Thursday, March 1, 2012

Undocumented and unafraid

Meet Isabel Castillo. She is 27, a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, and a proud holder of a bachelor's degree in social work.

She is also undocumented and unafraid.

Isabel came to the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was 6 years old. She started first grade in Virginia and has lived there for 21 years. To Isabel, America is her home country.

(L-R) Reps. Johanson, Nishimoto, Takumi
I met Isabel Wednesday during a meeting she and five of her fellow activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) had with Representatives Roy Takumi, Scott Nishimoto, Ty Cullen, Henry Aquino, and Aaron Johanson. NIYA is an undocumented youth-led organization focused on achieving equality for all immigrant youth, regardless of their legal status.

“I grew up watching 'Barney' and eating pizza,” she said, while sharing her life story and struggles with being an undocumented student. Isabel never realized the implications of being undocumented until she got to high school and started looking at applying to colleges and considering funding options.

Without the ability to prove residency in her home state, Isabel was ineligible for in-state tuition, waivers, or other financial resources, essentially denying her access to higher education.

Twelve states currently allow undocumented student residents to pay in-state tuition and access to financial aid and other benefits, within the limits of federal law.

Like Virginia, Hawaii is not one of them.

Undocumented students who have grown up here and call Hawaii home face the barrier of prohibitive financial expenses, not to mention fears of deportation and the inability of securing gainful employment.

This week Isabel and other NIYA youth activists led a Youth Empowerment Summit at the University of Hawaii where they met with 50 Hawaii youth who share Isabel's background.

Rep. Roy Takumi
We heard about a young man named Raul, a junior from Lahaina, Maui. After emigrating from Mexico with his family at 11 years old, Raul has since called Maui home. In 2009, his father was deported, and Raul is afraid that he will also be deported. He wants to go to college in the U.S., but recently found out that the school he was considering does not accept undocumented students. “It was really hard for me, but I’m trying my best,” he said in a video NIYA shared with us.

Then there’s Sam, a 21-year-old Ewa Beach resident who came to Hawaii from Tonga with his family when he was very young. At age 18, his family started the process to become legal citizens. Unfortunately, before his legal status was finalized, Sam turned 21 and aged out of the process, meaning he could no longer be processed with his family and would have to reapply for legal status as an individual, which could take years. Sam is currently going through court proceedings to deal with his immigration status.

At the Legislature this session, lawmakers introduced a measure to address these education issues that create financial barriers for young residents who have called Hawaii home for many years.

Rep. Takumi, chair of the Education Committee, and Rep. Nishimoto, chair of the Higher Education Committee, introduced HB1674, which aligns with the proposed federal legislation known as the Dream Act.

HB1674 would extend eligibility for state financial aid and resident tuition to local undocumented students of the University of Hawaii who meet certain specified criteria.

Although the measure passed the Higher Education Committee, it was deferred in the House Finance Committee last week.

Despite this setback, the young students from NIYA were eager to applaud and thank Reps. Takumi and Nishimoto for their efforts in changing policy to give young undocumented residents a chance to continue in academics.

For now, like Isabel in Virginia, these students must make do with what is available to them, most options being forgoing higher education or returning to a country they do not know. In Isabel's case, after a stint working as a waitress, she was accepted into a private university that took undocumented students. With the help of community resources, she was able to secure grants from Latino organizations to pay for half of her tuition. However, it is still difficult for her to find employment, but with America's broken immigration system, she says, her social work degree is put to good use advocating on behalf of other undocumented youth who are not as lucky as she was.

At the end of the meeting, Rep. Nishimoto gave his final remarks and expressed to the members of NIYA something that I'm sure resonated with everyone in the room. "Thank you for putting a face to this bill," he said.

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