Undocumented students face obstacles when applying for financial aid
At one point last year, everything seemed to go wrong for Carimer Andujar.
A battle with colon cancer had deteriorated the School of Engineering junior's mother’s health and forced her from her job. Andujar found herself unable to pay for her school tuition along with her sister’s diabetes medication and began to accept the idea of dropping out.
In a last-ditch attempt, Andujar called the Office of Financial Aid. After describing her circumstances, she found that the office was unable to help her because they did not know what it meant to be an undocumented student.
“They didn’t even know what undocumented meant,” she said.
Unsure if there were any financial aid options for non-citizens or non-residents like Andujar, the office told her to seek help at the Center for Global Services, which advises international students.
The move seemed odd to her — she had lived in America for most of her life and was certainly not a foreign student—but Andujar said necessity prompted her to go.
The center told her that they could not help her, saying that their services were only for those with student visas.
After visiting several University offices and receiving similar responses, Andujar said she knew something needed to be done.
With help from the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, Andujar began laying out the blueprint for a group to help fellow undocumented students.
“I don’t want any other student having to go through what I went through. I don’t want any other student to feel like they’re completely lost during such a difficult time,” she said. “I want them to have a place to go. I want them to have a community to go to.”
Andujar arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 4 years old and has been undocumented ever since, she said. She attributes her public disclosure of her legal status to her refusal to be daunted or ashamed by her situation.
Through the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration in 2012, Andujar was able to apply for a work permit and a driver’s license, but was not granted any legal status.
To be eligible for DACA, individuals must have been in the United States and under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, when the program was announced. They must have arrived before they were 16 and lived in the United States continuously for at least five years. They also must be in school, have a high school diploma or have been honorably discharged from the military.
Those with felonies, criminal misdemeanors or three or more less serious misdemeanors do not qualify, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The New Jersey Dream Act, signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie in January 2014, allows Andujar and other undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at Rutgers and other schools in the state, but does not make them eligible for state or federal aid.
Andujar has financed her education through her and her mother’s income and a couple of scholarships, she said.
When she reveals her status to fellow students, she said they are often surprised because she does not match their conceived image of an undocumented immigrant. In the end, she said, her day-to-day experiences are very similar to that of her classmates.
“We are dehumanized a lot of the time. People don’t acknowledge the fact we have homes here. That we have family here,” she said. “Yes, I’m undocumented but first and foremost, I’m your peer— I’m just like you. I have to face the ‘RU Screw’ too.”
Immigration has been a contentious issue for the past years, with Democrats and Republicans disagreeing about what to do with the undocumented immigrants residing in the United States — which the Pew Research Center estimates to be around 11.1 million.
Before he was sworn into office in 2009, Obama promised to push for comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
This was not accomplished in his first term, but came close in 2013, when a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill passed in the Senate but was not considered by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The president took executive action in 2012 to create DACA and then again in 2014 to expand the existing program and to create a new one, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA.
The second program — which was struck down by a 4-4 tie in the Supreme Court in June — would have shielded around five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work legally in the country.
Many Republicans hailed the decision, or lack thereof, believing that Obama has overstepped his presidential authority and considering the program a form of “amnesty," according to the New York Times.
In addressing the immigration reform that she has long awaited, Andujar would urge lawmakers to make one consideration.
“They should just acknowledge the fact that most children came here at a young age. America is all that they know,” she said. “They are American.”
Editor's note: This article is part one of a two-part series on undocumented immigrants and the struggles they face in higher education. You can read part two here.
Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.