Extra Challenges Students with Varied Statuses Face in Higher Education: A Personal Story

This a sensitive topic, and I do not think it should be. I am a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipient from El Salvador, and as much as it is very intimidating to be writing this blog post today, I think many people should know TPS and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients like me struggle financially to meet our goals more so than any other legal status recipient, such as legal permanent residents (LPRs), and U.S. citizen (USCs) Latinos.

Graduating from college, let alone law school, as a TPS/DACA recipient is a miracle. You are either very blessed to have received a scholarship that does not consider your legal status as an issue, wealthy, or a badass hustler to survive. Usually, it's because we are badass Latinx hustlers-- in my case, a Badass Lawtina Hustler.  

Many people have some knowledge of  DACA, but may not know much about TPS.

According to America’s Voice Education Fund, Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, was established by Congress through the Immigration Act of 1990. TPS is intended to protect foreign nationals in the U.S. from being returned to their home country if it became unsafe during the time they were in the U.S. and returning would put them at risk of violence, disease, or death.

For many, TPS has been around for decades. In my case, I have been on TPS since 2001. Over half of my life, I have called the U.S. my home. TPS, like DACA, grants the opportunity to work and study with an employment authorization document (EAD) and a social security number. Unfortunately, TPS is a temporary benefit that does not lead to lawful permanent resident status or gives any other immigration status. Just in the summer of 2018, while I was studying for the bar, TPS was terminated by our current administration and is currently on hold until January 2020.

Here are five challenges I faced, and many TPS/DACA students face, trying to earn a degree. When society wonders why our percentage of representation in higher education is low compared to our counterparts, these challenges are the reason!

Challenge Number 1: Difficulty getting the Admissions Office to understand your legal status because they don't know "WHAT" you are...

Right out of high school, I did not know that I was on TPS. My legal status was somewhat up in the air in my mind, and I tried not to think about it on top of the daily racism that already weighed heavily on my mind. (I grew in Southern Indiana, where the KKK started, and it was rough). I remember my parents telling me "Mija, you are going to la Universidad and that is that!" I thought, okay then my parents will help me figure this out. No, they could not. Granted, having parents who speak limited English and who do not know how the U.S. college/university system works is a challenge any first-generation immigrant Latino/Hispanic faces. But when you are on TPS, and less than 320,000 people have this status in the U.S., it can be challenging explaining to universities/colleges what TPS is and why you are able to study in their school.

For me, the struggle began when I had to answer "What is your legal status in the U.S."  on my college or law school applications. Fortunately, some schools have educated themselves, especially in large Latino population states, and instead, ask "are you authorized to study/work in the U.S."

Not understanding what TPS authorized me to do as an 18-year-old Latina in 2009 caused anxiety. I did not know how to answer this question and knew that it was not okay to lie.

So, I remember having to put "other" under status and when college admissions offers began arriving in the mail, I thought that was it. Until it came to deciding which school I wanted to attend. As I reached out to the admissions offices to ask questions regarding their admission and scholarship offers, schools began telling me they could not give me the scholarships they offered because they did not know what was TPS and how I could have a social security number. I tried to send them links by email, I tried to explain to them over the phone and spoke to different departments, and nothing. This was 2009, and being on TPS was something the average "American" did not hear about. Then came the question of "residency."

Challenge Number 2: Residency Requirements

Because my out-of-state undergraduate schools pulled their scholarship offers, and I could not afford to pay out-of-state tuition, I looked at my home state’s schools in Indiana. I contacted my first choice school in Indiana to inquire about scholarships they offered. These scholarships were partial tuition scholarships, but the amount I would pay out of pocket was minimal. When they asked to verify my "citizenship," again they questioned what status I had and why I had my own social security number and whether it was mine. Of course, it is mine and it was issued by the U.S. government agency, I would explain. So my first choice school said the scholarship was available as an in-state resident, but only to legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens. I was back at square one for undergrad. In undergrad, I ended up attending my safety school, but without scholarship offers and no knowledge from my part on how to ask for scholarships. Even though my safety school had accepted my legal status, I remember in 2011 receiving a call from a private number. It was an admissions officer from my university calling me off work hours to ask me about my legal status. To say the least, he no longer works for my university but I am not saying he was fired because of this, but I did let someone know how uncomfortable this felt and they alerted the university. These issues arose between 2008 to 2013.

Then came applying for law school in 2013.

Those from conservative states may remember when a series of bills were passed in various states in 2010-2011 barring public universities from providing undocumented and certain nonimmigrant students from receiving in-state tuition rates because of the idea that providing in-state tuition to undocumented/nonimmigrant status students meant an economic loss.  

Because I went after the second degree in college, I graduated again in December 2013. I, therefore, planned to intern for the Indiana State Senate in the spring of 2014 during my gap semester. I met State Senator Greg Taylor during this time, as well as attorney and activist Angela Adams. They were a blessing, and you'll see why next.

My choice of law school was narrowed down to being able to pay tuition and living expenses. Although I was offered scholarships again, law school was substantially more expensive. My best choice would be to attend a home state public school and pay in-state tuition. So I thought it was easy to decide, and move forward. Unfortunately, my school of choice did not provide me with good enough scholarships and when it was time to accept their offer, I realized I could not pay tuition. Instead, I talked to admissions and they offered their evening program. This meant I would attend law school part-time, and work full-time. I would be graduating in four years. Well, not everything was perfect but I would still be attending law school. So my family and I made a decision and agreed on a law school.

Then I received an email requesting that I verify my citizenship again. I submitted my EAD and social security number and thought  "hey, they are a law school. They will know what my status means." I was wrong. They bounced me around offices, trying to figure out if I would be allowed to attend their university as an in-state student. Additionally, I was asked to provide evidence of my residency in the state.

