At 20 years old, Luis Saavedra has used his exhausting list of accomplishments — high school valedictorian, purple belt in taekwondo, track and field star, 3.8 GPA in college — to earn enough scholarships to pay nearly the entire amount of his school tuition.
Still, the Bronx resident’s plans to finish his bachelor’s degree at Lehman College and attend medical school will be impossible to achieve if his pool of scholarship aid dries up.
Like other undocumented students, Saavedra cannot rely on government financial assistance or on private bank loans.
But Saavedra, like many immigration reform advocates, hopes that President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to halt some deportations will push Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support New York’s version of the DREAM Act today, hours before the state’s legislative session ends. The act has languished in the State Senate without Republican support for more than a year.
Cuomo has said he supports a federal DREAM Act but has declined to endorse the state’s version and, unlike other elected officials, did not praise Obama’s policy announcement last week.
The state’s bill would give undocumented students access to financial aid through the state-funded Tuition Assistance Program, which provided $885 million to students in 2010-2011. Extending financial aid to undocumented students could cost about $17 million more, a 2 percent increase.
“The state has invested so much money into the education of undocumented youth,” said Saavedra, a graduate of Harry S. Truman High School who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was nine. “Why not follow through with financially helping them go to college?”
The odds of the bill passing seemed to improve last Friday after Obama’s surprise announcement. Using an executive action, Obama temporarily lifted barriers that prevented undocumented immigrants from getting a driver’s license and working legally. The action would apply to illegal immigrants who came to the country before age 16 (but still under 30), lived here for at least five years, are enrolled in school, and are either high school graduates or military veterans in good standing.
Obama’s announcement is important to the New York’s DREAM Act because it answers some of the questions that Cuomo raised, said Razeen Zaman, the legislative coordinator at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which has led the fight to pass the bill.
With the federal promise of work permits, undocumented students have the chance to use their degrees and find a job in their field.
“It’s not just another bill on the table. It’s about students’ lives,” said Zaman. “Governor Cuomo has run out of excuses.”
“We never imagined that something would be done at the federal level first. It’s now about Governor Cuomo catching up to the Obama Administration,” added Zaman. “There will be several students who won’t be able to go to college if the bill doesn’t pass.”
Nataly Lopez knows this fate too well. The 21-year-old dropped out of Baruch College because she couldn’t afford to pay tuition when the school started charging her the out-of-state rate because she could not prove that she grew up in New York City.
Although she worked as a waitress and babysitter, Lopez didn’t attend school for a year because she couldn’t pay the tuition.
“I fell into a huge depression because I started coming to terms over what it means to be undocumented because even if you graduate, you can’t get a job,” said Lopez, who grew up in Queens after leaving Ecuador when she was a toddler.
Lopez found a way to pay the in-state fee by 2010 and started attending Baruch part-time. She also won a scholarship from the New York Immigration Coalition in January, which helped her enroll with a full course load this past semester.
“The New York DREAM Act means people will not have to work three jobs while managing a full course load,” said Lopez, who now actively campaigns for immigrant reforms. “I still have a couple of years left in school, so I can apply for financial aid.”
Many undocumented students rely on private donations, said Sonia Sendoya, a college counselor for the nonprofit community organization Make the Road.
Sendoya estimates that she advises 30 to 35 undocumented students every year. She searches for scholarships open to all students, such as those that don’t require information like a social security number. She also helps undocumented high school seniors arrange payment plans with CUNY schools so they aren’t financially overburdened.
“If it doesn’t pass, I’m not going to give up on them and say you can’t go to college,” said Sendoya. “It’s important that they finish. Nobody can take your education away.”
Sendoya added that some parents criticize her for encouraging their children to attend college since they can’t use their degrees to get a legal job.
“I always tell them, what if by the time your child receives that education, there’s a change in the immigration reform,” said Sendoya. “Nobody expected Obama to say what he said. I didn’t.”
Since State Sen. Bill Perkins introduced the NY DREAM Act in March 2011, the bill has stalled in the legislature, despite receiving support from critical political players. New York City Mayor Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and the Board of Regents have vocally supported the bill.
“I don’t believe it’s going to happen by the end of session,” Perkins said by phone from Albany on Wednesday. “The next session will be more promising based on the discussions we’re having.”
Perkins added that while there was no question the president’s announcement could benefit the NY Dream Act, the bill needed support from the state’s Democrat governor.
As a sign of the NY DREAM Act’s fate on Wednesday, the Republican-led senate failed to vote on a similar bill called the “Dream Fund,” which would create a fund to collect private scholarship aid for undocumented students.
But the Dream Fund bill wouldn’t have made a significant difference because undocumented students already receive private funding through scholarships, according to Zaman, the youth advocate.
“Illinois implemented a similar fund a year ago; a year later there’s zero money in that fund,” she added. “What we’re fighting for is a DREAM Act, not the fund.”
Even if the state’s funding policy doesn’t change, undocumented student Eduardo Resendiz said he’s already preparing for his 14-year-old sister’s future. The 22-year-old’s family arrived in the country under false assurances by their immigration lawyer, whose practice was shut down in 2010 following an investigation by Cuomo, then the state’s attorney general.
With his parents help, Resendiz saves some of his earnings from his jobs — all off the books — for his sister, Alejandra, who will be going into ninth grade.
“She has a bank account,” Resendiz said. “We’re saving a little bit of money for college so she won’t have to go through with what I’m going through right now.”