Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Invisible Children

We at RICH work with students who overcome a lot of personal and emotional hardship.  They come to school almost every day, do almost all of their homework, are respectful, and earn spots on their school’s honor rolls in disproportionate numbers.  These are our immigrant and first-generation students, almost all of whom are from Central and South America.  At the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Capitol Hill campus, approximately 14% of the students were Latino when school started in August.  Now there are 16%, since 1/6 of the student body has left, but only a few Latinos have.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrant students have the right to attend high school, regardless of their documentation or status, overturning a law in Texas.  They  wrote that the law was "directed against children, and impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control," ie that children were brought to the United States without their control.

Today, most of our immigrant students do not have access to college as we know it.  Our high school graduates with a few thousand dollars handy can pay cash for out-of-state tuition rates at community college, without financial aid, and work their way through college, but it takes many years to just get through two “normal” years of schooling.  

Students do not even have to be undocumented to face this issue.  Students from El Salvador, which accounts for 17% of the immigrant population in the District of Columbia (Urban Institute), are in an interminable queue for permanent residency.  They can use social security numbers for work, but they cannot use these numbers to apply to FAFSA to get Pell grants, federal loans, or work-study jobs. In the District of Columbia, you cannot gain access to funding from DCLEAP or DCTAG unless you have filled out the FAFSA form.

The end result is there seems to be as many legal as illegal immigrant children virtually shut out from college access.  Attached is a survey we have made of the last four graduating classes at the Chavez-Capitol Hill campus.  Included are students who are legally documented but whose parents do not have legal documents.  These students also cannot apply to the FAFSA form.  According to these data, forty percent of immigrant and first generation children are affected.  If we extrapolate that to the entire population of immigrant children in D.C., approximately 3,000 of the 8,000 children are affected.  About half are in the country legally.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, Mayor Gray has no clue that this problem exists.  Appearing on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi's show on January 7, 2011, Mr. Gray said, referring to recent applicants at the University of the District of Columbia, "There were very few people who did not qualify either for a loan or some kind of financial aid."

The D.C. City Council has also shown virtually no interest in this issue.  We have made several trips to the Council's offices, most recently to Council Chair Gray's Committee of the Whole last year, with no results.  The OSSE, which prides itself on providing information on financial aid, has shown little initiative in trying to make college financial aid more available to Latinos.

Lawmakers in Maryland have shown more interest than those in D.C.  Governor O'Malley is expected to soon sign a bill that would allow Latino immigrant children in Maryland, no matter their status, to pay in-state rates for community and state colleges and universities.  These students would still not get financial aid, but paying half-price out of pocket is better than paying full price out of pocket.

So what gives, D.C.?  Do we want to continue to disenfranchise thousands of innocent children?

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