In Indiana, and in several other states, in-state tuition is not available to students who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents unless they have been "grandfathered" in by attending or graduating from a university or college by/before 2011 through Senate Enrolled Act (SEA) 207. I did not know this information. I submitted my transcripts, and was told this was "not enough." I then received an email wanting to know how long I had been living in Indiana. I replied that I have been in Indiana since 1999, and was then told to submit evidence from the time I arrived in Indiana until my college graduation. I was shocked. I had to submit my transcripts from third grade! That is from my elementary school until college graduation. I did not understand why they were asking for so much, but they said it was to confirm that I was a resident of this state and if I could receive in-state tuition. I felt that law school seemed like an impossibility, and my dreams were slipping between my fingertips.

I emailed Senator Taylor, who I met while interning for the Indiana Senate. He attended law school and told me to reach out to him if I needed anything. I was also connected to attorney and immigration activist Angela Adams through networking with Senate staff. Both of them reached out to the school, and quoted SEA 207, and explained that I was part of the exception and that the school should not be requesting so much information. Because I was enrolled in a university before 2011, I was allowed to pay in-state tuition. Yet, This never left me because this means that my fellow TPS/Undocumented/DACA students could not receive in-state tuition in the future. To this day, even after fighting it for over 10 years, the law has not changed in Indiana nor has it changed in other states.

Challenge Number 3: We Don't Qualify for Private or Federal Loans

Paying for tuition for undocumented students is close to impossible, and I am grateful to have a work permit and social security number. Yet, for TPS/DACA students, having these documents is both a blessing and a curse. You are legally able to work and study, you are able to pay your taxes with your own social security number but if you need help paying for education from private lenders or the government, then you are asking for too much. Getting any financial help from the government/private lenders is not going to happen unless you have a legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen person willing to co-sign a private loan up to or more than $115K for tuition.

I understand the arguments on why there are restrictions, but for TPS/DACA students who grew up and understand that the U.S. feels like their home, these barriers are so incredibly difficult to face because it hinders our dreams. TPS/DACA students enrich society through higher education with their work and small businesses. In my view, they only enrich our state’s economy. See studies.

I tried applying to big student loan companies like Sallie Mae and Discovery. Both required that I have a co-signer who was a U.S. citizen or legal permanent residence with a good or great credit score. But when you're a part of a community that is mainly undocumented and/or living in poverty, who are you going to ask? After graduating from law school, my mother confessed to me that she asked some of her closest LPR friends and USC friend to cosign on a private loan for me. Of course, they declined, an $115K loan is no joke. In addition, the reason I was denied and I was asked to have an LPR/USC co-sign was because my status has to be renewed every 18 months, and to these companies being in “limbo” does not guarantee a loan will be repaid. I understand this concept, but do you see how difficult it is for us to reach higher education goals?

I filled out my FAFSA each year until I realized there was no point because I would never qualify because of my status. Not even if my parents met the financial requirements, having TPS meant we were on our own in paying tuition for both undergrad and law school.

Challenge Number 4: The Reality of Paying for Tuition

A student once messaged me, right after I launched Lawtina LLC, asking to share my knowledge of how I paid for tuition. My heart sank because I do not have a secret, I don't have a magic pill, nor do I have the funds to pay for it. At least right now, what I can only recommend is that we need bigger changes.

As I mentioned before, I ended up attending my safety net undergraduate school, with my parents help and working up to five part-time jobs at the same time and taking full-time classes, I graduated from college twice. It was hard paying tuition, and it was difficult for my family as a whole. Although Dr. Rochon, who is now President of my Alma Mater did provide scholarships for me, my brother, and my mother, and we are so grateful-- these scholarships only covered a small portion, which still made a difference in our lives, but these were not enough.

Law school was a different monster. I worked full-time, with sometimes picking up side-jobs to make ends meet, and my parents and brother worked one full-time job each and sometimes two, just to help make tuition payments. Paying tuition little by little each month drained us. This was our reality. A reality most TPS/DACA students face, a harsher reality when you do not have a support system of family/parents to help you on your way. These are some of the reasons our community is falling behind, and why so many choose to work labor jobs instead and forget about education. Higher education is for the privileged in the U.S., and it should not be that way.

Challenge Number 5: Private Scholarships are selective of Legal Status Too

Once in law school, I remember seeking the help of a very nice staff member who was also Latina. She encouraged me to enter writing competitions, apply for private scholarships based on diversity or merit, and to apply for internal law school scholarships. Although most of these scholarships are very competitive, a challenge I faced as a TPS recipient was, again, my immigration status. The majority of scholarships in writing competitions or private scholarships required a student to be an LPR or USC. Although I did receive fellowships from my law school to travel and work in a different city, I was never selected as a need-based scholarship recipient. At times I had to go to food pantries for food, or was scared about paying rent the next month-- no matter what I wrote on my internal law school scholarship application, for some reason I was not selected. I know this may be just my personal experience, but I also believe law schools need to be more considerate of TPS/DACA students because our drive to thrive is strong, and we need support.

Education is important for a community to grow. It allows for economic and intellectual growth of a community. My call to you, as you read this article is to advocate for positive TPS/DACA immigration reforms, to advocate for in-state tuition in your state if you are living in a state that bars our immigrant students from reaching their goals, and to share your story because without coming forward, no one will know that they need to stand by our side.

Your support to Lawtina through purchases, will keep our stories going, support our efforts in projects that advocate for Latino communities. Additionally, 10% of profits is being put aside to create and fund the Lawtina Foundation.

Thank you.

Cindy Petrov Alfaro

CEO/Founder of Lawtina LLC

Please follow Cindy and her drive to advocate for Latinx students on instagram/FB at @CindyPetrovAlfaro.