Five undocumented immigrants joined the freshman class this year, according to La Casa Latina, the cultural resource center for Latino students.
While most students arrive on campus ready to share their stories with roommates and friends, these five students took extra precaution to ensure that they kept part of their background secret — their immigration status.
Undocumented immigrants are individuals who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents but live in the United States. The Urban Institute, an independent analysis center, estimates that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Although there is no federal or state law that prohibits universities from admitting undocumented immigrants, many assume that they cannot legally attend college because they are not eligible for federal financial aid.
In recent years, there have been a number of undocumented immigrant students at Penn, according to La Casa Latina Associate Director America Espinal. The five who arrived this year were initially brought to La Casa’s attention through the Admissions Office, which gives the center a list of undocumented immigrant students to reach out to at the beginning of each year, according to Espinal.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda declined to comment, and Student Financial Services spokeswoman Marlene Bruno maintained that her office was unaware of undocumented students at Penn.
According to La Casa Director Johnny Irizarry, private institutions such as Penn have the capacity to support undocumented students. “The Ivies have the resources to do that,” he said. “They have the private donations that can allow them to be more welcoming.”
When working with a student who is not a citizen or permanent resident, Student Financial Services will not include federal aid as part of the need-based financial aid package, according to Penn’s Office of the General Counsel.
A College sophomore from Arizona, who wished to remain anonymous because she is undocumented, said her immigration status influenced her strategy when applying to college. “I only applied to Ivy League schools,” she said. “It really made a difference in terms of the classes I’d take and the amount of dedication I put into school.”
“I applied as an international student, but submitted U.S. tax returns. I directly called all of the schools I was applying to clarify my situation,” she said, adding that Penn was helpful and told her, “if you have the grades, if you are a qualified student, you will be in this school regardless.”
When applying for financial aid, she said she filled out a supplementary form for international students. “Financial aid was a little tricky for me,” she said. “After I got the aid I was eligible for work study, but I can’t work because I don’t have a Social Security number.”
According to Espinal, students usually approach La Casa with questions about financial aid. “Sometimes they have to take out loans and don’t have a Social Security number,” she said. “So we speak to people in financial aid to explain their situation and they are very good at helping us.”
In addition to obtaining financial aid, one of the biggest challenges that students who are undocumented immigrants face is “the fear of being discovered,” said College junior and MEChA Vice President Ollin Venegas. Many students keep their immigration status a secret and only disclose it to their closest friends.
This can cause many students in the United States illegally to feel “shut off” according to Venegas, who added that MEChA — Penn’s Chicano cultural group — is at its preliminary stages of forming a support network for undocumented students at Penn.
Espinal also agreed that “a general support system is needed” in order to streamline efforts to support undocumented students. Currently, students visit their individual cultural centers, but it is unclear whether the needs of all undocumented students are being met.
“There should be a system across the University, not just in the individual centers,” Espinal said.
Undocumented students at Penn are at risk of being deported due to the political climate surrounding immigration reform, according to Adam Goodman, a third-year History doctoral candidate who is conducting research on deportation in the United States.
Goodman said there has been an increase in the number of young people of color that are being targeted for deportation in recent years.
According to Goodman, there are many situations that could cause an undocumented student to be discovered and deported — ranging from committing a minor offense such as a traffic violation to immigration checks.
Currently, “Penn Police do not conduct background checks on individuals to determine their immigration status unless there is a specific reason as part of their investigation,” Division of Public Safety spokeswoman Stef Cella wrote in an e-mail. Penn Police would only notify federal authorities if an undocumented immigrant were identified in the course of an investigation, she added.
However, this could soon change according to Goodman, as the Obama Administration is planning to implement a federal immigration database throughout the country. As a result, “localities won’t have an option to opt out,” he said. “Any time anyone is arrested, officers will be required to run their name through a federal immigration database.”
“There’s no political will for immigration reform right now,” he said, in reference to the upcoming November elections. “There’s been an upsurge in nativism, partly because of the economic downturn. There’s also been a fear of the United States becoming more Latino or Mexican.”