College students who don’t have a Social Security number can’t receive financial aid from public universities in Illinois. But a measure that would give schools the option to provide scholarships or waivers is getting a big push at the statehouse, thanks to the election of Donald Trump.
The legislation is referred to as the Access bill. That term is a bit misleading, because undocumented students already have access to all nine Illinois public universities -- if they can afford to pay tuition, fees, room and board. What they don’t have access to are the financial considerations that US citizens have. They can’t receive federal financial aid, Pell grants or Monetary Award Program funds, known as MAP grants. They can’t receive tuition waivers, stipends, or help paying for dorms or meal plans. In short, any funds provided or administered by state agencies are off-limits for undocumented students.
The ones who manage to attend a state university usually do so through a combination of private scholarships and hard work, and they’ve got the heart-rending stories to prove it. Naseef Quasim was one of several students who testified before a state senate committee in April. Quasim is 21 years old, and was just 7 when his parents brought him to the US from Nigeria, after trying several times to immigrate legally. “My junior year of high school, my counselors thought I would be going to Harvard," he said. "When they finally were aware of my (legal) status, the only solid option they had for me was community college. After all, that was the only thing my family could afford.” One month before graduating as valedictorian of Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, he received private funding to attend UIC. This past spring, he graduated with a degree in neuroscience, a near-perfect GPA, and an acute awareness of the problems similar students face. “Hard work guarantees you nothing," he said. "We undocumented live in America, but we are very aware that we do not live the American dream.” He told the lawmakers about undocumented friends who had stretched college out for years, taking classes part-time while working to pay the tuition, and about others who had given up, overwhelmed by debt. But it was clear why he was one of the handful of students who had been picked to testify for this measure. “All I want to do is study neuroscience," he said. "All I want to be is a physician. I chose this profession because I want to help all human beings. I want to give back -- to Chicago, to Illinois, to the world. We all just want to study. We all just want access. And you have the power to ensure that. Can you imagine all we would do if we could do all that we can? We would not just be good. We would be great.” As he concluded his testimony, an audience full of college students applauded. But how would this law affect homegrown kids? Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) pointed out this allowing the 1 percent of Illinois college students who are undocumented to be eligible for scholarships might hurt other students’ chances. “So it would then become a competition for public universities’ funds between those who are legal and then those who are illegal,” he said. Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), the chief sponsor of the bill, corrected him: “Undocumented.” “I think that’s a matter of terminology probably," McCarter responded. "We can use yours, it doesn’t matter…” McCarter reminded the proponents of the dire circumstances Illinois colleges were -- and still are -- enduring. Due to the ongoing budget impasse, higher education institutions have seen their state funding gutted. McCarter said if this bill becomes law, some US citizen students will inevitably lose out to immigrants. “Because you’re putting more people into the pool that are going to want to qualify for a limited amount of funds," he said, "especially today in the situation we’re at, where there hasn’t even been an appropriation, right? For these schools?" But the legislation isn’t just about scholarships, or money being handed out. In fact, MAP grants are specifically untouched by the access bill. Martin Torres, with the Latino Policy Forum, told lawmakers it’s about giving universities the local control over how they choose to spend their money, whether through scholarships or simple tuition waivers. “This bill is about allowing four-year public universities to structure their existing scholarships, financial aid packages, awards and waivers, in such a manner that undocumented students who are currently receiving in-state tuition would be eligible to receive those funds," Torres said. "So when the Illinois General Assembly appropriates resources to the various four-year public universities, those resources then go into the university’s own set of funds through which it generates and takes money from those various funds and puts them into faculty, into operations, and into scholarships in various forms. This would allow them the ability to use their General Revenue Fund appropriations that help support, either in part or fully, those scholarships for all their students." Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago), said the measure could bring tuition dollars to state schools. He used his own daughter as an example, saying she was receiving partial tuition waivers for her high ACT score and her high school GPA. “So that’s $3,000 in incentives that lowers the tuition bill we’re going to have to pay next year that we’re eligible for, but an [undocumented] student who got the same grades and the same score as my daughter wouldn’t get," Cunningham said. "You know, I’d like to point out that those are incentives that our universities offer to attract good students. And not only do they attract good students, they attract tuition-payers. You know, we’re still going to pay tuition at Illinois State University. If it wasn’t for those waivers, we might send her somewhere else.” Nineteen other states already have similar legislation, and all nine state universities back the bill, as does the Illinois State Board of Higher Education. Candace Mueller, the board’s director of external relations, put the agency's support on the record at the committee hearing. “I worked with a fine student leader, who actually was chair of our IBHE student advisory committee, who attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana," she said. "He was an undocumented student who had been a transfer from Elgin Community College. And he was denied any opportunity to apply for any additional funding. Yes, he was getting in-state tuition, but he really had financial needs, and there were just not any funds available for the university to offer him to apply for. Not to automatically get, as we’ve talked about before, but to at least be eligible to be considered.” The issue has taken on a new urgency thanks to the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to "immediately terminate" immigration programs put in place by Pres. Barack Obama, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. That’s the program that shields young adults who were brought to the US illegally as children, in circumstances beyond their control, like Naseef Quasim and like Egle Malinauskaite.
