Undocumented students fight for funding amidst state education crisis

Student ACCESS Bill
The Student ACCESS Bill will allow undocumented students to apply for scholarships in Illinois’ four-year public universities. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

By Marisa Endicott

An undocumented immigrant, Carla Navoa left the University of Illinois at Chicago during her junior year after anxiety and depression over her financial limitations and uncertain future became overwhelming.

Her parents, immigrants from the Philippines, borrowed from friends and worked extra hours to help Navoa and her two sisters pay their tuition, but it was still a struggle. Navoa said working part time to pay for school while not knowing if she could utilize her degree after graduating was a huge burden.

Navoa is not alone. Undocumented immigrants account for 4 percent of Illinois’ total population, and 60 percent of them live in Cook County, according to a 2014 report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). Twenty-six percent of the state’s undocumented population is under 25.

Level of education among Illinois’ undocumented immigrants

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Almost 47 percent of undocumented immigrants do not have a high school degree, while 24 percent have attended at least some college, according to a report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) in 2014. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

Illinois State Bill SB2196, or the Student ACCESS Bill, aims to lighten the financial burden for undocumented residents attending public state universities. Under the bill, these students could apply or be eligible for existing state or publicly-sponsored student aid, including scholarships, grants, stipends, room and board and tuition waivers.

The bill has amassed a long list of supporters from student and nonprofit organizations to higher education institutions and business and civic leaders.

“We’re not asking you to provide more money. We’re not asking you to start pulling resources that you don’t have… Just open that pool to us,” said Ana Ruiz Perez, a sophomore at UIC and vice president of the UIC Fearless Undocumented Alliance. “Give us that same opportunity to show you that we can do just as well as a citizen.”

UIC Fearless Undocumented Alliance
Ana Ruiz Perez (left) and Jocelyn Munguía Chávez are both undocumented students at UIC and members of the Fearless Undocumented Alliance. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

A new version of the ACCESS bill failed to pass the state legislature in 2015. This time around, eligibility for Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants, a great source of contention in the debate last year, is being left out of the bill’s language. The highly competitive MAP provides grants that do not need to be repaid to a select few Illinois residents.

Some financial resources do exist for undocumented college students already. Legislators passed the Illinois DREAM Act in 2011 to support university students without legal status, but the privately funded scholarships only apply to in-state tuitions and don’t cover other educational costs. The DREAM Act does provide a limited amount of assistance, but “certainly not enough to fund someone’s education,” said Fred Tsao, ICIRR’s senior policy counsel who helped draft the ACCESS bill.

With roughly one third of Illinois’ undocumented population living under the federal poverty line, according to the ICIRR report, there is a clear demand for further funding opportunities.

Ruiz said she found the grant and scholarship opportunities very limited when she arrived at UIC despite her strong academic record.

“It did become a barrier to be a full-time student, to have a job, to participate in really getting that college experience…I can’t tell you right now that everything is fantastic because there’s a barrier every month,” she said.

Despite balancing studies and work, many undocumented students are still making time to advocate for immigrant rights and legislation like the ACCESS bill. Jocelyn Munguía Chávez, who moved to Illinois from Mexico at the age of 11, is a senior at UIC and the president of the Fearless Undocumented Alliance. She helped found the group and has been at the forefront of the lobbying and demonstration efforts for the bill.

undocumented community support postcards
In collaboration with UIC cultural centers, the Fearless Undocumented Alliance produced postcards for people to show their support for the undocumented community. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

“There is power in overcoming your own fear and fighting for your rights,” Navoa said.

Navoa eventually connected with Asian-American and immigrant rights groups and found the support system she was lacking before, she said. After taking time off and working, Navoa returned to school and graduated in 2013. She is now the development director for the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment (AFIRE).

Despite the enduring state budget impasse and drastic funding consequences for many of Illinois’ public universities, Tsao and others remain hopeful about the Student ACCESS Bill’s chances. It might be possible to move the legislation forward since it doesn’t carry significant budget implications, he said.

The bill was postponed in the senate in mid-February, but five new senate sponsors signed on in that same month, and student advocates are holding support rallies across Chicago and at the state capitol in Springfield.

“The list of supporters has grown tremendously,” Munguía Chávez said. “I think with the help of community members and students…we can pass it this time around.”

Photo at top: The Student ACCESS Bill will allow undocumented students to apply for scholarships in Illinois’ four-year public universities. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)