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State law aims to ensure undocumented students receive support in higher ed

Dream Action NIU
Dream Action NIU Facebook page
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Dream Action NIU's Facebook page
Members of Dream Action NIU and staff from the Undocumented Student Support Center pose for picture for 'I Stand With Immigrants' Day of Action at NIU's student center in November, 2022.

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Earlier this month, members of Dream Action NIU hosted the “I Stand with Immigrants” Day of Action on Northern Illinois University’s campus. The student-led group advocates for undocumented students on campus. The national call of action brings attention the contributions immigrants make to the county.

Alondra, a political science major and member of the organization said the need to tackle anti-immigrant sentiment continues regardless of who holds the presidency.

“Especially like that comment that Trump made before he became president, saying that about how when Mexico brings its people, it's bringing its worst, I feel like a lot of people believed in that,” she said.

“And I think a lot of people still have this stereotype of Mexicans or just immigrants. I feel like this day shows that not everyone thinks like that and there is support and there is community.”

Sandy Lopez, the director of the Undocumented Student Support Center on campus, credits the group’s education and outreach for ensuring the school’s support of all students regardless of status.

“My office, which is now a center, [and] my position would not exist if it were not for the undocumented students of Dream Action who fought for this office, this position, the Center, and the scholarship,” Lopez said.

“The scholarship money that we have coming out of our Center for years—they fought for it since 2014.”

In 2021, the state passed a bill requiring all public colleges and universities in Illinois to designate an employee to support undocumented students to navigate financial aid and academic support.

According to the Office of the Speaker of the Illinois House, Illinois colleges and universities received a 5% funding increase for fiscal year 2023 to fund the position.

RISE Act

Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal aid, but do qualify for state funding. The RISE Act allows qualifying undocumented students to apply for state financial aid programs including the State of Illinois Monetary Award Program, known as the MAP grant. It's determined by a student’s financial need and other funds aimed at encouraging students to become teachers.

“In addition to that,” said Lopez, “There are other scholarships that they're allowed to now qualify for like the minority teacher’s tuition waiver. There's a special ed tuition waiver.”

Undocumented students can also apply for institutional aid at public colleges and universities. At NIU, it’s called the Huskie Pledge program. The qualifications for applying through the RISE Act include having attended school in Illinois for three years, graduating from high school or completing a GED, and proof of your family’s tax filings.

Lopez said the Center assists many undocumented students and students from mixed-status families apply for financial aid. Mixed-status families are those in which at least one member of the household may be undocumented, such as a parent. Part of her job also entails informing the wider community about what’s available to undocumented students.

“There's a lot of educating that has to happen not only on the part of the student, but on the high school counselors and the administrators, on the teachers, on the parents, and communities," Lopez said. Her message is “You are undocumented, but that doesn't stop you from going to higher education.”

Undocumented students' rights to education

Since the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe in 1982, all students regardless of immigration status from K through 12th grade have a right to attend school, but rights after that are not specified.

“So higher ed is kind of that murky piece where each state determines how they're going to handle access to higher ed,” she said. “In the state of Illinois, we're very fortunate, we've always been very friendly.”

Since 2003, undocumented students receive the in-state tuition rate for college in Illinois. At least a dozen other states do the same.

But she says many undocumented students may not be aware of what’s available to them, especially with changes to the DACA program. The program allows eligible immigrants who arrived as children protection from deportation and a work permit for two years. The Trump Administration attempted to end it and since then it’s been challenged in the courts. As of now, only those who have DACA status can apply for renewals, leaving out otherwise eligible students.

“So those students think, 'Well, if I can’t get DACA, I can't go to school,' which is not true," Lopez said. “We always tell students there's an opportunity here, and NIU is not the only place that supports our students.”

NIU's Undocumented Student Resource Center

She says what differentiates NIU is the resources dedicated to supporting undocumented students.

“Changing this name to the Undocumented Student Resource Center, it actually creates more visibility,” she said. So, our students see that they're heard, [and] that they're understood.”

That includes dedicated staffing for a director, assistant director, and graduate assistants.

To learn about resources available including scholarships for undocumented students, go to NIU's Undocumented Student Support Resource Center’s website.

For information on the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid, click here.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.