, Salem, MA

September 3, 2012

For immigrant students, college is a step closer

By Jo Kadlecek

---- — Yonerky Santana has been busy lately. Like most college students, Keky, as her friends call her, is preparing for a new semester of classes, juggling limited finances with family and social life as she prepares for what she hopes will be a career in health services.

But Santana is also one of eight student leaders in the North Shore chapter of the Student Immigrant Movement who are helping other immigrant students take what they see as an important step: applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that went into effect Aug. 15.

The two-year policy halts deportation for young people who came to this country before their 16th birthday, lived here five consecutive years, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and are currently under age 30. It also allows them to obtain passports and work permits, necessary provisions for today’s college students.

While it’s not a law or a path to U.S. citizenship, it does provide breathing room for the hundreds of immigrants on the North Shore attending college without permanent residency status.

Born in the Dominican Republic and now a second-year student at North Shore Community College, Santana and other SIM leaders have been partnering with various nonprofit agencies to offer free information and application clinics throughout the Boston area. They’re planning to host one at the community college in Lynn on Sept. 21.

Santana, who is 23 and lives in Lynn, was featured on the “We are Americans” cover of Time magazine in June, along with 30 other young immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. but who are not formally recognized as American residents because their parents entered the country without proper documentation. She was on the bus home from the Time photo shoot in New York City when a friend called her with the news: The new policy would go into effect Aug. 15.

Avi Chomsky, coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies at Salem State University, has mixed feelings about the new policy.

“On the one hand, it’s clearly opening doors for a lot of young people who’ve been living with doors slamming all around them,” she said. “But it’s problematic because the door is so tiny and limited that it’s pitifully fragile. What’s going to happen to them in two years (when the policy ends)?”

Chomsky said she knows of almost 40 undocumented students at Salem State who could benefit from the new policy and said the admissions department is working to make the application process more accessible.

Currently, it’s impossible for such students to qualify for in-state financial aid or scholarships because they lack Social Security numbers. Those who do enroll pay out-of-state tuition fees, which are significantly higher.

A 2006 study by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation concluded that the state’s public colleges would gain millions of dollars if undocumented immigrants were allowed to attend at in-state tuition rates. Even so, Chomsky is concerned that the new policy follows a rationale that implies some undocumented immigrants are more deserving than others.

“It could create a division within the community,” she argues, “because it seems to ask many of these young people to say they’re legitimate or innocent while their parents are criminal. And for what? Bringing them here to get a better life? It seems this could be setting up parents against children, siblings from siblings and cousins from cousins.”

Katherine Asuncion, 19, doesn’t see it that way. She is a second-year business student at Marian Court College in Swampscott and a SIM leader with Santana. Asuncion’s parents are like others she has seen coming to the information clinics: excited for their children to get this opportunity.

“I haven’t seen one parent who is jealous — they’re glad to see their kids succeed and be better than they have been,” she said.

“But it is hard. Many of my friends don’t qualify because they were older when they came. It’s hard to help them find their dreams. It breaks my heart, and my happiness is not complete.”

Asuncion arrived from the Dominican Republic when she was 10 and has struggled financially since. Once she applies under the deferred action policy, she says she’ll be able to get her driver’s license, help her family with the bills and “begin to feel normal.”

Why is she waiting to apply? She’s saving for the $465 application fee and getting her birth certificate translated, both requirements in the process.

In the meantime, she’s working for SIM, helping organize clinics like the one in Lynn.

“When I was younger, I thought eventually the government would do something to help my status,” she said. “Then in high school, it sunk in that they weren’t going to and that it had to be the people helping each other. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

For more information on the deferred action policy or informational clinics, visit the website of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition at