol as well.

Alison Martinez-Carrasco, a 10th-semester urban and community studies student at the Hartford campus, is another UConn student vying for undocumented immigrant access to financial aid.

Born in Ecuador, Martinez-Carrasco came to the U.S. when she was four years old with her parents who “left everything behind to give our family the basic necessities that we need to survive,” she said.

Now, Martinez-Carrasco is spearheading the campaign to pass SB 147: “An Act Assisting Students Without Legal Immigration Status With the Cost of College,” which would allow undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid that other in-state students can already apply for.

Martinez-Carrasco currently pays an estimated $37,000 in tuition as a part-time student working three jobs.

“I am not one to be a quitter. But I cannot help but think that is what Connecticut wants me to be the more we delay in passing an act that would assist undocumented students in Connecticut,” Martinez-Carrasco said.

“The more I invest in my education the more I feel trapped in a vicious cycle, where I am discriminated against as I pay into the pool of money that makes up institutional aid, yet, I do not have any access to it because Connecticut does not have an alternative to the FAFSA form for undocumented students to fill out,” she said.

Last year, a similar bill didn’t pass because it was not called up for a vote in the House after passing the Senate 24-12. This time around, SB 147 has been voted out of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee with bipartisan support. It is now under consideration, as Senate Calendar Number 121 and legislators such as Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney are proponents.

“The plan is to get it out of Senate as fast as possible,” López said. “The timing is what we’re most worried about. If we lose, I want us to lose because people voted it down, not because people were like ‘this is not important enough to call up for a vote.’”

With actions taking place due to the work of undocumented students and allies, like phone banking, press conferences and organizational meetings, López said he was critical of UConn’s inaction during this process.

“The school is like, ‘We need to open up opportunities to low-income students, we need diversity.’ We hear all of these phrases constantly, whether it’s by the university, or the state,” López said. “But when we ask for access to this education, they’re like, ‘No, it’s too political, we’re not going to support you.’ You’re pushing this narrative, you’re pushing this dream onto us then not allowing us to be able to participate in it.”

While UConn submitted a letter of testimony in support of the bill on March 1, undocumented students still see themselves as a low-priority for an administration that has only one perpetually open scholarship to said students: the Presidential Scholarship, exclusively for valedictorians and salutatorians.

Tlacomulco mentions that undocumented students are “paying the university out of pocket,” but can only apply for one scholarship. López said the scholarship “pushes the narrative that only the highest achieving students deserve an education.”

Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a supporter of SB 147, a proposed bill aiming to allow undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid that other in-state students can already apply for. (CT Senate Democrats/Creative Commons)

Responding on behalf of the university, Reitz emphasized UConn’s backing of SB 147.

“The University of Connecticut supports all of our students and seeks to ensure that a quality, affordable education remains accessible here, regardless of immigration or economic status,” Reitz wrote in an email. “We therefore are fully supportive of SB 147 and its intent to provide financial assistance to students impacted by the proposed legislation.”

Those who oppose the bill raise concerns of opening up a pool of financial aid that is already subject to dwindle. Reitz acknowledged these trepidations.

“While we have not conducted a full financial analysis of the impact of offering financial assistance to a new population of students, we are aware that, if approved, the legislation will likely increase the financial demand for an already limited pool of existing funds available to students,” Reitz said. “In addition to supporting a revision to statute which would allow our institution to provide financial assistance to students impacted by the proposed legislation, we are interested in collaborating with the General Assembly to address the financial commitment that SB 147 would require.”

UConn President Susan Herbst and Locust shared identical, verbatim statements to Reitz in their written testimony to the legislature supporting the bill, where they recognized the financial impact of such a bill, just as Reitz did.

"…we are aware that, if approved, the legislation will likely increase the financial demand for an already limited pool of existing funds available to students," Herbst wrote in her statement. 

"In addition to supporting a revision to statute which would allow our institution to provide financial assistance to students impacted by the proposed legislation, we are interested in collaborating with the General Assembly to address the financial commitment that SB 147 would require,” Locust finished in his testimony

Last week, the Board of Regents for Higher Education agreed upon a 3.5 percent to five percent a tuition increase for the 17 schools that make up the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

This economic aspect has been a cause for disagreement in the state government, Republicans citing it and the idea that immigrants may come to Connecticut to take advantage of a law such as SB 147 as reasons to vote against the measure. Take, for example, House Republican Art O’Neill’s opposition to a similar bill in 2014.

"My constituents believe that there is a bumping effect," O'Neill said on the House floor at the time. "They suspect that if their student, their child, their grandchild, their niece, their nephew, does not get admitted into a public university and someone who is illegally in this country does ... there is at least a chance ... that that slot could have gone to their child, their grandchild, their niece, their nephew. And that is one of the reasons I am opposed to this legislation."

State Rep. Vin Candelora, also a Republican, spoke out in agreement at the time. 

"All I hear from my constituents is how they can't afford college anymore," Candelora said. "We struggle with trying to come up with ways for individuals to be able to pay off their student debt, [yet] this bill really flies in the face of that and only exacerbates the problem.”

There are, however, certain Senate Republicans who support the bill, like Senate minority leader Len Fasano.

"What are we going to do with the folks that are here?" Fasano asked. "Are you going to say you're going to go to high school, and you're going to graduate, and we're going to cut you off, and you're going to have to go make do? Or are we going to give folks opportunity?"

López spoke to possible protest measures if the state government remains silent on the bill, such as entering the Capitol Building for a “teach-in.” He and Tlacomulco said they know there is more work to be done, and if taking a trip to D.C., developing Undocupeer and pushing for the passage of SB 147 say anything, it’s that those involved in these issues are willing to do it.

One such measure was the creation of a petition pushing for the passage of SB 147.

For Martinez-Carrasco, the issue is simple – equal opportunity should be of great primacy to Connecticut, as it is a pillar of the U.S.

“I am not here to take away anyone’s help for school. I don’t want another person’s struggle to pay for school to be ignored,” Martinez-Carrasco said. “I know what that feels like and do not wish the same for anyone. However, I am upset about not having the equal opportunity to access institutional aid.”


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.