University City

Immigration reform bill could positively affect college students

A provision of the new bipartisan immigration reform bill in Congress would make it easier for young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents to attend college.

Hector Chavez, a UNC Charlotte graduate who was undocumented when he attended the school, said a new official status that would be granted to those young immigrants – called DREAMers after the bill’s name, the DREAM Act – would remove several barriers that discourage them from applying to college.

If passed by Congress, the bill would essentially allow undocumented immigrants younger than 29 to earn citizenship in five years by graduating high school, attending college and keeping a clean criminal record.

The bill would also make it easier for DREAMers to attend college by changing their official status from “illegal” to “residential provisional.” That status would allow them to stay in the country legally without the fear of deportation while they’re on the new path to citizenship.

The new status would apply only if the immigrant arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, hasn’t committed a felony or more than three misdemeanors, has a steady job, and pays a $500 fine and back taxes. The status would be renewed after six years if the immigrant has no criminal record, has steady work and pays another $500 fine.

Chavez said the bill would encourage immigrants to attend college because they would no longer feel like they have to hide.

“Legal status would enable many undocumented youth(s) to earn the education they need to fully contribute to society,” he said. “It would also motivate them to pursue a four-year degree and make it feasible for undocumented youth(s) to find financial aid to pay for college.”

Armando Bellmas, director of communication of the nonprofit Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, agreed that offering provisional legal status to young, undocumented immigrants would allow them to securely attend college.

“This is a significant milestone and a step in the right direction,” he said. “Once these DREAMers receive their legal status, they can attend college and apply for financial aid just like any citizen can.

“DREAMers who have been previously deported may still be eligible to apply for legal status if they meet certain requirements, even if they don’t have a qualifying U.S. relationship.”

Bellmas said the bill would make it easier to attend college not just because of tuition, but because it would eliminate the stigma of the term “illegal” and encourage them to apply.

“Many undocumented immigrants attend college now; but if the bill passed, it would make the idea of college achievable for many more,” he said. “It would help eliminate the prejudice against them being citizens.”

At present, undocumented immigrants must disclose their legal status when applying for college, and that makes federal financial aid unavailable. With a residential provisional status, they would have access to federal grants for college, which would improve their chances of attending college.

When Chavez attended UNCC, he said finding the money for tuition was difficult.

“Paying for tuition was an overwhelming challenge, as I was prohibited from applying for or receiving any federal or state funds,” he said. “I could only access privately funded scholarships, and they were highly competitive.”

He also said tuition prices were different for undocumented students, something he hopes will change with the new immigration reform bill.

“Once admitted into UNC Charlotte and the community college before it, I was expected to pay international student fees, even though I had been brought to the U.S. nine years before,” he said. “International tuition was about three times as much as in-state tuition. This meant that a four-year college degree ended up costing me about $100,000.”

He said he also hopes the bill will help ease prejudice against Latin American immigrants, something he dealt with regularly at UNCC.

“Sometimes I was treated like any other student – except when it came to registering, paying for tuition, and the occasional staff or faculty member,” he said. “Some were outright prejudiced and made me uncomfortable, to the point where I had to firmly advocate for my rights as a paying student.

“I had to be very mindful when approaching staff and faculty so they would treat me like any other student.”