The Reality of Being an Undocumented Student at Berkeley

By: Lilian Juarez Armenta, Karla Gutierrez Cebrero, Jiban Gurung

Lilian was proud of herself when she received her admission letter to study political science at the University of California, Berkeley, the no.1 school in the United States. However, unlike most undergraduates admitted to UC Berkeley, Lilian is an undocumented immigrant, without employment authorization, protection from deportation, or a path to becoming a U.S. citizen. These restrictions did not cross Lilian’s mind when opening her admissions letter, nor was she aware of the extent that her lack of legal status would be a barrier for school and post-graduation opportunities. To help offset some of these challenges Lilian was lucky to have qualified for an exemption of nonresident tuition under Assembly Bill 540 (AB-540). Still, this alone was not enough to cover her living expenses, and obtaining scholarships and grants was not always easy because of her lack of legal status. Lilian is one of 427,000 undocumented students in higher education across the United States in similar situations.

Undocumented immigrants are often treated as a homogeneous group of people, but various statuses fall under this umbrella term¹. The only status with a potential path toward citizenship is asylum. On a national level, there are two programs that grant temporary legal status without a path toward citizenship: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protection Status (TPS). Both are subject to being revoked at any moment and even people with these statuses continue to be restrained when pursuing higher education. Although the U.S. provides temporary legal status to some, this still leaves a little over 3% of the total U.S. population that do not qualify for any of the currently available programs.

In light of this, California created the California Dream Act and AB-540, which provides financial assistance for undocumented students in higher education and exempts them from paying non-resident tuition

California, the state with the highest number of undocumented students in the nation, has expanded policies to help aid the financial burden for undocumented students who choose to pursue higher education. In light of this, California created the California Dream Act and AB-540, which provides financial assistance for undocumented students in higher education and exempts them from paying non-resident tuition. AB-540 is a status that is given to an undocumented student who attended a California high school or community college, has a high school diploma or a GED, and signs a Nonresident Exemption Request affidavit.

Through the California Dream Act and AB-540, UC Berkeley offers resident tuition to some of its 490 undergraduate undocumented students². But this is often not enough. The students who qualify for AB-540 pay the resident tuition of $14,245 compared to the $29,754 that non-residents pay as shown in Figure 1. Thus, the total cost of attendance (including living expenses) is $39,550 for students who qualify for AB-540 and $69,304 for students who do not qualify. Even those who obtain AB-540 have a difficult time financing their education because the cost of attendance is more than the median income of an undocumented family’s household — a little over $36,000. The overall tuition costs exceed the household income, bringing forth challenges for undocumented students to continue their higher education.

Even those who obtain AB-540 have a difficult time financing their education because the cost of attendance is more than the median income of an undocumented family’s household — a little over $36,000

To supplement the total cost of attendance, undocumented students rely on scholarships and grants to make ends meet since they are not eligible for federal financial aid. Scholarships at UC Berkeley are limited for undocumented students because they often require students to have a social security number (SSN). Even the available private scholarships (e.g. Hispanic Scholarship Fund) often require students to at least have DACA due to the SSN requirement. Aware of these limitations, the Undocumented Student Program (USP) offers a scholarship that awards $2,000 to students without a SSN. However, this is awarded only once every academic year, which is not enough to cover tuition and living expenses. UC Berkeley offers their students grants that are awarded on a first-come-first-serve basis and factor in student financial need, but the value granted varies in each case. Furthermore, USP offers similar first-come-first-serve grants, but those are typically granted only for emergencies. These grants alleviate some expenses, but undocumented student at UC Berkeley continue to face income instability.

Students can also turn to the DREAM loan for the living expenses that grants and scholarships do not cover. For AB-540-qualifying students, UC Berkeley offers the DREAM loan for a maximum of $4,000 per year with accumulated interest and a repayment plan. To obtain this loan students must be enrolled half-time and demonstrate financial need. This loan, however, leaves those who lack AB-540 status without subsidized loans. Figure 2 provides a visual of the eligibility of financial aid based on legal status but what is awarded is contingent on each student’s status and what is available for undocumented students is limited in comparison to legal citizens.

When grants and scholarships are not enough to cover living expenses, undocumented students must also turn to private loans. Undocumented students who have DACA, TPS, or a pending asylum case have the opportunity to take out private loans, but many require a cosigner that is a legal resident or citizen of the United States. Finding a cosigner that meets the requirements is not an easy task since undocumented students often come from families that do not have friends or acquaintances that qualify.

Despite the continuous efforts of undocumented students to manage their money, they are still struggling to pay their expenses and survive while continuing their education.

The difficulties in obtaining financial aid can often lead undocumented students to resort to working in low-wage service jobs that don’t require employment authorization. Although AB-540 resident tuition and some scholarships helped Lilian continue her higher education, this was not enough to cover her living expenses. Ideally, she would have liked to work in a law firm during her undergraduate years, using her political science major. Unfortunately, due to her lack of employment authorization she had to work cleaning houses and office spaces. Consequently, the time and energy that she could have been devoting to her studies was diverted to jobs that would help her make ends meet each month. Despite the continuous efforts of undocumented students to manage their money, they are still struggling to pay their expenses and survive while continuing their education. Financial instability has lead undocumented students to fully drop out of college or take a gap year to work in order to save money to continue funding their education. Undocumented students’ career development is hindered by their lack of work authorization, which is directly related to getting an internship or employment in the US.

Since 2021 UC Berkeley has worked on expanding services for undocumented students. In 2021, a previous URC cohort pointed out the different experiences undocumented students had at UC Berkeley in their report, “The Undocumented Graduate: Is Berkeley Failing to Prepare its Undocumented Students for Life After Graduation?”. This report also noted that not having a source of income can create food insecurity and financial instability, all of which negatively impacts undocumented students’ well-being and overall health. Since the report was published, UC Berkeley has initiated a COVID-19 relief fund for CA Dream Aid Students. The Undocumented Student Program (USP) has hired a licensed psychologists to expand mental health services and support. They also opened the Undocumented Community Resource Center on campus. USP also created the Transcending Beyond Berkeley Fellowship Program, through which undocumented students gain a fellowship placement with a department on campus and receive a stipend for their work. For the 2022–2023 academic year they will accept 23 fellows. But this means that over 450 undocumented students will not be able to receive a fellowship placement. The support and services that undocumented students receive are appreciated, but it only reaches a limited number of students. Moving forward, UC Berkeley should work on increasing the number of fellowships and scholarships available for undocumented students so that the majority, if not all, have the opportunity to gain experience and financial stability.

Footnotes

¹ For example: DACA, TPS, AB540 Eligible, Asylum Pending

²The Undocumented Student Program at UC Berkeley.

About the Authors

Lilián Juárez Armenta is a fourth-year, transfer, undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Spanish Linguistics.

Karla Gutierrez Cabrero, is a first-year bioengineering major interested in research that explores the experience of undocumented students after they graduate from college.

Jiban Gurung is a first-generation college student. He has a diploma in Civil Engineering from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Jiban is a third-year transfer student and currently pursuing a Bachelor of Architecture degree at UC Berkeley.

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