The Hatters' Herald

Undocumented students celebrate law giving access to tuition funds

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State legislators sign the SB4 bill into a law.

State legislators sign the SB4 bill into a law.

Contributed Photo

Contributed Photo

State legislators sign the SB4 bill into a law.

Meghan Edwards, News Editor

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For years, Connecticut’s undocumented students have been unable to receive any institutional financial aid from state public colleges and universities — forcing higher education to be out of reach for many. But, all that will soon change.

The Connecticut Senate voted 30–5 in favor of HB5031 — or SB4, An Act Equalizing Access To Student-Generated Financial Aid — on April 25, with the House of Representatives vote soon after, securing the passing of the bill. This legislation — signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy — ensures that all undocumented students have equal access to institutional aid in the state — it was bipartisan.

The movement was led by CT for a Dream (C4D), a youth-led organization that advocates for the the rights of undocumented students. It had been fighting for SB4’s signing for the past five years, with five attempts to achieve their goal.

One student, junior Denisse Rodas, has been working with the bill for the past two years. She says “When I heard that the bill was passed, I was just so happy because I knew I could receive help and my dream of college could come true.”

Last Saturday, May 19, the group celebrated its long-awaited victory with a light-hearted gathering at an ice cream bar in Wallingford.

The campaign is managed by Camila Bortolleto, who has been lobbying the legislature to pass the bill since its genesis.

She says, “We started in 2013, we saw and knew first hand how hard it was to afford  college as an undocumented immigrant student in Connecticut. So we had an idea to pass legislation to equalize access to institutional aid to undocumented students.”

This bill is especially important to students here at DHS, many of whom are Dreamers (DACA members who were brought into this country as a young child through no choice of their own, lacking the proper documentation) that have their college dreams crushed yearly due to the high expense of university tuition.

Another student — senior Nelson Neira, who was contemplating his own future plans while simultaneously fighting for the bill over the past year — says, “As we all know college is really expensive, not having that aid throws away the dream of going to that ‘dream college’ because you know you’ll never be able to get there just because you don’t have the aid that everyone else does.”

He says that this is a harsh reality for many undocumented students. Rodas says that she knows of many who were forced directly into work upon completion of high school — having to relinquish their hopes of higher education — because their families could not afford anything else.  

Social Studies teacher Julian Shafer began working with the organization last year and testified in Hartford prior to SB4’s approval earlier this year. He argued how fair and sensible the bill really is as with it undocumented students can simply get what they pay for with institutional aid.

“When any student pays their tuition, part of their fees are put into an ‘institutional aid’ pool, where that money then gets distributed to students who need financial aid. Undocumented students, just like anyone else, pay into this fund,” Shafer explains. “As a result of this legislation, undocumented students now have access to the pool of money that they were already contributing to. This bill has zero financial impact on taxpayers; but, will help tear down one of the many barriers undocumented students face when trying to achieve higher education in Connecticut.”

Over the past five years, students, teachers, and other volunteers have been meeting with state legislators, collecting petitions, organizing rallies, sharing personal stories, and even receiving support from the colleges themselves to show and earn favor for the bill, according to Bortolleto.

Rodas recalled her part in the passing of SB4. “I shared my story and told everyone about why the bill is so important not just for me but for all undocumented students who want to go to college and need financial aid” she says. 

But, regardless of the stories and the support, the bill remained being written off and rejected; which made this year’s victory particularly satisfying.

Neira — who witnessed rejection last year — says, “The first year I worked with the organization it didn’t work and it was so disappointing; but, this year it finally happened and… it was worth it, all the work we put in for so many years actually paid off. I was so happy.”

Connecticut has now become the seventh state in the nation to put into law an act providing undocumented students with equal access to institutional aid. SB4 will be fully implemented Jan. 1 2020, with applications for institutional aid in colleges and universities such as Naugatuck Valley, the University of Connecticut and Western Connecticut State University, becoming available.

Undocumented students still cannot receive any aid from the federal government through FAFSA.

It is now Bortolleto and other members of the organization’s hope that the remainder of the country will follow suit and expand the rights of undocumented students.

“It is about time Connecticut begins to treat its undocumented residents humanely and equitably, as valued and valuable community members,” says Shafer. “While we have a long way to go, I’m glad to see Connecticut  take steps in the right direction. We aren’t the first state to pass this legislation, but I hope other states follow the direction this law is taking us in.”

Rodas said that the bill was long overdue and she just hopes that every student like her is now one step closer to achieving their dream.

“We all are humans,” she says. “We all deserve the same rights. We need this aid, and we finally got it.”

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Undocumented students celebrate law giving access to tuition funds