Undocumented Students Struggle Amidst Tuition Hikes

Blocks away from a crowd of boisterous protesters, Tania Chavez sat on the steps of the Riverside Community College library with her 9-year-old sister Perla. In a few hours the two would join the protest march to downtown Riverside in an effort to drum up awareness against cuts to public education. For Chavez, the March 4 Day of Action protests -- a coordinated series of demonstrations that flared statewide-- was the only way she could make her voice heard.

Chavez, 19, is studying to become an accountant at RCC, but as an undocumented immigrant, she isn't able to get a job to pay for school. And as college fees rise semester after semester she, and her family struggle to find the money.

"Paying rent, bills, and school is too much for my mother," said Chavez. "We try to save, we buy only the food we need, we try to not eat out, I usually borrow my books from friends instead of buy them."

After her parents divorced when Tania was 14, her mother moved her and her sister from Mexico to Riverside. Her mother was able to find work as a waitress to pay the bills, but it is not always easy for them to make ends meet. Chavez said she often collects bottles, cans and other recyclables when she sees them on the street, looking for anything that can help defray the costs a little.

"Tution is due on a deadline and this past semester we didn't have any money saved up, so my mother had to pay using her tips," said Chavez. "So I had to pay my tuition in all singles."

As an undocumented student Tania, is only able to attend college because of a state law that was passed in October of 2001. AB 540 allows any student, regardless of immigration status to pay in-state tuition rates for California public schools as long as they attended a California high school for 3 or more years, graduated with the equivalent of a high school diploma, and fill out an affidavit that states that the student will file for residency as soon as possible.

While the bill allowed immigrants like Chavez to attend college, it does not allow undocumented students access to financial aid or government student loans. So while some, like the New York Times' Ian Ayers, say that a fee increases can be a good thing as long as it is accompanied with financial aid increases for the poor, students like Tania won't get the help, they only get the hike.

Chavez said she gets some assistance from the Students Alliance for Education (SAFE), which helps raise funds for undocumented students by having charity events. She also said she has applied for private scholarships, but hasn't received one in her first year and a half at school.

At the nearby University of California Riverside, Adriana Flores faces similar struggles. Flores, 20, lives with her parents, but they aren't able to help her cover the almost $12,000 in annual tuition and other expenses. She said that the more than 40 percent fee increases in the past year in the UC system has forced her to take on three jobs.

"I am on my own when it comes to this," said the political science and history major. "Now that I have three jobs my grades have suffered tremendously I used to have a 3.8 GPA, now its 2.6. It has affected me tremendously because I feel like I've been working hard to remain in school but I'm not able to fully focus my attention because I have other things to worry about."

Flores, who moved from Mexico when she was an infant, is the oldest of three siblings, but the only one who isn't an American citizen. However, she says she feels she is just as much of a citizen as anyone.

"It is unfair, I consider myself American, I have been in this country since I was one," she said. "I've grown up here with the morals and have been taught here, yet I am not treated as a citizen because of a paper I don't have. When I was in elementary and high school I was on top of my class, but when it comes to educating us they want a limit to how far we can go."

Flores said she receives some aid from scholarships and individual sponsorships, but it isn't enough and she has had to adjust her plans. Before the fee increases she said she was supposed to graduate in three and a half years, but now it will take her five years. She also wanted to go to law school after graduating, but has had to reconsider because she doesn't think she will be able to afford it.

Both Flores and Chavez said that they hope legislation will help turn around their situation and allow them to achieve their goals.

The federal DREAM Act, pending legislation that would allow undocumented young people to be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship in exchange for completion of a college degree or two years of military service, is one ray of hope for those like Flores and Chavez. But even with that Flores said she isn't hoping for a miracle, just a little boost.

"If I get at least some financial aid that would be enough for me, I don't ask for all my education to be covered just some type of financial aid, just to be eligible."

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