For Orlando ’15, an undocumented student from Mexico who has lived all but the first 100 days of his life in the United States, the likely end of his financial aid, and therefore time at Cornell, feels like a “really cruel joke.”
A pre-med, biological sciences major, Orlando had a 4.3 GPA in high school, has beaten the mean on every Cornell test he has taken, and spends most Friday and Saturday nights at home, fearful that any interaction with police could lead to his deportation.
Yet none of his precautions may matter due to a recent change in the University’s financial aid policy that many expect will restrict the ability of undocumented students — who are living in the U.S. illegally — from attending Cornell. Between 15 and 30 undocumented students are currently enrolled in the University, although their exact numbers are unknown, according to Barbara Knuth, vice provost and dean of the graduate school.
Under the old system, Orlando — who, like the other undocumented students who spoke to The Sun, requested anonymity — could have qualified for financial aid under a pool specifically designated for Mexican and Canadian students. After a revision to University policy in 2008, however, this pool was dispersed to fund all international students — making it much more difficult for undocumented students such as Orlando to enroll.
Despite feeling like an “American, flesh and everything,” Orlando said he believes that, due to a lack of financial resources, his first semester at Cornell is likely also his last.
“By not continuing to offer financial assistance to undocumented students who demonstrate the need, Cornell is doing this group a disservice,” said Pedro Pedroza '12, another undocumented student.
On Wednesday, a group of students delievered a letter to President Skorton calling for a series of reforms to improve the circumstances of undocumented students at Cornell. While their requests vary, the motivation behind them is the same: Undocumented students came to the U.S. through no fault of their own, and should be considered Americans, they say.
“Cornell has not taken any concrete action to support undocumented youth currently enrolled or attempting to enroll in our institution,” states the letter, cosigned by David Angeles ’13, Luz Aceves ’14 and Jessica Perez ’13. “Cornell University does not provide legal, emotional or additional financial support meant to address the dire and unique circumstances and needs of undocumented students.”
Among the letter’s demands is including undocumented students in the domestic aid pool.
Although Knuth said the University could consider increasing its financial aid allocation to undocumented students, she noted that they could not be eligible for certain sources of funding.
“International students and undocumented students would not be eligible for [government grants], and so their aid packages would need to include only non-government sources,” Knuth said. “President [Skorton] has clearly indicated that Cornell is the opportunity University and I don’t believe that suggests we should limit educational opportunity for those who have the academic credentials; however, there are constraints on the amount of financial aid funding the University can award.”
Brendan O’Brien, director of the International Scholars and Students Office, added that the University will “absolutely adhere to U.S. law.”
Still, O’Brien, who said the ISSO handles the difficulties encountered by a few undocumented students every year, acknowledged the challenges these students face.
“[Undocumented students are] in a very difficult situation because they don’t have work authorization in the U.S., and it’s hard to know exactly how they survive,” O’Brien said. “[They] probably have to continue to live under the radar.”
Juliette Corazon, assistant dean of admissions and advising in the College of Arts and Sciences, added that the new financial aid policy is having “inadvertent” consequences.
"Since we now put undocumented students in the international pool, they don’t have access to the domestic financial aid they used to,” Corazon said.
While the University can provide financial aid from non-governmental sources to undocumented students, their lack of eligibility for federal aid poses a major challenge to funding their education, said Stephen Johnson, vice president for government affairs.
“If undocumented students were now permitted to obtain Pell grants or any of the other federal programs, such as work-study, that would be enormously helpful, and right now they're not eligible," Johnson said.
Pedro Pedroza ’12 is one of few individuals in the country who can talk openly about his undocumented status. Pedroza was stopped and detained while on a bus to Cornell in 2008 by Border Patrol agents.
Pedroza was issued a notice of deportation, but was saved by the staff of Senator Dick Durbin, who in a high-profile case had Pedroza’s notice reversed four days before he would have officially become a fugitive. Pedroza recently returned to Cornell to finish his degree, now with a newfound ability to speak out on undocumented issues.
“People like me are being pushed out,” Pedroza said.
In a series of interviews with The Sun, other undocumented students detailed the struggles of finding financial aid.
“I needed a school that was going to fund me, either completely or almost completely, because there was no way in hell that my parents were going to be able to put a cent in for my education,” Emilia ’14 said.
Angeles, one of the letter’s co-authors, called for the University to acknowledge the unique challenges undocumented students face.
“We ask that Cornell recognize these students’ right to legitimate American residency by adding them to the American admissions pool,” Angeles said.
The students lamented the difficulties they face in seeking opportunities to advance career goals.
Emilia, a psychology major and aspiring lawyer, said her undocumented status prevents her from finding internships or places to work.
“It’s really frustrating because I feel like I have so much to give and something keeps blocking it,” Emilia said.
‘A Whole Different Stress’
Several students also described difficulties other than procuring financial aid, especially the possibility of being deported.
“Sometimes when I see white vans I get nervous … back in California, when people get deported, they’ll be deported in big white vans,” Alicia ’13 said.
Others described the stress of keeping their undocumented status a secret from their peers and professors.
“Being at a university where there are so many things going on — the whole, ‘what are you going to do when you graduate’ [and] being far from home — is really tough … It’s a whole different stress for us,” Emilia said.
For example, Emilia said her father, who is also undocumented, was stopped this summer while driving.
“My dad called me and told me, ‘I’ve been really stressed out. ... I’m thinking of not driving to work anymore because I was stopped the other day,’” Emilia recalled. “‘I feel very blessed that he let me go, but at the same time, it can happen any day.’”
Emilia said seemingly innocuous, everyday challenges like these can prove very harmful — a constant fear that poses its own challenges.
“So, the stress and the fear never really go away. Will I be stopped today, will I be stopped tomorrow? … and what does this entail?” she said. “Am I going to get put under deportation proceedings for a stupid minor traffic violation? I think that’s what scares me the most.”
A New Position
For unexpected difficulties like these and others, undocumented students argue, the University should create a separate administrative position.
"Having that secret made me feel like I have this secret identity; it can be very alienating, [make you] feel like you don’t belong,” Pedroza said. “"There’s [the ISSO but] I don’t belong there … What would make the real difference is having an advocate that can work with me to make sure financial aid understands my situation."
O’Brien, however, said he believes that the ISSO could adequately meet the needs of undocumented students.
"From my perspective, the existing administrative structures can serve and provide support to undocumented students because they’re an important part of our community," he said.
Yet Angeles emphasized that the problems faced by undocumented students were not comparable to those faced by international students.
“Emotionally speaking, it would be difficult for an undocumented student to come out to the ISSO because they don’t have an official position on what they do with undocumented students,” Angeles said. “Though the ISSO [is] expert on how to obtain visas … [it is] often not very familiar with procedures that take place during deportation or the consequences of overstaying.
Angeles added that openly acknowledging the presence of undocumented students on campus would affirm President David Skorton’s endorsement of the DREAM Act.
Creating a position to deal with undocumented students’ issues “would [mean] that we acknowledge [that] students at Cornell are a part of our community and that they are in a different position, legally speaking, because of powers other than their own.”
“We also acknowledge that they have the same fundamental human rights as any other student on campus and that their circumstances need to be dealt with humanely,” Angeles said.
Akane Otani contributed reporting to this story.