Credit: Fredy Ceja
Led by then-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (center), demonstrators in Los Angeles sought and eventually won the passage of the California Dream Act. The 2011 law provides state financial aid for undocumented college students.

With a March 2 deadline looming, California education officials are once again urging undocumented students to overcome any fears and to apply for the special state aid that helps cover their college tuition.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 27, the total number of applicants for the California Dream Act grants was 25,656, which was 491 more than the same day last year. But another 10,476 applications must be filed by midnight Friday to match the deadline numbers from 2017. So officials are worried that might not be possible given the political climate about immigration.

“I’m incredibly concerned,” said Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), the state agency that administers the Dream Act grants and other financial aid to California students.

With all the negative publicity in recent weeks over immigration raids, deportations and the failure of immigration reform in Congress, she said some undocumented students may be apprehensive of filing any form that has a connection to a government. “There is fear, there is definitely fear,” she said.

Last year, with application numbers initially lagging, energetic outreach by college and state legislative leaders helped produce a surge in the last two weeks that brought final numbers above the previous year. Similar statewide efforts now are once more trying to reassure potential applicants that California will not share with federal authorities any personal data, such as addresses and family identifications, that could lead to deportation. State officials emphasize that the Dream Act grants have nothing to do with the legislative and judicial battles over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the executive order that has provided some undocumented young people temporary protection from deportation.

So far, 15,967 current college students have applied for Dream Act grant renewals, which is 547 more than this time last year. However, in what could be a troubling sign of anxieties, the first-time applicants now total 9,689, which is 56 fewer than last year. While acknowledging that students procrastinate until the last minute, Alcalá said she thought the chance of meeting last year’s numbers “seems unlikely but is possible.”

The Dream Act provides Cal Grants to financially needy undocumented students who are not eligible for federal aid and cannot use the traditional Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Students can receive a state Dream Act grant for a public or private college in California whether or not they have DACA status. Dream Act recipients need to have graduated from a California high school or earned an equivalency degree in California and be seeking legal residency. They also must meet Cal Grant guidelines for grade averages and family income.

At California’s public colleges and universities, undocumented students are allowed to pay the same discounted in-state tuition as legal residents and citizens. Those who meet income and grade-point eligibility rules can receive fee waivers at community colleges. In addition, the Dream Act Cal Grants in 2017-18 offered a maximum award of $12,630 at a UC, $9,084 at a private non-profit college, $5,742 at a CSU and $1,672 at a community college.

Many of the California Dream Act applicants turn out to be ineligible based on various criteria including family income and grades. So of the more than 36,000 applicants for the 2017-18 school year, only 9,450 were offered the grants and so far 5,023 used them, although that number is expected to rise. If students miss the deadline, they may be eligible still for some campus-based and private aid.

Education leaders hope students are not getting confused by all the twists and turns surrounding DACA.  That Obama administration effort has given temporary protection and work permits to 750,000 immigrants nationwide who were brought to the United States illegally when they were younger than 16. President Donald Trump in September ordered DACA to be phased out and that no new applicants be accepted. Meanwhile a court challenge to the Trump action has kept much of the program at least temporarily alive. The matter is expected to be heard in a federal appeals court in coming months; the U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to hear the matter on an expedited basis, meaning it could take a year or so for its final decision. Congress has failed to pass legislation that would extend DACA.

March 2 is also the deadline for U.S. citizens and legal residents in California to file the FAFSA to determine what state, federal and private aid they can receive at college. So far 1,455,065 of them have filed, according to aid commission statistics. That is 46,997 below what it was at the same time last year and 84 percent of last year’s final numbers. In contrast, the Dream act applications now are just 71 percent of last year’s final tally. Meanwhile, the overall number of high school graduates this year is thought to be slightly higher.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley is among those urging eligible undocumented students to complete the California Dream Act application by March 2. “It’s apparent that the national conversation on immigration and deportation continues to create an environment of fear and confusion for many of our students,” Oakley said in a recent statement. He noted that “no student’s personal information is shared at the federal level” and that the student aid commission promises to protect such information “to the fullest extent of the law.”


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