The prestigious University of California Berkeley just received an important gift. A million dollars, to be used for a very specific purpose: the establishment of scholarships for undocumented students.
The donation, made by the private family foundation Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, descendants of Levi Strauss, founder of Levi's jeans, is the biggest of its kind in the United States.
A controversial decision
At a moment when the Republican Party is wondering whether or not it lost the presidential election because of its harsh stance on immigration issues, and that some conservatives, including former President George W. Bush, are advocating for a softer take on the topic, the decision of the Haars Jr. Fund came in the nick of time and created quite a stir.
Indeed, those who will benefit from these grants are called the Dreamers, these young undocumented migrants who came to the US as children (i.e. without having the choice) and who, despite the fact that they grew up on American soil, studied in American schools and universities, and even worked and paid their taxes, are at constant risk of being deported.
The status of these young people has been the source of quite some controversy now, be it regarding their legalization or their education. The case of the Haas Jr. Fund does not disappoint. If some people think this is a step forward, others believe that this money should go to American students in need and question the philanthropists' rationale.
To which Ira Hirschfield, president of the Fund responds: “Over the years, the Haas, Jr. Fund and the Haas family have supported a wide range of activities at Cal, from research and teaching to athletics and scholarships. In addition to this funding for Dreamer scholarships, the HJF’s support for the U.C. Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity includes a $1.5 million grant to support for scholarships for students from families with low incomes. We are supporting these scholarships for Dreamers because of our belief that all students deserve a level playing field.”
A gift that follows the California Dream Act
This unique gift was made possible because California passed the California Dream Act in 2011. The law allows Dreamers to receive financial aid to pursue their studies. This partly addressed the fact that these young people often cannot afford education fees, especially since they cannot be legally employed to finance their studies.
This legislation is an offshoot of the failed national Dream Act after which these migrants are named. Its aim was to grant those who had spent five consecutive years in the US a temporary resident status, through university or the army.
After this law failed to pass in front of the Congress, the Barack Obama administration put into place "deferred action" which gives them a two-year respite - a temporary fallback solution.
Educate the Dreamers: useful for society as a whole
There are an estimated 200 undocumented students at U.C. Berkeley and 5000 in the state of California. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in the US 1.8% of students from kindergarten to 12th grade were undocumented in 2010 (and 6.8% had unauthorized immigrant parents...)
This is the case of Cristian Aguilar, an U.C. Berkeley undocumented student who arrived from Mexico at the age of nine. "Some people have been here since the age of one or two and don't even know their native language. The more people get educated, especially from a university like Berkeley, the more it will benefit society as a whole, because they will contribute to it in different ways", he explains.
When we ask Cristian Aguilar, who is deeply involved with undocumented students on campus, what is the added value that these youngsters can bring to American society, he talks about the diversity of cultures, of course, but also of a very specific experience: that of the "fear of being caught and deported". "We can share our stories, our endless struggles to pay the rent, pay for school, pay for food. I used to be afraid but I am not anymore. Today, I help people learn their rights, come out of the shadow and accept that what we have lived, this fear and these struggles, make us unique. Not everyone has been through that. And sharing it can make [those who haven't] more open-minded."
Which Ira Hirschfield confirms: "The young people who will benefit from these scholarships have beaten the odds and have proven themselves as exceptional, hard-working students. These kids are Americans in every way but on paper. They grew up here and yet they are not eligible for federally backed loans or work-study positions. They need this support to help them complete their studies."
Beyond grants for students
Of course, one can ask what these students will do once they graduate since they will not be legally allowed to work, unless they benefit from the deferred action and can get work permits and Barack Obama lives up to the commitment he made during the presidential election and supports the Dream Act that is supposed to be introduced again in the US Congress after the presidential inauguration in January 2013.
For the Haas foundation and its president as well, the buck does not stop here: "This is a nation of immigrants — we always have been and we always will be. Supporting the Dreamers is important. But we also need to go the next step and do the work needed to fully integrate them and their families into our communities and our civic life. That’s why, in addition to providing this scholarship support, we continue to invest in organizations that are educating the public about the need for immigration reform.”
Credit: Flickr/ mdfriendofhillary