Opinion: Education fairness: Working, undocumented immigrants pay taxes, too

I am frequently asked to give informational presentations to undocumented students about how they can make it to college. That’s because I’m undocumented myself. I graduated with a Bachelors of Science from Santa Clara University and now work to help inform and empower other undocumented youth. I was presenting at a Bay Area High School recently and I spoke briefly about AB 130/AB131 – The California Dream Act Bills – and the possibilities the legislation could open up to undocumented students in California. After I was finished, one of the teachers in the audience approached me and asked if she could have a word.  She told me how much she appreciated the work I did and how much she truly wants to support her students.

“But it’s hard,” she said.

“I have a son and he is going to be starting his first year in college. But we aren’t sure if he will be able to stay there because he couldn’t find much financial aid. I want to be supportive, but it’s hard to advocate for more money for undocumented students, when my own son can’t get the help he needs. It doesn’t seem fair,” she said.  

I agreed with her. I told her I was sorry that her son wasn’t getting the support he needs and I understand how difficult it may be to think about expanding resources when California is in such a difficult financial state. I told her, however, that the helplessness and frustration she felt was actually what most deeply connected her to the undocumented immigrant community.

“Imagine how many students, parents and supporters have felt the same frustration for years after confronting the inability to access state financial aid due to students’ immigration status” I said.

I then explained to her how most, if not all, undocumented immigrants working in California pay both state and federal taxes.

“And think about all the working undocumented immigrants in California whose tax dollars have gone to help pay for things like Cal-grants. And yet, their own children are denied access to such financial supports. It would be the functional equivalent of paying a $1,000  membership fee into a club that would deny you access, but would happily keep your membership fee,” I said.

“That doesn’t seem fair,”  She told me.

“So that means that people like your parents have been helping to pay for the Cal-grants of citizen students, but not to their own son?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  

There have been many rationales that have been presented in support of AB 131, and so I do not wish to state them here. Instead I only wish to offer my perspective on the type of statement legislation such as this would make. The statement is simple: where you were born should not determine how far you can go or how much you can contribute. Despite the fact that undocumented students would only have access to money left over after all qualifying citizens have been supported, the very act of inclusion makes a powerful statement about who we are and who we wish to be, both as a state and as a country. With many states passing measures further excluding and isolating undocumented communities, we look to California to make a different statement. In this country and in this state, who we are and where we are from should not limit where we can go. And if we still believe this, then it is our duty to uphold it from the deepest parts of who we are.

I ended my conversation with the teacher with a kind handshake.

“I hope that your son finds the support he needs and is able to make his dreams a reality,” I told her.

“I hope the governor signs AB 131,” she responded.

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