New bill, AB 540, allows undocumented students access to higher education before naturalization

Fabian Garcia

Sacramento State’s educational experience can be quite different for students who were born in this country compared to those who were not.

Youths who are undocumented in California, and have been here for a majority of their lives, must essentially maintain three statuses to affordably attend an in-state college or university without running the risk of being deported.

The three laws these students must juggle on a continuous basis are Assembly Bill 540, the California DREAM Act – made up of Assembly Bill 130 and 131 – and the federal memorandum passed by President Obama called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Assembly Bill 540 is one of the primary ways for many college-bound undocumented students to get their feet in the door, especially at Sac State.

“I’m not a resident and I’m not a citizen. I’m not on a visa. I don’t have a green card…I’m an AB 540 student,” said junior ethnic studies major Maria Lopez. “Going to a high school and graduating – (or) going three years to a high school and graduating – with a high school diploma or getting a GED will qualify me for AB 540, which means I get to pay in-state tuition.”

Officially signed into law in 2001, Assembly Bill 540 established that undocumented students may be exempt from paying nonresident tuition at California Community Colleges and California State Universities if they meet certain criteria.

As Lopez mentioned, one criterion to obtaining an AB 540 status is going to a California high school for at least three years and graduating with a diploma or receiving a GED. Students must also register at an institution of higher education in California and file an affidavit, stating they will apply for legal permanent residency as soon as they are eligible. All student information used to access the bill is kept confidential.

Once they are approved with an AB 540 status at a specific college or university, undocumented students can then avoid paying higher nonresident tuition fees.

Lopez said she and her family were faced with a high bill from Cosumnes River College before knowing about AB 540.

“(It was) very expensive,” Lopez said. “My first semester there, I didn’t know about the AB 540. My first bill came in at close to $2,000 at a junior college, and that was for two classes I was in. Had I not asked for help, I would have just stopped.”

According to Sac State’s Student Registration and Advising Guide website for the 2012-2013 academic year, nonresident students will pay per semester an average of $2,797 for six units here compared to a California resident’s $2,152 for the same units.

Resident and nonresident students pay the same $565 in registration and campus fees, but nonresident students have will pay $372 per unit as opposed to a resident’s $265 per unit.

Obtaining an AB 540 status to dodge these hiked-up prices, however, is only the first step in making an undocumented student’s education at Sac State affordable.

The next move would be to use their standing to apply for financial aid through the California DREAM Act.

“Luckily, this is something new,” Lopez said. “The DREAM Act was passed in California. Therefore, I don’t have to pay the full amount – (only) part of it. I’m not getting federal aid. The state is funding the school in order for them to pay for my tuition. I still paid half of my tuition, but they took care of the other half.”

According to the California Student Aid Commission’s website, the California DREAM Act – signed in 2011 but not put into full effect until January 1 of this year – allows students who fall under AB 540 to apply for and receive private, non-state-funded scholarships as well as state-funded aid including institutional grants, Cal and Chafee Grants and community college fee waivers.

When undocumented students secure financial aid through the DREAM Act, they have probably already applied for postponed action on removal from the country through a national law called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, otherwise known as DACA, passed in the summer of 2012.

Lopez certainly has.

“So DACA, that went through – the deferred action – and I fall under that,” Lopez said. “You can apply for a work permit, which is what I’m waiting for right now. I’m like five months into it; I’m still waiting for a work permit. With that I can go get my social security number. And with that I can go get a driver’s license and I’ll be able to get a job. And another thing that falls under the deferred action is students – those are the people that fall under (DACA) – cannot be deported.”

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ federal website defines deferred action as “discretionary determination to defer removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion.”

Those who receive such discretion are authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to be present in the U.S. and be considered lawfully present during their deferred action period.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a form of deferred action that allows undocumented students a two-year grace period to legally live and work in the states.

Unlike AB 540, students would have to meet stricter qualifications to receive deferred action. They would also have to submit evidence and supporting documents proving their eligibility.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services site outlines an extensive list of qualifications in order to receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals with requirements such as:

Being under the age of 31 when the law was signed in June 2012; coming to the U.S. before the age of 16 and having continuously lived in the country since June 2007; being physically present in the U.S. when the law was passed and at the time of applying for personal deferred action; entering the country without inspection before June 2012 or having one’s lawful immigration status expire before then; being currently enrolled in school; graduating high school or having received a certificate of completion; obtaining a GED certificate or being an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces; having a clean record free of any felonies, significant misdemeanors, three or more other misdemeanors and not otherwise posing a threat to national security or public safety.

