By Fatima Gonzalez
Undocumented students still face many challenges today. The pandemic only increase the struggles many dreamers faced.
Jairo Leon, director Undocumented Student Success Program, has been involved in the undocumented rights movement since he was an undergraduate. Director Leon started his involvement in 2012, he has gone from being a student, being involved in community spaces to being an administrator in higher education. He also works in organizing affairs and finding ways to continue to advocate for undocumented students’ support and immigrants because he believes in the transformative power of higher education which involves staff, students, and CSUSB families.
Q: Do you know how many students are undocumented that are first-generation here at CSUSB?
A: We have conducted further studies and reports together and found the demographic information of our undocumented students on campus from our latest research. We found that 653 students are undocumented on campus. When we think about first-generation students, our definition of first-generation students is any students whose parents have not received a four-year bachelor’s degree from a U.S. institution.
Q: What are the biggest challenges undocumented students face in the U.S?
A: Undocumented students face various challenges as we navigate life and our educational institutions. One of the most direct challenges is access to higher education, and what I mean by that is the financial aid aspect. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans and federal aid, which is something that makes higher education colleges and universities possible for the great swath of folks in our country so without that aid, it makes it very challenging to be able to afford college.
Q: During and after the pandemic, what were the struggles a lot of dreamers faced?
A: The pandemic had a lot of devastating effects on folks across the country, but even more so, on the undocumented community. The reason is that we are a community that didn’t have the benefits of always working from home, our families couldn’t just open their laptops and jump into their work schedules. Oftentimes our parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and we as students had to be essential workers. We had to be exposed to the damaging effects of a pandemic and had to suffer the consequences of changing work schedules or reduced work. The health of the undocumented community and their financial stability were devastated because of the pandemic
Q: Would you say there’s a difference between students who are citizens and undocumented students when it comes to getting help from schools?
A: There are differences because there are so many parts of the system that requires not citizenship per se, but they do require a social security number. Being eligible for federal aid makes a huge difference, and that is something undocumented do not have. Something that makes it additionally challenging is that there are a lot of stigmas when it comes to the topic of immigration, when it comes to the topic of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S, many people are afraid to bring up undocumented immigrants in a conversation. This means that those undocumented students who might be looking and needing help will be met with silence and hesitation, so they would not know where to receive the assistance they need. Undocumented students are hesitant to seek out help because of concerns for personal safety because it is a risk to disclose document status to anyone.
Q: During and after the pandemic would you say that they were a huge difference in how students presented academically?
A: The academic standing of our students did suffer because of panic, they oftentimes did not have quiet, focused spaces to work like a university library. They had multiple responsibilities to deal with at home, beyond their classwork, and the financial toll and stress that was being put on the shoulders of their families in their household inevitably affected their academics. So, part of our focus is trying to offer mental health and wellness programs, as well as academic support.
Q: Do you think that the pandemic affected a lot this school’s undocumented success program specifically?
A: Yes, it did. because while the university was putting forward mental health services, making them available it’s just not the same over zoom as in person. Also, folks that we’re dealing with a lot of other crises and responsibilities and stress in their life beyond their academics or even being able to log in and get assistance. An example, we can offer Mental Health Check-in and wellness check-in events, but if a student is sharing a two-bedroom apartment with six family members who have different work schedules. It would be challenging for that student to be able to participate in that conversation when there’s little privacy and the ability to be in a focus area.