Undocumented students ask Chancellor Dirks for more support and advocacy at fireside chat

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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Undocumented students asked UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks for more financial support and advocacy during his ninth fireside chat Monday evening.

Members of Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education, a student organization that provides support services for students eligible under California State Assembly Bill 540, called for more resources for retention of and advocacy for undocumented students. AB 540, passed in 2001, allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities.

“I appreciate the narratives and the stories … and I encourage you to continue to educate people about your experiences,” said David Surratt, interim dean of students, at the meeting. “It’s really powerful to understand the context of how you operate in your lives and to help others realize they shape your experiences.”

The students asked for more funding for undocumented students ineligible for AB 540 benefits and for affordable housing for low-income students. They also asked Dirks to extend his support for undocumented students, as he affirmed in a statement last week, outside of UC Berkeley and to push for immigration reform.

In October, Dirks invited the broader undocumented community to a fireside chat, at which they discussed the lack of resources from the campus for food and housing. Other fireside chats have invited students to speak about issues such as financial aid and institutional support for female students.

Dirks also discussed his work with other universities to advocate immigration reform and said he will be traveling to Washington in two weeks, with 61 other heads of research universities as part of the Association of American Universities, to put pressure on the government.

“My job is partly a symbolic job,” Dirks said to the students. “If I can use that to advance both knowledge about some of the predicaments you face and support for you, that’s an important thing.”

Additionally, the attendees called for higher availability of funding for undocumented graduate students. Many of the competitive fellowships are provided by the government and are inaccessible for undocumented graduate students who are forced to sacrifice research opportunities for teaching jobs, the students said.

Meng So, coordinator of the campus Undocumented Student Program, added that while great strides have been made, institutional funding for undocumented graduate students is low due to risk aversion and lack of clarity about what is legally permissible. Education needs to happen across the campus for heads and chairs of departments, said Fabrizio Mejia, executive director of the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence.

UC Berkeley sophomore Ivan Villasenor Madriz also drew attention to the “huge division on campus” and suggested exploring ways to include the undocumented community in a larger conversation on campus.

Nina Smirnov, a UC Berkeley senior, said she was disheartened by the tension on campus toward the undocumented community, particularly last fall, when the ASUC Senate passed a bill expressing no confidence in UC President Janet Napolitano due to her previous position as Secretary of Homeland Security.

Dirks also expressed sympathy for the students regarding the appointment of Napolitano last year.

“I know it’s been very traumatic to have the whole experience of deportation represented as part of the UC community with the appointment of Janet Napolitano,” Dirks said. “I’m not going to say that I’m going to work to get her fired … but I’m going to work with her in the hopes that coming from her background, she can actually do more good in some ways because she knows some of the issues that you’ve lived.”

Somin Park is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_sominpark.