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Valeria Fern
Published: 25 August 2012

PHOENIX -- Anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona is creating hurdles for undocumented youth wishing to enroll in the new federal "deferred action" program announced by the Obama Administration last June, that would defer deportation for certain undocumented immigrants and allow them to obtain work permits for a renewable period of two years.

To qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), applicants need to have been younger than 16-years-old when they entered the country illegally. They must also meet other criteria, such as being enrolled in high school or having earned a diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate, and an absence of certain criminal convictions.

But in Arizona, a state law – Proposition 300 -- approved by voters in 2006, bars state-funded schools from offering free GED classes to undocumented immigrants, making the path to DACA eligibility difficult for those who may have aged out of the high school system but still wish to become eligible for the new federal program.

Complicating matters further was Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer's executive order last Wednesday that bans access to driver licenses and public benefits for immigrants participating in DACA.

Advocacy groups like the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC), however, are now scrambling to shatter the myth that Proposition 300 removes their right to take the GED exam altogether. Rather, say advocates, it merely bars them from taking GED classes at state institutions.

One alternative, said Dulce Matuz, chairperson of ADAC, is to enroll in GED classes offered for a fee by private institutions.

"Don't be confused, if you can't take classes that doesn't mean you can't take the exam," said Matuz, also one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Although one need not be a legal resident to take the GED exam, test-takers are required to present two forms of identification, which also poses a problem for undocumented youth.

Carmen Cornejo, an advocate at ADAC, said she's been flooded with phone-calls from students who tried to take the GED exam but were turned away because they didn't own a state issued ID. Cornejo said she has been encouraging those students to insist on taking the test, given they can provide a passport or matriculation card.

For undocumented students who need to take the GED exam but can't afford to pay for private classes, there are several other options.

Non-profits like Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) offer free classes through the Workforce Development Center in West Phoenix twice a week, and do not require the presentation of legal documents.

At least 75 percent of the calls the workforce center is currently receiving come from students trying to find out how they can take the GED classes. Demand for the classes, said those at the center, has already outweighed capacity.

"We have a waiting list of at least 30 youth that are asking for our support (to take the classes) since President Obama made his announcement," said Maria Jesus Cervantes, a spokesperson for CPLC.

In response to the higher demand, CPLC will be expanding the number of classes they offer, said Cervantes.

Since community colleges and other learning institutions are barred from offering the GED classes for free because they receive funding from the state, some schools, like Rio Salado Community College, have found a way to circumvent the state law by offering 14-week GED courses online for $90.

"You have to be able to show (a state-issued ID card) in order to take a class in person," said Tom Gariepy, a spokesperson for Maricopa County Community Colleges. "(But online), because you pay for it, there's no requirement to show legal presence."

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are roughly 1.76 million youth eligible for DACA nationally, and about 500 thousand of those are younger than 15-years-old. MPI estimates that 350 thousand of all who qualify for the benefit have neither a high school diploma, nor are enrolled in school.

In Arizona, an estimated 80 thousand kids could benefit from DACA. There's no data on how many of those are currently in high school or have received a diploma.

Advocates like Matuz emphasize that deferred action is one positive step forward, but undocumented youth should continue to fight for the end goal -- legislation like the Dream Act, that could lead to permanent legal status.

"We can't get distracted from our goal," said Matuz. "We need more youth to join the movement and find out what we can do to get a permanent solution."

Immigrant rights activists and attorneys from the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Arizona say that with DACA firmly in place for the foreseeable future, Dreamers should not be rushing to file their applications; rather, they should be taking their time to make sure they get it right.

"There's no expiration for [DACA] right now," said Cornejo.

The silver lining for many students in Arizona is that once they obtain their GED, if they qualify for DACA, getting a college education may become more affordable.

Even though a separate provision of Proposition 300 – the same state law that prohibits undocumented youth from enrolling in free GED courses -- requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition for their education (regardless of how long they lived in Arizona), Obama's plan would allow those same youth to get a work permit and obtain temporary but renewable legal residency, meaning they would be eligible to pay in-state tuition at Arizona universities, after all.

If a student presents a legal work permit and can prove they've been residing in the state for at least one year, said Gariepy, they would technically qualify to pay the in-state-tuition rate.

Governor Brewer's executive order does not specifically mention tuition costs for undocumented students, and immigration attorneys disagree as to whether or not the DACA work permit would allow those students to qualify for in-state tuition.

"Students need to be proactively looking for the information (on how to prepare for the GED). It's time worth investing," said Cornejo. "This is a good step, for the student to start with the GED so they can follow that with a college education and (meet) qualifications for a future immigration process."

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