Santa Clara gives 25 undocumented students the opportunity of a lifetime. But what comes next?
Published: Thursday, October 6, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:10
"People are not coming forward," she said. "People are scared; it's a hush-hush sort of thing."
According to Mertens, undocumented students can legally enroll in many state universities, including schools in California, Texas and New Mexico, without their status coming into question. A California bill in 2001, AB540, even offers undocumented students in-state tuition if they complete three years of high school in California, receive a diploma, and sign an affidavit promising to apply for citizenship as soon as possible.
California has since been joined by 10 other states in passing in-state tuition policies – Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
"We've come to the conclusion that there must be no great risk to the (universities) themselves for supporting these students," said Mertens.
Mertens has been a legal counsel to undocumented students at Santa Clara in years past, assisting when scholarship recipients face legal trouble such as driving without a license, automotive insurance issues in court, and retrieving cars from the impound lot to avoid expensive fees. As a non-citizen, undocumented immigrants are legally ineligible to receive a driver's license.
Mertens estimates that she has assisted students on 10-12 occasions over the past four years.
"I'm not a criminal lawyer, but I know enough to figure out how to help them through that system," said Mertens.
With Mertens, undocumented students have the law fighting on their side.
Lorenzo Gamboa is no stranger to the issue of undocumented immigrants in higher education. Born in Texas, he is the son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He earned his Masters degree in Mexican American Studies from the University of Arizona, writing his 100-page thesis on undocumented students in higher education. He works in the Santa Clara admissions department, responsible for assisting those who receive scholarship money from the Jesuits.
And he knows of the dangers that can come just from helping students who are deemed illegal.
Gamboa has received phone calls and angry rants, spoken to donors who vow to take back contributions to the university, and was even on the wrong end of death threats after an article featuring then undocumented Santa Clara student Hector Vega made the front page at the San Jose Mercury News in 2006.
"If you're fighting a battle and nobody cares about it, are you really fighting a battle?" he said. "You know you're making a difference when people are fighting against you."
Gamboa's experiences reflect, at least in part, Santa Clara's campus and community culture in regards to undocumented immigrants at the University. For alumni of the conservative, religious institution, the Jesuit community falls on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to illegal immigration. Uchikura says he too has received calls and complaints, describing the culture at Santa Clara as "a mixed bag."
It is no surprise that many people find undocumented immigrants problematic to American society. A recent study in 2010 by the Federation for American Immigration Reform reported illegal immigrants cost the U.S. $113 billion per year, $52 billion of which is spent on the schooling of undocumented children. This report was contrary to a 2008 report by the Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm in Texas that found illegal immigration actually benefits the American financial system. It estimated that illegal immigrants add $245 billion in GDP and account for 2.8 million jobs.
Some Santa Clara alumni would probably prefer to see scholarship funds finance those who will contribute more to the workforce and economy following graduation, a limitation of undocumented students due to their lack of a social security number.
It is this conflict that makes discussing the scholarship in public a rare occurrence. If a student were to call the admissions office of a school like USF, denying the scholarship's existence is "the official party line" in order to keep groups like the Board of Trustees or university donors happy, said Gamboa. Interested high school students would need to contact the appropriate person within the university, someone such as Gamboa, and could be discouraged by the lack of public information.
But overall, Santa Clara students seem unaware that undocumented students even exist, possibly in the seat right next to them or the room right across the hall. When Felipe told some of his friends about his situation last year, they laughed thinking it was a joke. Then, when advocating on campus for the Dream Act legislation, passersby told him "they don't belong here" and "go back to Mexico."
Sofia hears the subject discussed in her classes with students arguing against her very existence in the United States, unaware that an illegal immigrant sits among them as a peer.