Friends for the friendless

Local Quakers offer relief to undocumented Sac State students

Patricia Portillo is leading efforts by the local Quaker group to provide scholarships for undocumented college students.

Patricia Portillo is leading efforts by the local Quaker group to provide scholarships for undocumented college students.

Photo By jerome love

Two sisters, one 20, one 18. One dreams of obtaining her doctorate in psychology, becoming a psychologist, and specializing in marriage and family counseling. The younger toys with the idea of law school and becoming an immigration lawyer.

Both were educated in California’s public schools and both attend Sacramento State, where they are pulling a 3.5 and 3.0 grade point average, respectively.

But for Sulema and Adilene (they asked that their last names not be used in this story), the educational and professional goals they’ve set for themselves may be out of reach if they are not able to win U.S. citizenship.

The pair were brought to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, with their parents when Sulema was 8 years old and Adilene was 6.

Because their parents were here illegally, and because they weren’t born here, current U.S. immigration policy doesn’t allow either of the young women a legal path to citizenship, despite their years of residency.

It’s a rule that immigration-reform advocates, like Patricia Portillo, hope to change with a piece of federal legislation known as the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which comes up for vote again later this month.

As a former undocumented student herself (she now holds a doctorate in Spanish literature and is a teacher in Sacramento), Portillo knows too well the difficulties undocumented students face, and remembers having to leave the United States, returning to her native El Salvador, then having to apply to re-enter with all new documentation before she could apply for citizenship. All despite having been here since her youth.

“They can’t get a driver’s license or a job, and in all sorts of ways are relegated to a life that is unjust and unfair, in my opinion,” said Portillo.

The Sacramento Friends Meeting, the local Quaker group of which Portillo is a member, seeks to make a handful of students’ lives easier, by offering three $1,000 scholarships to continuing undocumented students at Sacramento State starting in 2011. The aim of the program is to have the money follow the students through graduation, according to Portillo, the brainchild behind the scholarships.

Although anti-immigrant sentiment currently runs high in California, and in the nation, Portillo’s group has no qualms about helping undocumented immigrants, and members point to the Quakers’ history of helping college-age Japanese-Americans receive permission during their internment during World War II to leave the camps and receive an education.

Currently, U.S. immigration policy is all over the map when it comes to educating foreign-born students—even if they’ve lived here since they were children. In 13 states, including California, undocumented students are able to attend state universities and pay in-state tuition. In California, these students are known as A.B. 540 students, so named for the legislation that allowed for the change. (Prior to 2001, undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition, thereby virtually excluding them from higher education.)

Even with in-state tuition, because of their undocumented status, A.B. 540 students are ineligible for state and federal financial aid. Additionally, because they can’t get a Social Security card, they can’t work, thereby leaving many of them with crushing financial obligations. For Sulema, who attends school full time, tuition is $700 per month, not counting books.

In a nutshell, the DREAM Act would open a path to citizenship for immigrants who want to attend college or serve in the military if they arrived in the United States before their 16th birthday, have been in the Unites States for five consecutive years prior to the passage of the bill, and graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED equivalency.

“For me, it would mean a sense of approval and belonging,” said Sulema. “I feel I belong here, and I feel worthy of it. And I feel it would be in the best interest of the American people to have people who actually want to be citizens—good people, deserving people. Any country would want that.”