UI undocumented students stand to gain institutional support in 2022

By Farrah Anderson, Assistant Investigative News and Longform Editor

Carla, senior in LAS, transferred to the University after attending community college for two years.

She came to campus in the time of COVID-19, which she said severely affected her mental health. She was living on a huge campus in a new community — while also being undocumented — which prevented her from having the college experience documented students have.

“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but it is pretty dramatic,” Carla said. “I mean, it is pretty traumatic being an undocumented student because there are so many resources that are just sometimes not available to us due to our status.” 

All colleges and universities within Illinois — including the University of Illinois System — will be required to designate an employee as an Undocumented Student Resource Liaison by the 2022-2023 school year, according to House Bill 3438.

The liaison would provide assistance to undocumented, mixed-status and DACA students to access all available financial aid and academic opportunities, according to the bill.

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Carla said the University’s La Casa Cultural Latina was the first place on campus she felt comfortable revealing her status and asking for support. Besides La Casa, Carla said she didn’t feel like the school did anything to support her. 

Now, she says the University needs to designate a place for undocumented students to go for different resources on campus. 

“There definitely needs to be an Undocumented Resource Center,” she said. “La Casa already has a lot of work on their hands (and) we need actual institutional support so that they are able to feel like they have different options and resources.”

Carla said institutional support is needed for undocumented, mixed-status and DACA students throughout higher education institutions in Illinois. 

From her perspective, most people don’t know what it’s like to live as an undocumented student.

Without work authorization, Carla said many undocumented students often have to pick up profitable side hustles to make money to attend school.

“Not every undocumented person is the same,” Carla said. “But I think what is the same is the lack of sometimes not being able to take certain positions so we create them within ourselves.” 

Carla’s last name has been omitted to protect her identity as an undocumented student. 

New title, same work

Dr. Gioconda Guerra Perez, now the University’s executive associate vice chancellor for Diversity, has worked with undocumented, mixed-status and first-generation students for years.

She used to be the director of La Casa on campus. Now, she’s been designated as the University’s Undocumented Student Resource Liasion. 

But Guerra said that although the title is new, the work is not. 

“This is not a new position,” Guerra said. “It’s mostly how we are formalizing something that many institutions have worked to establish for many years now.”

Many liaisons said they have been working together using an informal network to better help undocumented students at universities throughout Illinois. 

Although the network has existed for years, Guerra said it’s just one more thing this bill has formalized.

“The network has always been there,” Guerra said. “We are formalizing this network because of the encouragement of the state.”

Guerra said the challenges that undocumented students face in higher education varies from student to student. However, she said she tries to look at undocumented students as a whole student, not just based on their immigration status. 

“People tend to frame undocumented students as if immigration status is their only identity, and that’s not true,” Guerra said. “Like any other student, they might face financial challenges or adjusting to the institution.” 

Although Guerra has been helping undocumented students at the University for years, she said this is a big step for Illinois. 

“I think that this shows institutions to formalize many of the services that had been offered in the past, but also helps us to be more in sync with the experiences of our students,” Guerra said. 

“I feel that this recognizes the students’ humanity in some way.”

‘A one-stop-shop’

State Representative Dagmara Avelar, Democrat who represents the 85th district of Illinois, was undocumented while a student at Northeastern University.

Avelar said her college experience would have been significantly different had there been a liaison. 

“If we would have had one, I think my college experience would have been a lot more comfortable, (rather) than feeling like you were just managing school being undocumented (and) trying to pay for school on your own,” Avelar said.

As someone whose parents immigrated to the United States when she was 12, she said she understood how difficult it can be for parents to help their children navigate America’s college system if they went to school in another country. 

With more formalized liaisons in place, Avelar said she hopes there will be less confusion for undocumented and mixed-status households when application season rolls around in the future. 

“It’ll actually remove a barrier to access of information,” Avelar said. “It’s sometimes really hard to look for if you don’t know what’s available.”

For Avelar, the next step to helping undocumented students is the cost. 

Undocumented students cannot register for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which excludes them from many scholarships and financial aid, according to Avelar. 

Although the Retention of Illinois Students & Equity (RISE) Act allows undocumented students to apply for all forms of all state financial aid, Avelar said financial costs are still a huge barrier to many undocumented students.

“I think that any policy that is able to remove any barriers to access is key,” Avelar said. 

“But the next thing that I would like to see is looking at what are some of the other opportunities that students are able to get to be able to pay for school?”

‘It’s been long overdue’

According to The College Board’s report, Young Lives on Hold, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and only 5-10% of them continue to college.

And currently, Illinois is home to over 300,000 undocumented workers, many of whom were on the frontlines of the pandemic in health care positions, according to a 2020 study from the Center for American Progress.

Tanya Cabrera, chair of the Illinois Dream Fund, which helps undocumented students pay for college, said that having undocumented students in college is incredibly important.

Cabrera said young, undocumented students are essential to replenishing the workforce and making sure health care positions are filled.

“We’re going to lose about 73% of our medical professionals who are mainly immigrants because they’re retiring, and how are we going to start building that cohort of health care professionals for the state?” Cabrera said.

Although Cabrera was excited about this next step, she believed it should have been done much earlier. 

“It’s been long overdue,” Cabrera said. “So we can’t wait to make sure that students know that they have the support and resources.”


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