Not ‘A Mexican Thing’: Undocumented Asian students face stigma and lack of financial aid, job experience
Picture an undocumented student, and the first image to pop up is unlikely to be an Asian one.
Yet a recent report by the University of California Office of the President revealed that 40 to 44 percent of undocumented students in the UC system are Asian. This is definitely not “a Mexican thing,” which is how one undocumented student characterized the Asian community’s dismissive views towards undocumented immigration.
“People will ask you: ‘Are you AB 540? Because obviously you are not Latina,’” explains Tam, a 24-year-old of Vietnamese descent who recently graduated from UCLA (the last names of the undocumented students in this article have been withheld to protect their identities).
The 2001 state law AB 540 lowers the cost of tuition at California public universities for students who attended a high school in the state for at least three years. According to the UC Office of the President, over 1,639 students have benefited from AB 540; out of those, 1,200 were legal residents or citizens.
Out-of-state students attending California colleges filed a suit in 2005 challenging the law, objecting to the state’s practice of allowing illegal immigrants to pay significantly lower tuition than they pay. The suit was dismissed by the Yolo County Superior Court in 2006.
But on September 15, the Court of Appeal in Sacramento issued a ruling that challenges AB 540 on the grounds that it contradicts federal law, which holds that states cannot grant educational benefits based on residency.
But life continues for those who have made it to college. Faced with financial burdens and legal concerns in addition to the normal college student worries about classes and career, today’s unexpected and overlooked Asian undocumented students are screaming for help.
Tam came to the U.S. when she was six years old, and like many Americans, she wanted to go to college. Although undocumented students come from low-income families, they are not eligible for any kind of state or federal financial aid. Tam needed her parents’ help to pay for school, but she refused to ask.
“My major was English and I did not want to deal with ‘We’re paying for your education, so you will have to study what we want,’” explained Tam, who paid for school with money from work and private scholarships.
Ana, a third generation Japanese Peruvian, could not find enough scholarships to cover the costs of attending college without financial aid. Her parents are low-wage employees who could not afford it either. An aunt helped her secure a loan, but it is not subsidized by the government, as some student loans are, and interest is accrued every month. Yet it is helping her go to college.
“This how I paid my first year, and how I plan on paying my second year,” she said.
Not only she will get out of college in debt, but Ana is also frustrated about her future. Because of her legal status, she won’t have the same experience as fellow graduates in civil engineering.
“It doesn’t matter if you were admitted into the university, you are still not able to get internships and jobs, which are the real stuff,” she said. Without experience and legal status, Ana doubts she will be able to utilize her degree when she graduates.
Currently, the only path to legalization for these students is the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would allow undocumented students who have graduated from college in the United States to receive conditional residency and eventually legalization. The future of the bill is uncertain, but with the bill’s fiscal implications along with the current economic recession, support for it is low.
Furthermore, there is not much information for undocumented Asian students on how to even get to college. Those that exist are mainly in Spanish or English.
“Asian students who aren’t fluent in English or Spanish can’t access this information, so they have trouble getting the information they need to pursue opportunities and make knowledgeable decisions,” said Kathy Gin, co-founder of Educators for Fair Consideration, an organization that provides scholarships to low-income first-generation college students.
One’s immigration status is also a sensitive topic for Asians, and among Asian families, talking about it to even just ask for help is a taboo.
“When we came here and we were filling out the high school paperwork, my mom would say ‘Don’t talk about it,’” said Ana, who did not know the gravity of her status until she was enrolled in school.
Roseanne Fong, new student program director at UC Berkeley, explains that Latino students are more outspoken about one’s status.
“Asian students are more reluctant to come forward,” Fong said. “I have to read between the lines. For Chicano/Latino students, by the first email, they will tell me about their status.”
This silence and shame may be related to culture.
“From what I can infer, students from Asian families enforce ‘secrecy’ for fear of being deported-this explains the fact that they have to be very guarded and careful,” said Jere Takahashi, director of the Asian Pacific American Student Development Program at UC Berkeley. “They have fear that [if they speak up] it will lead to investigation and eventually deportation.”
Nevertheless, the stereotype of undocumented students being solely Latinos can benefit and harm Asian undocumented students. On the one hand, Asian undocumented students don’t suffer from many of the negative stereotypes facing Latino undocumented students. But silence means isolation, according to Gin.
“While undocumented Latino students can often seek support from Latino student groups or academic programs targeting Latino students, Asian undocumented students may not know whom to reach out to,” Gin said. “They may have trouble finding communities in which they can comfortably, openly and safely share their experiences with other students.”