When Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 131 on October 8, 2011 he cleared the way for undocumented students who graduate from California high schools (and who demonstrate both merit and financial need) to apply for publicly funded scholarships and other state aid. Another measure signed earlier this year by the Governor made it possible for these students to take advantage of privately funded scholarships.
In approving these measures, Governor Brown has taken a courageous stand for fairness. Together, the two bills are known as the California Dream Act, and they offer new hope that undocumented students who have come of age in this country will one day be able to achieve the American dream.
The Dreamers’ Struggle
Today, high schools across California are educating tens of thousands of “Dreamers,” students who were brought to this country as children of undocumented parents. By the time they are in college, many of these students have lived here for the majority of their lives.
Despite the fact that the United States is the only home most of them have ever known, these students have to struggle from day one in this country against a system of laws and regulations that deny them the rights and opportunities that every young person deserves.
Consider the case of an undocumented student named Gabriela who tells her story in our First-Person Stories series. Gabriela came to the United States from El Salvador to be with her father, an undocumented factory worker living in a trailer near Los Angeles. After distinguishing herself as a gifted student in Los Angeles public schools, Gabriela entered U.C. Berkeley. Despite financial challenges connected to her undocumented status, Gabriela continues to do well at Cal and has become a campus leader in advancing the cause of undocumented students.
Another undocumented student, Mandeep Chahal, is an Indian American who came to United States at age 6 with her mother who was seeking asylum. Mandeep wants to become a pediatrician. As reported by the group America’s Voice, she was voted “Most likely to change the world” by her graduating class at Los Altos High School in 2009. But her undocumented status has shadowed Mandeep throughout her short life. This summer, she narrowly escaped getting deported even as she continues to do well in the pre-med honors program at U.C. Davis.
Like so many other undocumented students, Mandeep and Gabriela have proven themselves to be gifted, hard-working, dedicated young people who want to contribute to our society. In a country that prides itself on giving everyone a fair chance to succeed, these students deserve the same rights and opportunities as their peers.
To date, California is one of only a handful of states that have said they will allow undocumented students to have access to scholarships and financial aid at public universities. Our state is taking the lead in helping to reframe the national conversation on investing in undocumented students. As Governor Brown said when he signed AB 131 in October, "Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking. The DREAM Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us."
Unemployment in California and across the country remains in the double digits — but an untold story behind the dismal job numbers is that we still need more skilled workers. In fact, our ability to grow the economy and start creating more jobs depends on it. A 2009 report from the Public Policy Institute of California projected that the state faces a looming “education skills gap” between the number of college and university graduates our economy needs and the number that we can produce. The projected shortage is 1 million college graduates by 2025.
Students like Mandeep and Gabriela have the talent and the potential to help fill this gap. To deny them an opportunity to contribute to the economy and society at this time is shortsighted. They are exactly the kinds of workers and community leaders we need in our state now and in the years ahead.
This is why California’s support for these students is so vital — and state government does not have to do this alone. Foundations and individual donors are in a unique position to lend a hand so these students can realize their dreams of a college education. For example, undocumented students are now eligible to receive scholarship funding made available through the Haas, Jr. Fund’s grant for the U. C. Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. The Haas, Jr. Fund is also exploring other ways to help these students in the years ahead. Now that the state has opened the door to this urgently needed support, we would like to encourage other foundations and individuals to consider funding nonprofits that help undocumented students at colleges and universities throughout the state by investing in scholarship funding, leadership development and to strengthen student organizing.
A Partial Solution
At the same time that we broaden our support for these students, however, it is important to remember that providing them with expanded access to scholarships and financial aid is only a partial solution. As undocumented Americans, they still cannot legally hold jobs. Mandeep can continue her education and get her medical degree, but under current U.S. law she cannot work as a physician in this country. And, if Gabriela completes her studies and eventually wants to teach political science or become a lawyer, she will have to do it in another country.
Only the U.S. government can change this. At the federal level, we need a path to legalization for undocumented students who were brought to the United States as minors by their parents. But this policy, like the broader effort to reform the U.S. immigration system, has fallen victim to partisan fights in Washington and is currently stalled.
In the meantime, students like Mandeep and Gabriela continue to wonder what the future holds for them. But at least now the State of California is saying to these students that they deserve an equal opportunity to get the education they need to succeed.
Leading the Struggle
The enactment of the California Dream Act would not have happened without the dedicated work of a number of Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund grantees. Two organizations that have been leading the struggle for fair treatment of these students are the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). Among the signature contributions of these two Haas, Jr. Fund grantees: educating policymakers and the general public about the importance of taking action on this issue.
Credit also goes to many of the Dreamers themselves, who have been courageously advancing their cause. At the risk of opening themselves to arrest and deportation, these students have been appearing in front of lawmakers, staging public protests, conducting media interviews, and using YouTube and social media to tell their stories and make the case for change.
As we celebrate the enactment of the California Dream Act, the board and staff of the Haas, Jr. Fund extend our gratitude and respect to all who made this landmark achievement possible. Looking forward, we pledge to continue and broaden our support for undocumented students—and also for the broader movement to advance and protect fundamental rights and opportunities for all people, no matter where they come from or who they are.