Immigrant student leaders, civic advocates, and supporters gathered on the steps of the New York City Public Library this week to voice support for a recently passed resolution which will allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid. PHOTO: Gloria Pazmiño
Undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.
That was the message students gathered on to steps of the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue sent to the entire City this week on Tues., Nov 15th.
The group gathered to announce a vote by the Regents Board for the extension of the State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to all students regardless of their immigration status. The change will make it possible for thousands of undocumented students in New York to attend college.
The vote comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the Regents Board last month in support of the federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which has been supported by immigration advocates, student groups, and representatives.
Had the federal DREAM Act passed, it would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who meet eligibility requirements such as attending college or serving in the military. However, the legislation failed in December 2010 when the bill failed to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold in the House of Representatives necessary to advance to the Senate.
This past week’s gathering was organized by members of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) and the New York State Youth Leadership (NYSYLC), and attended by immigrant student leaders, State Education Department Commissioner John King Jr., and the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch.
Standing at the foot of the library’s stairs, was Melissa García Vélez, 19, a northern Manhattan resident, and an undocumented student at Lehman College who attended the rally that day to voice her support. Velez, originally from Colombia, is a sophomore majoring in social work. Her case is the exception among thousands of undocumented students who are not eligible for any financial aid to cover their college costs.
“I was lucky to receive a scholarship that covers half of my tuition,” said Velez. “But that’s not the case with everybody, so I’m here today to stand with all undocumented youth. Giving us a chance will create better communities, enhance the local economies, and educate us,” she said. Velez, who held the “Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic,” banner proudly, and shouted in support of the Dream Act said she works a full time job while maintaining her full course load to cover costs outside of her scholarship.
New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr., echoed a similar sentiment. "The Education Equity for DREAMers Act opens up a pathway out of the shadows. New York was built in no small part by the energy and vitality of immigrants. Giving these students a chance to go to college will not only help them, it will help our economy grow,” he said.
Jaqueline Cinto, is co-founder of the NYSYLC, the only undocumented youth-led organization in New York that works on improving access to higher education and creating equal opportunity for immigrant youth and children of immigrants, regardless of immigration status. Cinto also shared her story as members of her organization stood next to her in support.
“I have a college degree, but can’t find work because of my undocumented status,” said Cinto.
Melissa García Vélez, 19 is a student at Lehman College. Despite her undocumented status, she is pursuing a degree in social work thanks to a scholarship rewarding her academic performance. Velez attended the rally in support of students who cannot attend school. PHOTO: Gloria Pazmiño
Turning the lens on the national state of the undocumented student issue, Cinto said it was time for New York to step up to the plate. “In a time when the federal government has failed to act and states are implementing divergent policies affecting immigrants, New York must lead and take a stand,” she said. “California has established that undocumented youth deserve equal opportunity by passing the California Dream Act while states like Georgia and Alabama are undermining the right to education by barring undocumented children from school, it’s time to change this.”
Despite not being able to find a steady job, Cinto is currently dedicating her time to advocating and providing guidance for students like her who are seeking an education.
"There are thousands of students in New York who have been condemned to a life of poverty simply because they were brought to the United States as children," said New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, as she joined the group of students on the stairs of the library. "Their immigration status is determined solely by the status of their parents, and they’re being denied opportunities that the rest of New York takes for granted. It makes no sense. The Board of Regents wants to make sure they have the opportunity to go to college. The Education Equity for DREAMers Act will help make that happen."
Tony Sierra, 28, resident from the Bronx said he supports the Dream Act because it will keep future generations to have to go into immense debt to pursue their education. The CUNY Alumni, who is also currently undocumented, said he paid for his biology degree out of pocket and now has trouble paying back because he can’t find steady work.
“It has been extremely frustrating,” said Sierra. “Passing the DREAM Act will give students the positive reinforcement they need to chase after their education.”
On her way back to Lehman College, Velez continued in her chase.
“I just hope that when I graduate I can use my degree to better my community,” said Velez. “We need to become recognized citizens of this country and our communities so we can give back with our degrees and education.”