Thursday, 09 October 2014 00:00

Students with deferred-action status face obstacles in higher education Featured

Written by Dylan Chesser
Carolina Siliceo, left, prepares to speak at East Tennessee State University's Hispanic Student Day. Carolina Siliceo, left, prepares to speak at East Tennessee State University's Hispanic Student Day. Dylan Chesser

A woman stands before a crowd of fellow North Carolinians, prepared to deliver a speech on a topic of great importance to her.

Carolina Siliceo Perez told how, as a college student, she stood in line to register for classes after the other students, paid out-of-state tuition without having access to financial aid and feared being pulled over every time she drove a car. She experienced these things because she is an illegal immigrant.

The scene was "Moral Monday," an event in Asheville, North Carolina, sponsored by the NAACP to address topics of social reform. Siliceo came to share reasons why she believes the U.S. needs immigration reform.

"I experienced discrimination firsthand and, in a Rosa Parks-like scenario, was thrown to the back of the list for registering for classes although I was paying three times more to attend community college out of my own pocket," Siliceo said at the event, which took place Aug. 4, 2014. "I remember hardly scraping up enough money for $800 monthly tuition payments."

Siliceo, now 22, was born into a prominent family in Mexico City and moved to the U.S. with her mother when she was 2. Her mother brought her to this country to live what she calls a "riches-to-rags story."

"We were part of this society that I no longer felt a part of, and a society that would've expected me to have proper etiquette," she said.

"Right now, I'm doing this really cool ... recovery mode. I'm in this mode where I'm picking up where I left off when I was so busy working and trying to get through school."

—Carolina Siliceo

After her divorce, Siliceo's mother hoped her family would have a better life in the country where her brothers were already making better lives for themselves. That decision led Siliceo to grow up in America, which meant splitting her time between North Carolina and Florida so that her family could continue to do farm work throughout the year. After working hard in high school, she decided to go to college.

 MG 0592After graduating in spring 2014 with her bachelor's degree in English from Brevard College in Brevard, North Carolina, Siliceo said she has taken time to distance herself from the stress and agitation of putting herself through college.

"Every year that passes, it seems farther from my memories," Siliceo said. "It's kind of difficult to explain to you how I felt because I'm over that. I hurt when I had to hurt.

"Right now, I'm doing this really cool ... recovery mode. I'm in this mode where I'm picking up where I left off when I was so busy working and trying to get through school."

One thing that helped her come to terms with the difficulties in obtaining her bachelor's degree was a federal policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The secretary of Homeland Security announced in 2012 that through DACA, illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16, who posed no threat to the nation and who met other criteria, could apply for deferred-action status. Deferred action is a two-year period in which immigrants can live in the country without being deported.

Siliceo applied for DACA in November 2012, but was not afraid of being deported if her application were denied.

"It took 11 months for them to process my paperwork," Siliceo said. "It was a tedious process, and I was not afraid. I have not applied for renewal but I will when that time comes."

Siliceo said DACA offered her the hope she needed to carry on with her undergraduate work. It relieved much of the anger and resentment she felt because of how hard she had to work to pay for tuition.

"I got DACA ... my first semester senior year," Siliceo said. "However, I have a [driver's] license now, and I don't have to live in fear anymore, at least not about getting pulled over and deported."

Siliceo said legislators in North Carolina have laid out exactly what DACA can do for college students. In some other states, students with deferred-action status can qualify for federal or state-institutional aid, or pay in-state tuition to attend.

Though DACA did not affect her undergraduate work because she was close to earning a bachelor's degree when she received it, it did provide her with peace of mind while driving a vehicle.

North Carolina stopped issuing driver's licenses to DACA recipients for a short time, pending a judgment from the state attorney general's office. The attorney general decided that if DACA recipients can provide the required paperwork for a license, they should be issued one.

In Tennessee, state Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) sponsored a House bill in 2013 that also aimed to eliminate the issuing of temporary driver licenses and permits for DACA recipients.

Butt decided not to advance the bill. According to a note from the fiscal review committee, had it passed, the bill would have cost the state $19,500 in lost revenue because an estimated 1,000 people would have been unable to obtain a driver's license.

Seventeen states allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition and access to financial aid.

Siliceo planned to enroll at East Tennessee State University in spring 2015 to earn a graduate degree in liberal arts; however, she decided not to attend when she found out she would not be eligible for financial aid.

“I would have to pay out-of-state [tuition] out of pocket,” Siliceo said. “I need to look at a program and university that can look beyond my status and more into my merits."

Brian Henley, director of admissions at ETSU, said illegal immigrants are expected to pay out-of-state tuition without having access to federal financial aid.

"Deferred-action status does not confer lawful presence for benefits," Henley said. "We still have to classify those students as non-residents for tuition purposes."

Henley said most of ETSU's scholarships are for students from Tennessee.

"There are some schools that offer scholarships to undocumented students or students who are here in deferred-action status," Henley said. "For the most part, we don't offer those. It's not to say they are completely out of financial aid, merit-based or need-based aid from some private schools, but as far as the federal government is concerned, those students are not eligible for Pell Grant or student loans or the Tennessee state lottery scholarship."

Siliceo had a similar experience when she paid out-of-state tuition to attend Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Siliceo wants to use her education to become a motivational speaker, go into education or do something that will benefit immigrants. She believes what she went through while obtaining her higher education has shaped her into the person she is today.

"Trials, difficulties and obstacles really give you an opportunity to build your character, to become a mature person and to appreciate life in ways that other people don't appreciate," Siliceo said.

"And you taste your dreams, and when you reach that goal, you taste that in a way that people who don't have to pay for it — people who have it given to them, or people who take that for granted — can't taste."

 Photo: Dylan Chesser

En español: Los estudiantes en estado de acción diferida se enfrentan a obstáculos en la educación superior

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