The process is intricate, to say the least. Unfortunately, there are more stipulations that come with applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Those who apply for deferred action are also required to submit an application for employment authorization. The fee for both applications is $465 and cannot be waived.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website also notes deferred action approvals and renewals are subject to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security. Deferred action may be terminated at any time and for any reason the department sees fit. Deferred action also does not confer lawful permanent resident status and is not a path to permanent citizenship.

Lopez acknowledged the ongoing battle to gain full citizenship in this country. She said an all-encompassing law had to be passed once and for all to accommodate anyone in her situation.

“It’s a war that’s going on right now for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented people that are here, such as myself,” Lopez said. “If that (legislation) goes through, then I would qualify for (full citizenship). Aside from that, it’s getting married. I would need to marry an American citizen. And I don’t want to get married.”

Moreover, requesting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals can be a dicey gamble for undocumented students. Submitted information is generally protected from federal removal proceedings but can backfire if a certain file raises any red flags.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Frequently Asked Questions page, information provided in a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals request is protected from disclosure to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection unless the applicant meets the criteria for the issuance of a Notice to Appear or a referral to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Notice to Appear guidelines cover cases related to fraudulent activity, criminal activity and national security issues among many others.

In other words, no one is guaranteed deferred action status but everyone can apply at his or her own risk.

First year sociology graduate student Lucia Leon said accessing the newly implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law and its temporary benefits would prove crucial for undocumented students in a university setting.

Having completed her undergraduate studies at CSU Fullerton, Leon said there were many things she could not do in college for a lack of a California ID and a social security number.

“One of the issues that came up was every time you went to check out a laptop at the library, you needed your driver’s license,” Leon said. “So what do you do if you’re undocumented and you don’t have a driver’s license? Undocumented students couldn’t access laptops.”

Leon said she and a group of students approached their student body government and asked for a change in policy. With enough rallying, the policy was eventually changed to where students could simply use their student IDs to rent laptops.

“Those are the kinds of little triumphs that happen at the university level – little struggles that students face,” Leon said. “I don’t have a driver’s license. How am I going to get to school every day? You can’t drive.”

Leon also mentioned since many college internships and conferences require students to travel across the state and country, undocumented students would sometimes risk the air travel even without the necessary papers or IDs.

“While I was undocumented, I got in two internships – one in New York and one in D.C. Then I got asked to speak at a conference in Chicago and conferences in San Francisco, and my parents were terrified,” Leon said. “A lot of undocumented students travel. (They) just do it and just risk it. You use your passport…but if someone gets curious and says, ‘You don’t have a Visa stamp,’ they can detain you. So you just kind of risk it.”

Leon gained permanent resident status a year ago with a green card through marriage. She said comprehensive, yet practical, legislation had to be passed to cut out the tedious and invasive processes undocumented students and their families go through each year.

“Most undocumented families jump through a lot of hoops to keep their families here,” Leon said. “And some are not very lucky. There are families who are separated. There are multiple reports of many (undocumented) children in the foster care system now whose parents were undocumented and were deported.”

The new immigration reform bill introduced by Congress last week ensuring a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship is not what Leon considers an ideal answer to this growing issue.

 “(The new bill) is supposed to be the next step to dealing with the immigration issue,” Leon said. “But the problem is that most of the people that have been organizing don’t believe it’s a true representation of what the people want. And we really think this legislation is not going to solve the immigration problem…It’s only criminalizing the community instead of actually creating a humane and just reform.”

Lopez and Leon are part of a student-run organization on campus called Immigration Working Group, composed of a handful of students and one professor who serves as an adviser.

Some community members from the surrounding area are also a part of the organization that meets every Wednesday to bring awareness to immigration issues and to break stigmas surrounding undocumented residents in the state.

As far as the future is concerned, Lopez said she and her fellow members were determined to make change in any way they can.

“(We) students are the ones doing the push right now,” Lopez said. “It’s not just the Latino community. It’s the Asian-American community. It’s the African community. It’s people from all over the world. Latinos aren’t the only ones here…We’re pushing and change is happening. Change is going to happen.”

Lopez said in Spanish “si se puede,” which translates into “it can be done.”