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Fearing deportation, fewer ‘Dreamers’ seeking financial aid in county, state


At a time of heightened fear of deportation, fewer undocumented students in California are requesting financial aid from the state under a pioneering six-year-old law, raising alarms at high school and college campuses about the effect on enrollment in higher education.

So far, only 233 Santa Rosa Junior College students have applied for aid under the California Dream Act, a drop of 40 percent over applications submitted by this time last year, said Pedro Avila, SRJC’s vice president of student services.

This year’s deadline for applicants is Wednesday at midnight, and Avila worries that a reduction in applications could mean a corresponding drop in enrollment for the college, which has steadily increased the share of minority and foreign-born students on its campus in recent years. Roughly 480 undocumented students are currently enrolled at SRJC, about a quarter fewer than last semester, according to the college.

“That’s a big concern for us,” Avila said about the drop in aid applications. “They are part of the diversity on campus. We care for them just like we do for all our students.”

One factor driving the decline, according to Avila and other school officials: Students fear they’ll be outed to the federal government, as President Donald Trump’s administration signals its intent to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

State officials have pledged to safeguard personal information to protect students, but would-be applicants are nevertheless nervous about disclosing their status, Avila said.

“They’re hearing the stories about the raids,” he said. Federal immigration authorities have disputed such accounts, describing enforcement actions in the state as routine — and reporting none in Sonoma County as of last week.

Nonetheless, Avila said, foreign-born students are “feeling targeted.”

Worried about a “dramatic drop” in applications, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley urged students at its 113 campuses statewide to apply for state financial aid. He pointed to numbers released by the California Student Aid Commission as a concern.

Roughly 25,000 applications had been filed as of Tuesday, said Patti Colston, a spokeswoman for the state agency. That’s about a 27 percent decrease from the 34,000 applications submitted last year.

Colston said submissions had been steadily rising since the inception of the California Dream Act, which was signed into law in 2011. This is the first time applicant numbers have dropped, she said.

In his statement last week, Oakley said, “it’s apparent that the national conversation surrounding immigration and deportation has created an environment that is confusing and threatening to many of our students.” However, he urged students to submit their applications before the midnight deadline March 2.

State Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson released a similar statement last week, urging educators to remind their high school students and their families about the importance of the program, which could provide students with thousands of dollars for college through grants and scholarships. Torlakson said the California Dream Act opens “the door to a college education for many deserving students.”

Although Sonoma State University doesn’t track the number of applicants year to year, university officials say they’ve been reaching out to students who submitted applications last year to reapply and remind them about the state and college’s commitment to keep their information private. About 50 students still needed to apply as of late last week, said Susan Gutierrez, director of financial aid and veteran services

“We did want to reassure our current students that the governor, CSU chancellor, and President Judy Sakaki want to continue to support Dream students and their educational pursuits,” she said. “This is a safe place.”

With the heightened fear of deportation, Colston said people are confusing the program with DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Created in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, DACA provides undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children with a temporary deportation reprieve and work permit. Trump has wavered on whether to end the program or keep it in some form.

Colston said her agency has been working with campuses and other organizations across the state to clear up the confusion and encourage more students to apply for the aid. She said the commission last month took part in one of the largest college fairs in the state geared towards Latinos.

While she saw a small spike early this week, Colston said submissions still are lagging overall.

“All the information stays here in California,” she said. “It is not shared with any other agency. “California has pledged to do everything possible to protect that information.”

A Sonoma State junior who is undocumented said she initially worried about her education after Trump was elected in November, fearing she no longer would be able to apply for scholarships or work.

In mid-January, she received an email from 10,000 Degrees, provides scholarships and assists students from low-income families to complete high school and college. She said it assured her the state continues to support undocumented students and that its financial aid would not be impacted despite the rhetoric coming out of Washington. She filed her application last week.

“That gave me the assurance that I should apply for the Dream Act,” said student, who asked to have her name withheld for fear that it would raise her risk of deportation. She was brought into the United States illegally 14 years ago from Guerrero, Mexico.

Sonoma State junior Maria Nolasco Ramirez initially worried about her education after Trump was elected in November. She feared she no longer would be able to apply for scholarships or work. A recipient of DACA, she worked at a campus early academic outreach program.

In mid-January, she received an email from 10,000 Degrees, which provides scholarships and assists students from low-income families to complete high school and college. She said it assured her the state continues to support undocumented students and that its financial aid would not be impacted despite the rhetoric coming out of Washington. She filed her application last week.

“That gave me the assurance that I should apply for the Dream Act,” said Nolasco Ramirez, who was brought into the United States illegally 14 years ago from Guerrero, Mexico.

California Dream Act provides major help for undocumented students, who don’t qualify for federally-funded financial aid, Colston said. Eligible students can receive Cal grants that cover up to $12,294 a year at UC campuses, $5,472 at CSU and $1,670 at community colleges.

“It is essential,” she said about the state’s financial aid.

The undocumented SSU junior said she is urging other immigrant students to submit their aid applications.

“We have more opportunities in this state,” she said. “We are at time where our character is really being tested.”

Nolasco Ramirez, co-chair of Sonoma State’s UndocuScholars Coalition, agreed. She’s urging other undocumented students not to be afraid and submit their applications to continue their education.

“We have more opportunities in this state. We are at time where our character is really being tested,” said Nolasco Ramirez, who urged undocumented students to continue their education and apply for state-funded financial aid.

“We are the strength and backbone of this nation and community,” she said. “We really need to show that.”