Thursday, September 24, 2020

'DreaMSU' sheds light on challenges faced by immigrant, undocumented students

September 26, 2019
<p>Graduate student Juan Mascorro-Guerrero poses for a portrait on Sept. 18.</p>

Graduate student Juan Mascorro-Guerrero poses for a portrait on Sept. 18.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

For immigrant and undocumented students, attending Michigan State means facing a number of obstacles, including a lack of resources and MSU’s policy that they must pay international student tuition rates.

DreaMSU, a student organization that advocates for more inclusive policies for immigrant and undocumented communities at MSU, aims to highlight the issues Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients and undocumented students go through while attending the university. 

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The new organizations’ title refers to the DREAM Act, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. 

“I saw a really unique opportunity to give back to a community that has been discriminated against,” DreaMSU Fundraising Chair Finn Hopkins said. “There’s a lot of things MSU can be doing better.”

Hopkins said he hopes to see the organization inspire others to be aware of the policies in place at MSU. DreaMSU Social Media Chair Isha Nigam’s parents and sister are first-generation immigrants. She said one of the reasons she joined DreaMSU was because of how difficult it was for her sister to navigate through the college application process.

“She was kind of just on her own,” Nigam said. 

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DreaMSU’s president, Shiksha Sneha, spoke at the MSU Board of Trustees meeting Sept. 6 and highlighted what her organization aims to do this year. 

“I moved here when I was 11 years old,” Sneha said. “I considered myself a Michigander, which is why I was surprised and confused when Michigan State not only identified me as an international student, but also asked me for international tuition.”

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Sneha said she was lucky her dad was vigilant enough to go to many different departments and meet with several people — many of whom were unsure of what to do given her non-citizen status — until they found someone who could help. 

“Many students want to become Spartans but choose not to because they know they can’t get out of this international student classification,” Sneha said. 

The National Forum at the University of Michigan conducted a study that assessed how accessible Michigan’s two and four-year public higher education institutions were in admission, tuition, residency and financial aid policies for undocumented students.

Within the study, MSU received one out of four stars for “general support” of undocumented students. The criteria listed under a one star reads, “Website lacks information about undocumented student resources and policies at institution,” according to the study.

The University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University each received a four out of four stars, which, according to the study, means each institution “has a resource center or program for undocumented students on campus, identifiable through the website.”

Graduate student Juan Mascorro-Guerrero spoke about the differences between his experiences attending Grand Valley State University and MSU at the board meeting. 

“I graduated cum laude from GVSU because they believed in me and had resources for people like me,” Mascorro-Guerrero said. “They provided financial aid to DACA and undocumented students and had a staff member who directly worked with these students. ... I want Michigan State University to be more cognizant about the systematic barriers that DACA and undocumented students face while trying to enroll and persist through Michigan State.”

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Psychology junior Brenda Pilar shared her frustration in being categorized as an international student at MSU.

“We came to America when I was two months old, and I actually grew up in Lansing,” Pilar said. “That’s what was frustrating to me. To have lived less than ten minutes away from campus my entire life but (still) being classified as an international student.” 

Pilar said she didn’t know she would be charged with international student tuition until a few weeks before classes.

“I still remember sitting in front of the computer just crying. ... And after a few minutes, I just wiped my tears away,” Pilar said. “I feel like they just don’t understand. We’re just in a gray area. We don’t fit in one or the other.”

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Pilar said she’s fortunate to be able to qualify for in-state tuition after making numerous phone calls. She also said there are ways MSU can better engage undocumented students. 

MSU recently joined more than 600 colleges and universities in a letter to Congress regarding DACA and support for Dreamers.

“Overall, the university is dedicated to being a welcoming, inclusive community and that includes for our undocumented employees and students,” University Spokesperson Emily Guerrant said in an email. “We believe our campus is strengthened by the ability to learn from people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, as it enriches the conversation and challenges us to grow and think more broadly.”

House Bill 4798 — introduced by Rep. Yousef Rabhi, who represents Michigan’s 53rd House District and is currently serving as the Democratic floor leader — was first introduced June 26. The bill intends to express legislative intent in support of in-state tuition rates for certain non-citizen students. 

“I think if an undocumented DACA recipient student meets the residency requirements, they should have access to the in-state tuition level,” Rabhi said. “They and their families have been paying taxes in the state of Michigan, and thus contributing to the success of Michigan State University. It is unacceptable that we are treating two different groups of taxpayers differently.”

Currently, the bill hasn’t been a priority to Republicans, Rabhi said, and is seen as an uphill battle. 

“Since the 2016 elections, there has been a massive attack on immigrants in general and that’s not the society that I want to live in,” Rabhi said. “I wake up every morning thinking of ways that I can fight for my neighbors, whether they’re documented or not.”

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Sneha said she believes this is something that can be fixed and something that is achievable.

“Having a website up just for students who are undocumented or non-citizens is not that big of an ask,” Sneha said.  “We’re not asking for money, we’re not asking for anything else, we are just asking for an official website that people can go to.” 

Hopkins said although DreaMSU’s goal of establishing a “Dream Center” at the university will most likely not be achieved while they’re still students, he hopes to build a solid foundation so it eventually can be. 

“Our goal would be to inspire more change at Michigan State,” Hopkins said. “If that can inspire other students to come join us or at least be more aware of the policies at Michigan State, I consider that a success.”

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