Since the foundation of the Undocumented Students Initiative of Columbia University, one of our long-term goals has been to give back to the greater community beyond Columbia’s campus. This semester, we were able to launch College Access for Undocumented Students’ Education—a program that aims to guide undocumented high school students in the New York City area through their college application process.
On the very rainy Saturday morning of October 27, we hosted our first CAUSE event: a four-hour bilingual information session. Despite the bad weather, over 90 students and parents came, with both hope and uncertainty. A mother whose son dreamed of becoming a doctor did not know he had to attend an undergraduate college before medical school. A junior was told by her high school’s college counselor that she could not apply to college without a Social Security number. These and other myths were addressed by our panelists, all undocumented college students, and alumni, whose stories elicited cheers and rounds of applause from the audience.
The information session showed the dangers of miseducation when it comes to college access and how ignorance from college counselors can deter undocumented students from applying to their dream schools. Only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students pursue a college education for a number of reasons, including the high costs of applying and attending college, lack of access to federal funding or loans, discouragement or misinformation from high school counselors, and the need to find work after high school to support themselves and their families.
Furthermore, the achievement gap among NYC high schools has widened in recent years, as a result of an intensely discriminatory school system. Low-income students struggle with underfunded public schools, high student-to-counselor ratios, limited access to advanced programs, and less extracurricular opportunities, on top of after-school responsibilities to help out their families. These barriers to higher education make it clear that meritocracy is a lie, and they are only intensified for undocumented high school students.
Currently, there are roughly 30,000 undocumented students in NYC high schools, forced to navigate the college application process without adequate information, advising, or assistance that caters to their status-specific needs. We want to address this issue with CAUSE, helping undocumented students earn acceptances to colleges they are excited to go to and secure the financial resources to support themselves in college.
While we are incredibly grateful for and proud of the support this project has garnered from the DREAM Teams, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the Columbia College Student Council, Latinx Organizations on campus, and UndoCU’s members and alumni, we are once again frustrated by the Columbia administration’s disregard when it comes to undocumented issues. The University Life liaison and the Office of Multicultural Affairs did not offer substantial support for the CAUSE events, despite their awareness of the initiative. We reached out to request space for the events, and after an initial reply from OMA Dean Melina Aquino on October 25, they never followed up on our request. This should not be surprising in light of the discriminatory manner in which Columbia recruits students. We were able to witness the University’s disregard for low-income predominantly immigrant and PoC high schools firsthand: Many of the schools we called in the tristate area suggested that it was the first time they had ever heard from anyone associated with Columbia University.
The Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ neglect towards prospective undocumented high school students, as well as the ignorance displayed by some college counselors, results in the perpetuation of education segregation against low-income immigrants. As we have explained before, Columbia’s alleged support for undocumented students’ issues has been useless at best—mostly limited to stating that they would not let Immigration and Customs Enforcement question students on campus “without a warrant,” something ICE is already legally not allowed to do. At worst, they left one of our members homeless during spring 2017, and last semester, they left another student at risk of summer homelessness.
We know we have allies on campus. Many of you approached our table during the activities fair. Over 300 students showed up to the walk-out in 2016. And while these efforts are a first step, a congregation on Low Steps does not actually help undocumented high school students gain access to the privileges that a majority of Columbia students have taken for granted in their elite private schools. So now we ask you, Columbia students, to step up where the administration hasn’t. Help address the unjust inequalities that students who live in this very city face, by volunteering at our upcoming CAUSE events.
Our resistance will only grow stronger this year. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned through this whole experience, as our founding member and GSAS alumnus, Bud Gankhuyag, said during the information session, “we have as much of a right to be here as anybody else ... and if people aren’t going to open doors for us, we’ll just bust them wide open.”
UndoCU’s upcoming CAUSE event is a college application clinic, where high school students will receive one-on-one coaching to successfully complete their college and scholarship applications, and help proofreading and organizing their essays and personal statements. It will take place this Friday, December 7. Columbia students can register to volunteer at https://bit.ly/causevolunteers. Undocumented high school students can sign-up to attend the clinic at http://bit.ly/causeclinics.
Note: Jesús Guerra, the Treasurer of UndoCU, is a staff writer for Spectator. He did not contribute to the writing of this piece.
The authors are e-board members of UndoCU, the Undocumented Students Initiative of Columbia University, and this op-ed reflects the views of the organization. UndoCU is Columbia’s first public undocumented student support group of its kind, and it remains an unrecognized, unaffiliated, and independent organization.
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