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Undocumented students wait for DREAM Act to become a reality

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Twenty-three-year-old Alejandro Jimenez is an honors student at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s scheduled to graduate in May. “And it’s been worth it,” he says. “It’s been tough, but nothing we’re doing or we’re having is easy.”

Jimenez was born in Mexico City. His parents separated when he was very young, leaving him and his brother in the care of his mother. She chose to take them far from home. Jimenez’ mother saw that public schools here in California, even at their worst, are ten times better than the schools in Mexico City. She decided to bring her children across the border and into Los Angeles.

Jimenez said it was a shocking transition. When his family was in Mexico, they would see the United States on television and imagine that living there would be a dream come true. But living in Los Angeles was a reality check. “Nobody ever tells you that there is a part of L.A. where there are gangs, etc.,” says Jimenez.

Jimenez says he thrived in elementary school, but as he got older, things changed. After he finished 4th grade, Jimenez and his family moved from Los Angeles to San Jose. He began to think differently about his future. In middle school and high school, he says he stopped caring about school. He traces the root of that change to his immigration status: he knew he was undocumented and, unless he would get papers, he couldn’t go to college.

In 2006, Jimenez became the second person in his family to graduate from high school, but he says he felt ill prepared for higher education. He enrolled in De Anza Community College, but soon left to find work in Los Angeles.

Gibor Basri, vice-Chancellor for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at U.C. Berkeley says that a lot of high schools, especially underserved high schools, lack adequate college counseling. Still, Basri says, undocumented students do have an option: AB540.

AB540 is a state law that enables undocumented students who have attended California high schools for three or more years to pay in-state tuition at a public college or university. Alejandro Jimenez had no idea, but after a friend going to U.C.L.A. qualified for AB540, he returned to San Jose and to his own dream of higher education. “I remember me coming back to the Bay Area super eager to just hit the grant and go to school,” Jimenez says.

In the fall of 2008, after excelling at De Anza College, Jimenez was accepted to 12 universities. He chose U.C. Berkeley. With AB540 and some part-time jobs, Jimenez could afford it. Vice-Chancellor Gibor Basri says that many undocumented students cobble together payments for as long as they can, but it’s hard. “So we have a lot of students who drop out because they can’t afford the next years of education or next semesters,” says Basri.

There are a certain private scholarships, private foundations available to support undocumented students. But, until recently, the campus was unable to offer any help. Two laws recently passed in California have changed the way schools deal with undocumented students. The first began as Assembly Bill 130.

AB130 allows state universities to provide private scholarship money to the students who need it. That’s a very nice transitional help that the universities can give this year.

Then, there’s AB131, which opens the door of state-funded financial aid and worth thousands of dollars. It’s a huge change that takes care of a major chunk of tuition for undocumented students.

Both bills are part of the California Dream Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law last year.

Alejandro Jimenez thinks that in the bigger picture, the California Dream Act is going to “be great to help,” but it won’t fix another looming problem for undocumented students: citizenship. Jimenez isn’t getting his hopes up. “I don't think we are gonna see any kind of legislation that's gonna pass and gonna give people a citizen status,” he says.

The federal DREAM Act has been under consideration in Congress for more than a decade. It would grant conditional permanent residency to undocumented minors who complete certain levels of education. But the controversial proposal has stalled, leaving the future for students like Jimenez uncertain.

Vice-Chancellor Gibor Basri says he doesn’t think the country has realized the importance of this large immigrant population, the young population. Because of the obstacles that many immigrants have overcome, they are among the strongest students at Berkeley. “These are the kind of folks that the United States really is going to need in the future as we become more and more globally competed by other countries who are by the way beefing up their educational systems very quickly even as we are disinvesting in ours,” says Basri.

Alejandro Jimenez was fortunate. He found his way through higher education. Now he wants to graduate and go to law school. “It should be fun, it should be interesting, and should be struggle again,” he says. “But as me and my friends always say: ‘We made it this far without a citizenship status, so we are gonna keep fighting, we are gonna keep struggling and we are gonna keep doing it our way.’”