“I talked to him about global health, because I really care about health care access for everyone,” she said. “And like, I couldn’t have a discussion with him about that, and I then proceeded to ask him where he would deport me to. I told him: I am an undocumented immigrant. Where would you deport me to? Because I wanted to hear it from him. And he was quiet! And he hung his head, and he told me ‘You should be careful.’ Those words have been ringing in my head ever since.”
Malinauskaite is from Lithuania. She arrived in the US at the age of 6, smuggled in across the Canadian border hidden, with her younger brother, in the back of her parents’ car. “Yeah, and so when we were about a mile, two miles out, my dad started chanting ‘We did it!’ overwhelmed with joy. If I have a strong memory of that day, it is my dad being overwhelmed with joy," she said. "For a 26-year-old man with two kids, maybe in some eyes it’s 'Oh yeah, he broke the law, he’s exhilarated.' No...he gave his family a future. He gave his family something that he knew he could never have himself.” The family settled in Chicago, where her dad became a truck driver and her parents eventually started their own small business. But there were years where the entire family worked doing menial labor.“I grew up in the basements of hotels, folding towels. As soon as I could kind of help out my parents, I did," she said. "We cleaned hotels, we cleaned people’s homes. My dad was a car salesman, so we cleaned the car dealerships. There was a summer where the car dealership would close at 10 p.m., our entire family would get together, we’d go in, my mom and I would clean the showroom in the front, my dad and my brothers would clean the auto shop in the back, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., for the entire summer.” Her main job, however, was to make good grades. Get an education. Make something of herself. “When I was in Mokena -- this was 8th grade English class, Honors English class -- my teacher had us play an illegal immigration game. It was over the course of three days, and it was based on this book called Lupita Manana. The book was about a brother and sister who came in across the Mexican border, and they were just trying to, you know, earn money for their family, and long story short, the brother dies at the end. “But the point of what he was trying to teach us was, it was like a three-day simulation game, and he was trying to put us into the minds of these ‘illegal immigrants’ -- right? And you had to either stay in the classroom that day and work on this crossword puzzle or something that would be the equivalent of doing it the legal way -- which, by the way, there’s no legal way right now for me to become a citizen. There is no pathway right now for me to become a citizen. I cannot stress this enough.
“But we’d have to work on this crossword, and if you stayed in the classroom and did that, you got a C for the day," she said. "In order to get an A, you had to run outside the classroom, run into one of the teachers he had collaborated with on this simulation, and you’d do a small task for them (you’d wipe the board, you’d hand out some sheets of paper) and then you’d get like this little sheet that says ‘Congratulations, you did it’ or whatever. It was the equivalent of money. And then you run back across the ‘border,’ into the classroom, and that’s your A for the day.
“And so I sat in the classroom and tried working on that crossword puzzle, and the only people in the classroom were me and my friend from China -- an immigrant from China. Everyone else, US-born American, running out, right? And I cannot explain to you how difficult it was to be in that space, as an 8th grader. “Eighth grade sucks for everyone," Malinauskaite said. "But I knew that I had to get an A in this class. You’re an immigrant! You have to get an A! You have to work for everything you earn, right?” She worked. Malinauskaite graduated from the Illinois Math and Science Academy and then earned two full-tuition scholarships to Illinois Institute of Technology, where she has kept her GPA near 4.0.At Illinois Tech, she worked with a student group called Undocumented Students and Allies (USA) to create a scholarships for students who are ineligible for state and federal financial aid. Last April, the student body voted to add an optional fee of $4.50 to fund these scholarships, and last semester, Illinois Tech handed out eight of them, ranging from $500 to $2,500. Students at Loyola University have established a similar program. Trump’s advice to her -- to be careful -- isn’t having much effect. Besides the scholarship campaign at Illinois Tech, Malinauskaite is talking to legislators, marching to the governor’s office, and saying her full name on the radio. She wants to remind people that immigrants come from Europe, from the United Kingdom, from Asia, from Africa. “We are from all over the world,” she says. “If people think ‘Oh, I’ve never met one of these people,’ you’ve probably met them. They’re just too scared to open up to you. It takes a lot of trust to be open with one’s status. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel I need to be open because I feel like it’s my duty. Because I’m like… I’m a white chick. If I’m not going to speak out, who will?” Unlike Malinauskaite, some of the undocumented students have dark skin, head scarves or thick accents that make it tougher to blend into the crowd. This is the time to reassure them, Malinauskaite says, and the access bill would go a long way toward doing that. “I accept the results of the election. What I do not accept are the policies that will follow, because they are going to directly target me, my family, my friends, my community," she said. "The student access bill is basically… It’s like treating an open wound right now within the undocumented community.” The access bill passed the Senate and was scheduled to be heard in the House last week, but the session was canceled. The General Assembly is set to reconvene next week.