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Sour Economy Casts Shadow Over California DREAM Act

Posted: Mar 23, 2012

EDITOR'S NOTE: In order to protect his identity, the subject of this report requested that his real name not be used.

SAN FRANCISCO -- When California passed legislation last year granting the state’s undocumented students access to education funding, supporters like Miguel Martinez – who is undocumented -- welcomed the move as a major victory. But with a soaring deficit and across-the-board cuts, he and others say their futures remain uncertain.

“It’s weird for me. I don’t feel that it has impacted me directly,” Martinez says of AB130, otherwise known as the California DREAM Act, which went into effect in January, providing access to private scholarships for undocumented immigrants.

“I should be graduating this fall, so by the time it is fully implemented, I will have graduated,” he adds.

The second part of the act, AB 131, goes into effect January 2013 and will provide access to public financial aid for students like Martinez, now a senior at San Francisco State University. School officials there, however, say reaching the university’s undocumented population is a challenge.

Barbra Hubler is director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at SF State. She says that once the new law took effect, the school began to work with the estimated 300 undocumented students now enrolled there, adding that many remain unaware of the changes. Her office’s limited resources and time constraints also make it difficult to provide students with counseling and comprehensive information.

“The CSU Chancellor's Office will provide guidance to the campuses on how to implement the changes mandated by the California Dream Act for state financial aid programs,” explains Hubler.

In the meantime, SF State’s financial aid office has implemented changes to help students get more information about scholarships they may qualify for. The office currently has two advisers dedicated to assisting Dream Act students, and has provided training to financial aid and other campus departments to increase staff awareness about the law and its requirements, according to Hubler.

Dreams on Hold

“I think I always had a drive,” Martinez says. “I come from a working class family… and with my parents there was always a drive to better oneself.” As an undocumented immigrant, however, that drive would be met with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

“Once I found out (I was undocumented), to be honest, it was pretty depressing.”

Martinez’ parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was just a year old. Growing up in Marin County, outside San Francisco, he recalls seeing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down streets and block off entire apartment complexes to round up undocumented immigrants near his home.

He also remembers being scared for his family, though he never gave much thought to how his own future.

“I didn’t know how much [my status] was going to hold me back until I got into high school and had to apply for summer programs or scholarships,” says Martinez. “What I did wind up doing was putting a lot of things on hold. There were a lot of opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of because of my status.”

Martinez eventually enrolled in a local community college and later joined the student-led organization Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS), which played an active role in pushing for passage of the California DREAM Act.

He says he’s now looking toward passage of the federal version, which shares its name with the California law but is markedly different.

First introduced in 2002, one of the provisions of the federal DREAM Act requires eligible students to complete college within six years or serve two years in the military in order to qualify for in-state tuition. Martinez says in states like California, where the budget for higher education continues to be slashed, that could pose problems for students struggling just to secure the classes they need.

“I really hope it passes… as close to the 2002 version as possible,” Martinez says. “It’s getting to a point where there’s a whole generation of students who are forced to either leave the country or put their life on hold.”

An Uncertain Future

In today’s climate, graduating college seniors are already worried about finding jobs. But for undocumented students who can’t work legally, the stress can be much greater, says Martinez.

“To be honest, some days it’s like, ‘Damn, I’m on top of the world and I’m getting through it,’” Martinez explains. “But then some days I’m really seriously depressed. It’s like a roller coaster.”

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, Martinez prefers to focus on the day-to-day, rather than five or even two years down the line. Meanwhile, he is facing increasing pressure from family to find a full-time job.

“Real life starts to hit,” Martinez said. “My parents are getting older, money is getting tight and although they may want me to continue on with my educational plans I honestly can’t work legitimately.”

Martinez is currently focusing on preparing for the GRE and getting into a Masters program, while also researching alternative career paths. He currently has an internship at a research facility in Berkeley.

But, he says, he has to be careful about who he seeks advice from because there are some who judge him solely on his status.

“I have been very careful not tell certain professors or people because they will look at you funny,” Martinez said. “They may not consider my potential or see it as limited. I don’t want that to influence them... I want them to judge me on my performance.”

He’s been fortunate in finding a support network at SF State, but sometimes a sympathetic ear is not enough.

“Sometimes I go in and I’m just venting,” Martinez says. “All they can say is, ‘It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better.’ It gets to a point where you’ve heard that way too much.”

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