One year ago Chicano/a studies major Lizbeth’s alarm clock rang at 5:30 a.m., after a quick shower and breakfast she would dash out the door to catch the 6:15 a.m. bus making its way towards CSUN.
Around 8:30 a.m. Lizbeth was off the bus and heading to her first class along with thousands of other students.
She was one of hundreds of undocumented students that have entered California’s institutions of higher learning. It is for this reason that she refused to give her full name.
Unfortunately for those undocumented graduates the opportunity to use their degrees will be scarce.
‘I want to go to law school,’ said Lizbeth, a recent graduate and AB 540 student at CSUN who despite having earned her degree, continues to work at her minimum wage job at a restaurant.
‘It’s difficult because of my status in this country. Having a degree is great but without citizenship I can’t use it.’
In 2001, Assembly Bill 540 was passed into law permitting undocumented to pay in-state tuition in California.
However AB 540 is about to be challenged in California’s Supreme Court after a lawsuit questioning the legality of the law was filed in 2005 by out-of-state students and their parents.
The lawsuit Martinez vs. Regents of the University of California alleged that education officials are violating federal law by granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants while not offering the same lower fees to students from outside California.
Originally, the case was denied by the courts in 2006 but has now resurfaced to be reviewed by the state Court.
William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration, an organization that opposes AB 540 said the bill contributes to an increase in undocumented immigrants at tax payers expense.
‘It is ridiculous that American students are given limited seats in college while illegal aliens are taking their place,’ said Gheen. ‘This bill rewards families that break the law.’
Every year an estimated 50,000 undocumented student’s graduate from U.S. high schools and about five percent will move on to college, according to several studies conducted by Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
Other studies estimate that there are 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high schools every year across the nation.
‘What some people don’t understand is when you’re an AB 540 student, you don’t have an opportunity to receive financial aid, you have to pay it all yourself,’ said Lizbeth. ‘There are many limitations, and I don’t think people aware of that.’
Lizbeth would work 40 hours or more as a full-time student and would travel for hours as she used public transportation to get around the city.
A study called Loss of Talent: High Achieving Undocumented Students, released in 2007 that looked at academic achievement and socioeconomic tensions among undocumented students, showed that of the 65,000 undocumented students that graduate every year nationwide 13,000 enroll in universities.
The study also found that 57 percent of the 171 students that were studied worked 40 hours or more a week and 67 percent of them have a grade point average of 3.0 or better. The number of AB 540 students can’t be confirmed, as the California State University system doesn’t keep track of AB 540 students. They are not allowed to make that information public due to a confidentiality agreement said Lizbeth.
Lizbeth also said that not all AB 540 students are undocumented. The bill also benefits students who attended high school in California, but moved away after they graduated. If they choose to attend college in California this piece of legislation allows them to pay in-state tuition as opposed to non-resident fees.
Currently at CSUN state residents pay $1,876 for tuition per semester, but non-residents pay an additional $339 per unit. An out-of-state student or an undocumented student taking 12 units would pay $5,944 a semester.
Attorney Nicholas Espiritu of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has worked on the case with different organizations since its inception is optimistic and said they will continue to advocate for the rights of AB 540 students.
‘We are going to continue to promote higher education to these students and make sure college is accessible and remains available,’ said Espiritu.
According to Espiritu, about 1,800 students in California qualify for AB 540, about one-third of them are undocumented students.
Despite their circumstances, Espiritu said, the students he has worked with are somewhat used to being in ‘precarious situations.’
‘Some are afraid and uncertain,’ said Espiritu. ‘But, they remain resilient and not easily deterred.’
Another piece of legislation that undocumented students and their supporters are hoping to pass is Senator Gilbert Cedillo’s SB 1301, the California DREAM Act, which was vetoed by
Governor Schwarzenegger for the fourth time last year.
The DREAM Act, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, would allow undocumented students who have graduated from college in the United States to receive conditional residency and eventually legalization.
Pedro is president of Dreams to be Heard a national organization here at CSUN, whose mission is to support AB 540 students as well as educate the community about immigration rights.
Peter said he is not worried about the Supreme Court taking on the case but is more concerned about the DREAM Act.
‘We are not worried, we are glad that the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments because that is what we were hoping for,’ he said. ‘Our next focus would be on getting the DREAM Act to be passed.’