When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I had a friend who told me he wanted to help a group of students get the financial help they needed to go to college. These were good students from working class families, yet government laws prevented them from receiving financial aid. Why? Because they were not able to become legal residents of the United States, even though many of them attended school in this country all of their lives and didn’t even know they were not “legal.”
After we graduated from college, my friend decided to do something about what he believed was a great injustice. His name was Marco Antonio Firebaugh and in 2001, when he was serving in the California State Assembly, he authored Assembly Bill 540.
Known as AB540, this law allowed undocumented students in California who met certain criteria to pay resident college fees rather than nonresident fees””which could be up to triple the cost”” at community colleges, Cal State and UC campuses.
Although AB540 played a major role in advancing opportunities for undocumented students, the bill did not provide financial assistance. AB540 students have faced major obstacles paying for college because only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were eligible for federal and state financial aid.
That’s when by Boyle Heights resident and Roosevelt High School alumni, Assemblymember Gil Cedillo introduced more opportunities for undocumented students. He authored Assembly Bills 130 and 131, together known as the California Dream Act, which granted undocumented college students access to private scholarships and grants as well as publicly-funded state financial aid available to U.S. citizens and legal residents. The California Dream Act was passed into law by the California State Assembly and supported by Governor Brown in late 2011.
Starting in January 2013, AB540 students will be able to qualify for state grants. Grants are monies for college that do not have to be paid back. These include Cal Grants, university grants, community college BOGG fee waivers, grants for foster youth, and EOP grants. But they will still have to wait for the federal version of the DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, in order to access federal financial aid and have a pathway to permanent residency and work authorization.
As a college counselor, I have had the pleasure of helping this population of students who work extra hard and face more barriers accessing college and employment than other students. Yet they are persistent, intelligent, eager to help their families and community, and full of hope for the future. Because these students are articulate and well organized they have been able to advocate for their rights through the democratic process.
The work of advocates like the late Honorable Marco A. Firebaugh and Assemblymember Gil Cedillo has provided opportunities for many young people to improve their lives and their communities through education.
It is time to make their dreams come true and no barriers can stop this human progress: undocumented, unafraid, and going to college.
Applications for the California Dream Act are available now and there is help for students on how to complete the forms. Information about AB 540, the Dream Act, and scholarships can be found at these websites below.
California Student Aid Commission
Dream Act Information and Application
Los Angeles Cash for College
Financial Aid and Resources for College
Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC)
Supporting Undocumented Students in Pursuit Of College, Career and Contribution
California Dream Network
Connecting Undocumented Students in California Colleges
I Can Afford College
Information for the California Community Colleges
Luz Montavlo is a Boyle Heights resident and college counselor at California State University, Los Angeles.