The burden of being an undocumented college student

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Hina Naveed thought by now she'd be well on her way to finishing medical school.

But the 24-year-old is plodding toward an associates degree in nursing instead.

The reason for her slow progress has nothing to do with smarts - Naveed ranked second in her high school class of more than 350 students - and everything to do with her undocumented status.


At a time when more colleges are opening their doors to undocumented students, a new report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress shows that they face an uphill battle when it comes to staying in school.

Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid or grants. In most states, they are not permitted to pay in-state tuition, and access to scholarships is also limited. Some degrees, including medical and nursing, are generally off-limits to people who cannot present valid social security numbers.

Naveed came to the U.S. from Pakistan legally with her family as a 10-year-old, she said, to seek medical treatment for her older sister, but lapsed out of status several years later when a lawyer misfiled paperwork.

"At the time, I didn't really know how it would affect me," she said.

But now, the reality of being undocumented has become all too clear.

For students like Naveed, these policies have very real and very detrimental consequences.


Photo courtesy of Hina Naveed

After graduating from high school in Massachusetts, Naveed immediately moved with her family to New York. She enrolled in the College of Staten Island and used money from several scholarships that had not asked for immigration status to pay out-of-state tuition for a semester and a half as she worked toward an associates degree in liberal arts and sciences. But then the money ran out and she was forced to enroll part-time. Her father, who owns a wholesale business in Manhattan that sells t-shirts and signs, tried to help out, but with five children, money was tight. Her mother cannot work because Naveed's older sister has special needs and requires care.


Eventually, she earned her associates degree and wanted to apply for nursing school. But, without a social security number, she was barred.

"Medical school was definitely out of the question," she said. "I couldn't even get through undergrad, much less think about pursuing graduate school."


Then, President Obama's deferred action announcement in 2012, which allowed some DREAMers to apply for temporary deportation relief, helped her obtain a work permit and a social security number.

She enrolled in the nursing program part-time and also began working part-time. A scholarship from the New York Immigration Coalition helped alleviate some of the financial burden and Naveed is on track to graduate with an associates in nursing this May. Still, without access to financial aid, things aren't exactly rosy.


"It's a tough burden to bear," she said, of the limitations undocumented status has imposed on her life.

The Center for American Progress report released Friday calls on states to offer undocumented students in-state tuition and on the federal government to open access to Pell Grants. It also urges high schools and colleges to do a better job of mentoring undocumented students and providing them with accurate information about their options for higher education. Right now, the report points out, many educators aren't trained to work with undocumented students and often present conflicting or even inaccurate information. With tuition costs at many state colleges and universities rising, the report argues, these changes could provide relief to undocumented students struggling financially.


Yet gridlock in Congress and tight budgets at local and state levels mean the chances for such reforms on any wide scale are slim, at least in the short-term.

Naveed supports such policy changes and says Obama's recent immigration executive action is a "huge step forward" that will give her parents some relief. But, she added, it's "disheartening" at the same time, because the parameters leave many undocumented people in limbo.


"It makes you feel like the fight is definitely far from over," she said.

As for her future, Naveed feels her job prospects are limited because she's "forced to plan in three-year increments," which is the length of the deportation reprieve deferred action now affords. She also worries that a change in president or policy could take that relief away entirely.


And she bristles at the idea that she doesn't deserve aid or access to scholarships.

"I've been paying taxes since day one," she said. Life as an undocumented American "feels like taxation without representation."


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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