Undocumented students at Mason

DREAMer explains situation of undocumented students to students and faculty (photo by Niki Papadogiannakis)
DREAMer explains situation of undocumented students to students and faculty (photo by Niki Papadogiannakis)

When Dayana Torres was a senior in high school, she received full-ride scholarships to five different colleges.

“When I received the letters from the schools, I looked at the bottom and it said that a social security number was required to accept the scholarship,” Torres said.

Torres found out from her parents that she did not have a social security number, and thus she could not accept the scholarships.

Torres was born in Colombia and lived there with her parents until they decided to move to the United States because of unstable political and economic conditions in their home country.

Because Torres did not have the proper documentation to accept her scholarships, she decided to attend Mason.

Mason accepts undocumented students, like Torres, who are not citizens and do not have legal documentation of their residency in the United States either because their visa expired or they were brought to the U.S. unauthorized. These students are often first-generation college students and must often pay out-of-state tuition without the help of loans, grants or other federal financial aid.

With the help of a family friend, several scholarships and jobs, Torres was able to attend Mason and is now a sophomore studying computer science. She is also the president of DREAMers of Virginia, an organization that advocates for education and immigration reform and provides resources for undocumented student who want to attend college.

“DREAMers are very driven people who overcome adversity and have dreams of obtaining in-state tuition,” said Jorge Velasquez, president of Mason DREAMers, a student-run advocacy group for undocumented students.

The Mason DREAMers hosted Immigration 101 and 201, a two-part information series on immigration laws and how they affect students at Mason and the undocumented community as a whole.

"Mason allows admission, but out-of-state and resources like financial aid and career services don't have the legal knowledge of dealing with undocumented students," Velasquez said at Immigration 201. The event featured a panel of university officials to whom the DREAMers presented models from other universities that provide resources for undocumented students.

The members addressed what they thought are problems that undocumented students run into when applying to Mason, including having to pay out-of-state tuition, not being able to apply for financial aid and not having a clear path or access to people who know how to handle undocumented student situations.

“When I applied for college, all I did was fill out FAFSA and the application,” Velasquez said. “That’s it.”

Undocumented students cannot fill out FAFSA because they do not have a social security number. They also usually must apply as out-of- state or international students because of their residency status.

Mason DREAMers suggested several areas of improvement for the university's relations with undocumented students, including encouraging undocumented student enrollment, alleviating financial aid burden and increasing student resources and success. 

"We want to fully support Mason DREAMers because their goals are [University Life's] goals," said Rose Pascarell. Pascarell, the vice president of University Life, was also on the Immigration 201 panel.

LaMan Dantzler, associate university registrar for certification in the office of the university registrar, deals with in-state tuition appeals. Dantzler encourages students to bring their individual situations to the registrar to have an individual assessment for each person's ability to qualify for in-state tuition.

"We want to help," Dantzler told the audience at Immigration 201. "We want to make sure that you are treated fairly."

The State Council for Higher Education of Virginia keeps an eye on how Mason grants in-state tuition to undocumented students because of the high population of immigrants in Northern Virginia, according to Philip Hunt, director of development for access initiatives. 

"We preach consistency, constantly," Hunt said.

Only a few people in the university have the knowledge to be able to give guidance to undocumented students because there is no formal training for staff to understand the laws that dictate how undocumented students should be handled. The Mason DREAMers want to create safe-zone training similar to what the LGBTQ Resources office provides.

"We want to train people in other offices so that undocumented students know that there are resources for them specifically in each office," Velasquez said.

Velasquez noted that when a student looks online for information about undocument students at Mason, the search comes up blank and they are redirected to information about international students.

Pascarell said the lack of this information is due to the former lack of demand for it and that student initiatives can aid the administration in created the sufficient resources. The same kind of initative created the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning Resources Office amid political tensions similar to those of undocumented students, Pascarell said.

"I promise you," Pascarell said. "We'll respond more effectively as a response to this."

Some undocumented students at Mason have sought refuce in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education. The help of Jennifer Crewalk, assistant director and STEP coordinator in ODIME, is one resource that Mason unofficially provides to undocumented students. 

"The most important thing I do is listen," Crewalk said, who is also on the advisory board for the Mason DREAMers.

Being undocumented is often a hidden identity and some students feel isolated, Crewalk said. She argued that for students to have the motivation to stay in school, espe­cially if they have to work to pay for college and may take a semester or year off, they need to establish a relationship with someone at Mason. Crewalk has helped students in the past and those students often think of her when someone they know in a similar situation needs help.

“[Students] find a place on campus to be yourself and not feel like you’re being judged,” Crewalk said.

In Virginia, people like Torres qualify for DACA - the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy that allows students to receive a driver’s license, temporary suspension of deportation and authori­zation to work in the U.S, but not citizenship.

“We live in a state where basically the legislation handcuffs us in this process,” said Matt Boyce, the senior associate director of admissions. “A lot of what we have to do is push legislation forward.”

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