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New York’s DREAM Act is a reality, but challenges remain for getting undocumented students to apply for financial aid

Students in Denver protest President Trump's decision to end DACA in September 2017.
Students in Denver protest President Trump's decision to end DACA in September 2017.
Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat

Five years after fleeing a violent militant group in Nigeria, Ifeanyi Ejiogu is on the pathway to earning asylum in the United States. Still, the Bronx high school senior’s first instinct when meeting new people is to watch every word.

“I feel like I have to have a lawyer next to me because I’m not sure if ICE is going to come,” Ejiogu said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That fear is a major concern for advocates, educators, and students who are celebrating the recent passage of the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to receive financial aid to attend New York colleges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the bill, which comes with a recommended $27 million for tuition assistance, by April.

People who pushed for the law for almost a decade are now thinking ahead to its implementation. Will official applications and other regulations be in place so that students can start applying soon after the bill is signed? Will schools be able to guide fearful students through yet another complex process? And how will students like Ejiogu be reassured that sharing information to get tuition help from the state won’t land them in trouble with federal immigration officials?

The bill includes a timeline for implementation: 90 days after it’s signed into law, applications are supposed to be made available to students. But what those applications should look like is not specified, beyond requiring an affidavit from undocumented students stating that they’ve filed or plan to file an application to become legal residents. The details will be up to the president of the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation, in consultation with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

Andrea Ortiz, manager of education policy at New York Immigration Coalition, an immigration advocacy group, said she hopes the officials consult with coalitions and groups that are familiar with immigrants’ concerns.

Applications should be easy to read and fill out, and should not ask undocumented families for information that could make them uncomfortable, Ortiz said. And the school personnel who will be tasked with helping students to complete them must be trained in the intricacies of working with undocumented students.

“When it comes to how families feel and how safe they feel, it’s not [just] about the actual process with how they’re going to do with the state, but also with how much information they’re going to receive from counselors and financial aid offices,” Ortiz said. “All of that has to be done through professional development with those folks.”

That echoes the awareness campaign for local educators that Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, a co-sponsor of the state DREAM Act, said she has planned. “If we don’t do public education, then we won’t be able to have the impact that we hope this historic legislation has,” she said.

Some of that training has started at the city education department. In November, the department hosted a workshop for high school staff called “Working with Undocumented Students: Immigration Updates and the Financial Aid Challenge,” officials said, and an internal newsletter that month included resources to help undocumented students with financial aid. The department informed schools when the DREAM Act passed in January and plans to send additional communication and update online guidance once the act becomes law, according to a spokesperson.

Once that information has made its way to schools, it will be up to college counselors to work with students. Some schools have dedicated college counselors or connections with college advising programs, but others rely on the same counselors who handle students’ social needs to shoehorn college guidance into their packed workdays.

Michael Kane, a teacher at Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens, said the school is lucky to have an experienced college counselor — his wife — who has helped every undocumented student in recent years earn a private scholarship. But her caseload is low: Out of 75 students in each graduating class, only about three to five are undocumented.

“I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for schools that don’t have college counselors, schools that just rely on guidance counselors to get kids into college,” Kane said, who is the advisor for student club DREAMers Alliance.

Kane suggested having counselors dedicated to helping immigrant students, an idea that the city teachers union has supported.

Richard Salinas, an undocumented senior at Newtown High School in Queens, supports the idea of one-on-one help for immigrant students, especially because asking for attention can be especially challenging for students in his position.

“When I go to my counselor to ask for help, I’m really shy when it comes to this because I know I’m not a documented person,” he said.

Salinas and Ejiogu, the Mott Hall senior, are both still looking for ways to pay for college starting this fall.

Because Ejiogu needs substantial financial aid and the DREAM Act hasn’t kicked in, he said he spends more time pursuing private scholarships than completing homework or having fun. He said he’s gotten guidance from a college counselor at his school, but he knows that students at other high schools don’t have the same kind of help. To help students find their way, Ejiogu said he thinks schools should have multiple counselors who focus on immigrant students specifically.

“It’s always going to be fear until you have your green card or you’re a citizen,” he said.

It doesn’t help that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration is so different from New York’s. While the state is trying to ease life for undocumented residents, especially those who came as children, federal authorities have sought to limit immigration and end a program that allows undocumented immigrants who came as children to work and attend school legally.

The experience that Ejiogu’s teachers have had point to the challenges ahead as schools across New York seek to help students navigate the new financial aid possibilities.

It can sometimes take years before teachers discover which of their students are undocumented, making it tough to help them early, according to Ilona Nanay, a history teacher at Mott Hall V. The city’s education department has a strict policy not to question families about their immigration status, Nanay noted, and often, students are afraid of how that information could be used against them so do not volunteer it.

After the state DREAM Act passed, Nanay and a college counselor held multiple meetings with two undocumented seniors to persuade them to reconsider college as an option — both had given up hope. They had to hold another series of phone calls just to convince the students’ parents to come to the school for a meeting.

“Families are still terrified; students are still terrified,” Nanay said. “I’ve had students who have had to stay in detention centers and share those experiences, and it’s extremely traumatic.”

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