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Asian Groups Support In-State Tuition for Undocumented

New America Media, Commentary, Carmina Ocampo and Connie Choi Posted: Sep 28, 2009

On Sept. 24, 2009, a coalition of 80 Asian Pacific American (APA) civil rights, legal, student, and community organizations filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the California Supreme Court to support the right of undocumented APA college students to pay in-state tuition under state law.

AB 540 is a California law that allows both documented and undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they have attended at least three years of high school in California, graduated from a California high school, and met other conditions. Enacted in 2001, AB 540 has made it possible for thousands of California high school students, including APA youth, to attend public community colleges, Cal State schools, and universities in the state.

AB 540 and undocumented students ability to afford college is in jeopardy. The California Supreme Court is considering the case, Martinez v. Regents of the University of California. There is a possibility that the outcome could eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented students, forcing them to pay much higher out-of-state fees that they could not afford.

The difference in fees is staggering. For UC students, out-of state fees cost about $30,000 while in-state fees cost about $8,000. The lawsuit challenging AB540 was filed by Kris Kobach, a law professor who has ties to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration group, and who has filed several lawsuits to curtail the rights of undocumented immigrants.

APA groups spoke out on behalf of undocumented students because students from that group make up a sizeable and growing number of undocumented students in colleges in California. In the UC system alone, APA undergraduates are the second largest population of undocumented students, accounting for more than 40 percent of all undocumented students. Of these APA undocumented undergraduates, 60 percent are Korean, 14 percent are Chinese, 10 percent are Filipino, 7 percent are South Asian, 7 percent are Thai or of Asian descent, and 1 percent are Pacific Islander.

Most undocumented APA students came to this country as small children and consider the United States their home. These youth sometimes do not find out that they are undocumented until they are in high school, when their parents first tell them their immigration status. They are bright, motivated, talented, with dreams of going to college, yet they face tremendous hardships due to their immigration status. Even with the ability to pay in-state fees, they struggle daily to afford tuition, being ineligible for federal and state financial aid, private loans, and many scholarships.

Many come from low-income families and must work multiple jobs to pay for school. Furthermore, since they are ineligible to obtain a drivers license, these immigrant youth commute long hours by bus to go to school and work. They also feel the stigma, alienation, stress and fear of being deported as a result of their immigration status.

They are invisible to their own community and other students, frequently keeping their immigration status a secret because they feel shame, are afraid of being deported, and are told by their parents to keep quiet.

Furthermore, these students face unfair expectations that they are just another model minority student with significant academic and financial privileges. By filing the amicus brief, the coalition hopes to shed light on this invisible population and to challenge the stereotype that APA youth are privileged model minorities. The coalition also hopes to send a strong message to the Court that APAs support access to higher education for all immigrant youth, regardless of their immigration status.

Carmina Ocampo is a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) of Los Angeles. Connie Choi is a Policy Advocate for the Immigrant Rights Project at the APALC. IMMIGRATION MATTERS regularly features the views of immigration advocates.

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