Maria is one of thousands of students in Orange County who have been able to attend college through AB 540, a California law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, rather than the higher fee charged to non-California residents.
The Register is withholding the full names of the undocumented students at their request and under newspaper policy that recognizes the potential for retaliation against them.
Undocumented students are ineligible for state or federal financial aid, but do get help under a policy that allows them to pay the same fees as California residents. For example, non-California residents pay an additional $20,608 a year at the University of California; up to $10,170 at the California State University: and up to $170 per unit at community colleges.
Since AB 540 was enacted in 2001, a growing number of undocumented students in California have been able to pursue college degrees. There are no statewide numbers on how many undocumented students receive help through the program or how much they receive.
While the bill has opened doors to some undocumented students, it has also created a big debate about the legality and merit of subsidizing education for illegal immigrants. And for students like Maria, who would not otherwise have been able to afford higher education, AB 540 has created a huge unanswered question: What happens after graduation?
Every year an estimated 50,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools. About five percent of those students continue on to college, according to Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, who conducted several studies about undocumented students in Southern California.
The debate is heading toward the state Supreme Court
One of the attorneys leading the fight against AB 540 is Kris Kobach, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. Kobach represents a group of students who attended California universities and paid the much higher out-of-state tuition rate.
The students’ attorneys argue that, among other things, AB 540 conflicts with federal immigration laws limiting the ability of states to provide certain benefits to undocumented immigrants, said Nicholas Espiritu, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
Adding to the complexity of AB 540 is that the law also benefits U.S. citizens who attended high school in California for more than three years and moved out of state after graduation. They too can qualify for in-state tuition through AB 540. In fact, advocates stress that the majority of people taking advantage of the law are U.S. citizens.
According to a 2008 annual report, all but 455 of the 1,639 students who received in-state tuition in the UC system through AB 540 were citizens. Currently, the CSU system does not track AB 540 students, and paperwork varies among community colleges. Fullerton College had 571 students enrolled through AB 540 this fall, but was unable to provide the Register the potential percentage of those students who are undocumented.
A growing number of undocumented students who feel stuck in limbo find the answer to the big “what next” question in graduate school, hoping that immigration reform will be passed by the time they earn a master’s degree.
“College at least offers some safety for students. I wouldn’t call it sanctuary, but at least it’s the one legal option they have. Those who aren’t (in school) face a day-to-day life of looking over their shoulders,” Gonzales said.
Being a full time college student provides no protection from deportation, said Virginia Kice, Spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I want to break down stereotypes,” Maria said. “We are here, we are getting an education and we want to make the world better too.”
“We are waiting for things to change so we can use our degrees,” said Matias, a recent graduate of University California Los Angeles.