Law school report, UC summit highlight difficulties for undocumented students

Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff
The Haas Dreamers Resource Center in the Cesar Chavez Student Center, which houses the Undocumented Student Program, features a mural depicting educational opportunities for underrepresented minorities.

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Undocumented students face difficulties well beyond those of the average student at UC Berkeley, according to a report that the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law published Thursday.

The release of the report, titled “DREAMers at Cal,” coincided with the first national summit on undocumented students, organized by the UC President’s Advisory Council on Undocumented Students. The event was initially disrupted by protests from student activists, whose concerns regarding the plight of undocumented students were reified by the report’s findings.

In response to the needs of the burgeoning undocumented student population on campus, the law clinic founded a legal support program in collaboration with the campus’s Undocumented Student Program, or USP, in 2012. The program’s attempts at providing assistance, however, were hamstrung by a lack of information — an issue the report explicitly sought to address.

“We were hearing a lot of anecdotal information from students about their situations,” said report author Allison Davenport, who is also a member of the law clinic. “It became apparent that we needed to be able to capture the experiences of these students in a more methodical way.”

Upon interviewing 21 of the estimated 380 undocumented students on campus and conducting 70 surveys, Davenport and her team highlighted the financial barriers to success for undocumented students. All undocumented students on campus were found to be from low-income families, with 94 percent reporting family incomes of $50,000 or less.

Because of their legal status in the country, undocumented students are not eligible for the federal aid and grants that are currently available to nearly two-thirds of the UC Berkeley undergraduate student population.

Surveys conducted for the report indicated that food and housing insecurity were major concerns. Nearly three-fourths of surveyed students reported skipping or reducing the size of their meals, and about one-fifth of those same students added that they had experienced a period of homelessness while enrolled at UC Berkeley.

“Many of us don’t eat, and we don’t take care of our mental and emotional health. … I have four jobs, but I still cannot pay for my rent,” said ASUC senator-elect and undocumented student representative Cuahuctemoc Salinas. “I still skip meals. I still struggle.”

At its current levels, the aid offered to undocumented students is not enough to provide campus housing and meal plans, Salinas said.

As the academic counselor for USP, UC Berkeley alumna Liliana Iglesias said she regularly interacted with students who were experiencing difficulties far beyond those of the typical UC Berkeley student.

“(One of my students) was supposed to be working on her thesis, but she couldn’t do that because she and her family were being evicted,” Iglesias said, adding that the student was having particular difficulty in finding new housing for her family members because they were all undocumented.

USP aims to provide academic, emotional and logistical support for undocumented students on campus, with the human rights law clinic currently assisting students in the program with legal work.

Funding challenges, however, have prevented the program or any similar campus-initiated effort from becoming an effective form of assistance for the entire undocumented student community on campus.

“I’ve honestly not had much support from any of the campus’s programs for undocumented students,” Salinas said. “The only reason why I’m still here is because I’ve been able to build concrete relationships with people myself.”

The program receives a significant proportion of its funding from private donors, with both its administrators and Davenport’s team wary of impending financial difficulties amid an environment of dwindling state-sponsored support for higher education. In its recommendations, the report noted the need for programs such as USP to obtain more sustainable sources of funding to mitigate these concerns.

Davenport said, however, that the impact of such efforts would improve the experience of undocumented students on campus only to a limited extent, adding that she strongly believed in the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

“The biggest challenge is at the federal level,” Davenport said. “We are just putting Band-Aids on a much larger problem.”

Nevertheless, Davenport said she was encouraged by the actions of student activists at the university’s national summit on undocumented students, held in Oakland on Thursday and Friday.

UC President Janet Napolitano delivered the summit’s opening address, during which student activists — who constituted more than one-third of the audience — walked out of the auditorium in protest.

According to Davenport, who attended the summit, the protests were an expression of student frustrations with what they deemed to be lackluster efforts to address the difficulties faced by undocumented students, as well as displeasure at Napolitano’s track record in her previous role as U.S. secretary of homeland security.

After Thursday morning’s protests, the rest of the summit continued without disruption, with about 260 attendees, including students, providing policy recommendations and critiques in small group discussions.

“I think the summit was very productive,” said UC spokesperson Shelly Meron in an email. “(We had) excellent speakers and substantive discussions in the breakout sessions.”

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ishaansriv.