Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven, Medill, Immigrant Connect

On Sept. 23, 2017, a little less than a month into her senior year of high school, Valeria realized she could apply to college. She sat in her public high school on Chicago’s Southwest side with a group of classmates who were getting ready to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Before they started the form, the sociology teacher leading the session told students to send her an email if they were ineligible to complete the FAFSA; that is, if they were undocumented. She’d give them their options and help them through the process.

Until that moment, Valeria had assumed that because she was undocumented, she didn’t have options. Once she knew she could apply, “I was able to breathe again,” Valeria recalls. But then there was a new question– being ineligible for state and financial aid, how could she possibly pay for it?  Valeria says the next few months were a whirlwind in which she regularly stayed up until 2 a.m., applying to any and every scholarship that didn’t ask for a social security number.

Alexis, another undocumented Chicagoan who, unlike Valeria, knew he could apply to universities. He has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, which when he obtained it during the Obama presidency protected him from deportation. Still, he describes feeling uneasy throughout the process. “It’s just like that itchy feeling whenever I see SSN (for social security number). I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t have that.’” He adds, “I felt a little bit scared.”

Alexis and Valeria* are two of the thousands of undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that provides authoritative data and research and data on immigration worldwide. Though Alexis and Valeria are eligible to apply to universities, as undocumented people they can neither receive federal, nor in Illinois,  state financial aid. Without aid, undocumented students trying to go to college are up against what can often feel like insurmountable financial barriers.

Alexis and Valeria, though, represent two paths Chicago students have found around the paywall. Resources for undocumented students exist throughout Chicago and Illinois. They range from the statewide Illinois Dream Fund, established under the Illinois DREAM Act, which provides scholarships of up to $6000 to undocumented and DACA students if they fulfill a number of qualifications, to specific university funds like the  Star Scholarship through Chicago City Colleges. Star provides full tuition support for two years to students who graduated from a Chicago Public School with a 3.0 GPA or higher. No social security number is required.

Alexis at his home studying for finals.

Alexis is a recipient of the Star scholarship and he says he tells everyone he knows who’s undocumented what a good option it is. Alexis is in his second year at Harold Washington College and is in the process of transferring to a four year school. He’s applying to the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he plans to study theatre. As part of another state law, Alexis should get to pay in-state tuition at UIC.

The Act says that undocumented and DACA students who obtain a high school diploma in Illinois and fulfill a list of other residency requirements are eligible to pay in-state tuition at public Illinois universities. To Alexis, in-state tuition is far from guaranteed. He will need to fill out a separate application to prove his residency.

Alexis says that when he toured UIC’s campus he asked an admissions advisor about in-state tuition for DACA recipients. He says the admissions advisor “basically said it’s a 50/50 chance” that he’d be granted in-state tuition. “It mostly depends on how much documentation you have,” he adds. He says he’s not worried. He has lots of documents. When he applied for DACA, he needed to prove he’d been here for a certain number of years. Luckily his mom had saved documentation, from school awards to notes to reminders about doctor’s appointments.

If he’s admitted to UIC, in-state tuition or not, Alexis isn’t quite sure how he’ll pay for it. He’s looking into private scholarships and potentially taking out a private student loan through Discover, since he has a credit card through them already.

Restrictions on public funding means that sometimes there are more financial resources for

Valeria studies for her first semester of finals at a cafe near Arrupe College.

undocumented students at private colleges than public ones. Valeria attends Arrupe College, a two year program within Loyola University-Chicago. When Arrupe was profiled by CNN in 2016, a year after it opened its door, the school’s racial and ethnic make-up was dramatically different from most universities: 68 percent Latinx, 21 percent Black, and 4 percent White. Arrupe claims on its website that it’s a school “specifically designed for students with limited financial resources.” One year of tuition costs $12,500, less than the in-state cost for UIC. Valeria’s first year at Arrupe has been almost entirely paid for by a private scholarship through the college, which she thinks is renewable for her next year. She only pays $162 per semester.

Though these and other private scholarships exist for undocumented students, some activists have argued that they are a band-aid fix to a gaping wound. Quintiliano Rios Perez, one of the founders of Dreamers and Allies Run, a scholarship fund for undocumented students from the Back of The Yards neighborhood, says his group tries to give out as many scholarships as they can, but the need is far greater than they can provide.

Valeria says she’s also experienced how much need outweighs resources. “Everything is so limited and everything is at such a high demand that it’s like you have to be at the top of your game to get anything.”

Rios Perez says the larger problem is “that the system isn’t designed for undocumented students.” He points to the repeated emails students receive telling them to fill out their FAFSAs. “They get these automatically generated emails to fill out FAFSA– for students who qualify that’s just a reminder, but for undocumented students it’s a reminder that they’re undocumented. “It’s some type of salt in the wound that they don’t have access to these opportunities, and to the fact that these systems aren’t inclusive of undocumented students,” Rios Perez says.

Alexis says he was worried about explaining to universities that he couldn’t fill out the FAFSA. “I thought they were gonna make a big deal of it,” he says. But when he applied to Harold Washington, he says he essentially just had to check a box indicating his ineligibility for FAFSA, and that was it.

Undocumented student rally in Washington DC, April 24, 2016 (Photo courtesy of Project Luz)
Click on photo to go to other Project Luz photos.

Rios Perez also points to how certain scholarship funds privilege DACA students over the rest of the undocumented population. He points to the TheDream.Us scholarship, which is exclusively for DACA and TPS recipients or those who are DACA-eligible. Rios Perez says the intentions behind these scholarships were good, but in practice they can create a troubling dynamic: “The message is if you have DACA, you’re okay, but if you don’t, you don’t matter.”

He says two of the first steps toward a systemic fix would be for universities to demand immigration reform and restructure their funding to directly support undocumented students. “It’s a big step from saying we support undocumented students to actually putting resources into supporting undocumented students.”

Though Valeria and Alexis have figured out ways to pay for college so far, they’re no strangers to the systemic barriers Rios Perez talks about. During Valeria’s sophomore year of high school, when she lived in Oklahoma, she says her friends were applying to leadership programs to prepare them for college, but she couldn’t apply.

“I was like wait, there’s a question I can’t answer every time” – the question asking for her social security number.” She describes Oklahoma and her schools as “not very open” and “conservative.” So, she says she wasn’t comfortable talking about her status, including to teachers. Once she moved to New Jersey and later to Chicago, she says she felt like teachers were more open and willing to help her.

When Alexis was in fourth grade, he moved from his South Side school, where he was in a bilingual program and had classes primarily in Spanish, to a school on the North Side where every class was in English. “I failed everything– besides gym– because no one spoke Spanish. Not the teachers, not the classmates, no one.”

Both Alexis and Valeria help their younger siblings navigate the world of higher ed so the siblings don’t have to struggle as much as they did. Both live at home while in school. Alexis says he’s in the process of helping his younger brother, who’s a citizen, apply for high school. His parents’ don’t speak English fluently, so they often can’t help his brother with homework.

“I’m trying to be there for him to help him in any way I can,” he says. “We kind of have to fend for ourselves in a way. We have to seek our own help,” looking to “people who went to college, people who know what it is,” Alexis says.

Valeria is in a different situation because both of her sisters are undocumented, as she is. “I was the guinea pig of the family, which is fine, you know. Somebody had to do it. But it just sucked that it had to be me,” she says. “My sisters now are just like, ‘Oh it’s fine, Valeria did it.’”

*Valeria’s and Alexis’ full names are not being used. The precaution is being taken to protect them from retaliation by immigration authorities.