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Immigrants who entered the country illegally often face multiple challenges during university, but different resources are increasingly being made available to them at Penn and beyond.

Photo: Photo Illustration by Emma Hartley

No state ID. No driver’s license. No public benefits. No FAFSA money.

These problems commonly faced by immigrants residing illegally in the country, as listed by Penn for Immigrant Rights, show that getting by is difficult — but getting into a prestigious American university and being able to pay for it is nearly impossible. But that’s all changing now. Immigrants who illegally migrate to the United States are “coming out of the shadows” and joining the ranks of the Ivy League thanks to recent actions by the federal government and University administrations.

The New York Times reported in February that financial aid for migrant students is losing its stigma. Universities have expanded their financial aid programs to meet the needs of immigrants who cannot afford to pay increasing tuition rates and are ineligible, as a result of their legal status, for federal tuition aid programs like Pell grants.

“SFS has never been aware of who is an undocumented student, and [therefore has] treated them as other students,” SFS Director of Communications Marlene Bruno said in a statement. “In 2013-14, we put this in writing since we were receiving questions.”

To reduce financial barriers and foster a sense of community, Penn organizes an “UndocuOrientation” for every incoming class, which familiarizes these students with resources available to them at Penn. It also provides resources through cultural centers such as La Casa Latina, which offers workshops and personalized advice on navigating issues faced by the community.

Undergraduate students themselves are working to make Penn a safer and more welcoming community for those living in the country illegally. Class of 2014 alumna Tania Chairez and Class of 2013 alumnus Angel Contrera founded Penn for Immigrant Rights, an advocacy group that supports immigrants at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia community who have entered the county illegally. The University also offers private aid for these students through its endowment and tuition money, University Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens said in an interview with 34th Street Magazine in spring 2013.

Carstens was unable to respond to requests for comment for this article.

Penn’s actions are on par with a national increase in openness towards financial assistance for immigrants pursuing an undergraduate college education, incited by the Obama administration’s 2012 issuance of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action, which granted immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children permission to stay in the country for a period of time and legally work.

DACA has not only encouraged colleges across the nation to open their coffers to these students, but has also impacted states. California and Texas, among others, have made students living in the country without legal permission eligible for state financial aid programs and legislators in New York are eager to follow suit.

Still, universities have a way to go in reducing financial barriers to admission for these undergraduate students. At Penn, for example, only Mexican and Canadian immigrants are granted the same financial aid as American citizens. The rest are treated like international students, who usually receive little financial aid because Penn is need-aware for these applicants, meaning their financial aid status is incorporated in their admissions decisions. Undocumented students without DACA are not eligible for work-study.

Some think the increased financial acceptance by colleges of students who entered the country illegally is unfair. Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, for example, called financial aid a zero-sum game and noted that by aiding immigrants who are residing illegally, colleges are taking money away from high-achieving, low-income citizens.

Difficulties for these students don’t end with financial aid, even for those whose full need is met. They are often barred from jobs or overlooked by employers who only recruit American citizens. For many, the most difficult aspect of the job search is the lack of information available discussing which companies are willing to hire immigrants who entered the country illegally or non-U.S. citizens, and which are not.

Recognizing this problem, Career Services has made it easier to differentiate between such employers. On the Spring Career Fair app, for example, the list of employers explicitly mentioned whether an employer was interested in speaking with international students.

Lack of information can also be one of the most unsettling aspects of the admissions process. It is difficult enough for high school students to navigate college applications — when immigration status is thrown into the picture, applications become more messy, and immigrants often find themselves applying to dozens of colleges to hedge their bets, or none at all.

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