Hartford — Wilbur Cross High School student Hazel Mencos came to the state Capitol Tuesday and exercised a right that many American citizens never use: She testified in a public hearing in favor of a bill, answered questions from a lawmaker, and had her view entered into the public records.
Hazel was one of 20 Wilbur Cross dreamers who made the trek here to testify in favor of House Bill 5031, which would allow some immigrants and undocumented students like her access to student-generated financial aid at state colleges and universities.
As it stands, undocumented students who attend a college or university in the state pay into a fund that provides financial aid to students based on both merit and need. But they have no access to the funds as other students in the state do.
The students from Wilbur Cross were documented and undocumented. Some have lived in Connecticut since they were very young or were born here. Others were like Hazel, who arrived here from Guatemala when she was 13, having crossed the border alone.
The now 16-year-old said there were “many risks of rapes, kidnaps, and death,” in her meeting her mom who was here in Connecticut.
“I remember those moments of fear,” she told the members of the Higher Education and Public Employment Advancement Committee of the legislature.
She said she’s worked hard since she’s arrived and dreams of going to college. Hazel urged lawmakers to help her and other students fulfill such dreams by supporting a bill that would allow them access to the student-generated financial aid.
“Can you tell us why you left Guatemala, what would lead you to travel through the desert to come someplace else?” asked State Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat.
“My dad had died,” Hazel said. “I was living with my sister. She worked a lot. I was home alone and needed somebody who could stay with me in the night. My mom decided to send for me because in Guatemala it is very violent. Girls die from violence. Girls die from violation.”
“Did you say girls die from violations?” Bye asked.
Yes, Hazel said.
“So, you didn’t feel safe in Guatemala,” Bye said.
No, Hazel replied.
Do you feel safe now, Bye asked.
“Yeah. I have friends,” Hazel said. “I have my mom and my family and I want a chance in staying.”
“So it seems like you were basically trying to stay alive and safe,” Bye concluded. “Now, you’re here and you’re testifying for other people that you believe access to college is important and education is important to you.”
“Yes,” Hazel said. “Very important. Many childs in other countries want to go to the college and they can’t go. If I had the opportunity to go to college then why wouldn’t I go?”
Education is also important to Cristopher Rodriguez, a Wilbur Cross student who came to New Haven from Ecuador just two and a half years ago.
He desperately wants to be a professional architect, he told lawmakers. He’s taking difficult courses like physics to make sure that can happen someday.
But he knows that it will be financially difficult for his family. He and his mother are undocumented, which makes finding a job to help pay for school difficult. Cristopher said his mother can’t afford to help.
He’s taking college courses while he’s enrolled in high school to help offset future costs. He said he already knows that he will have to work full time to help pay for school since he won’t have any access to federal education aid.
He also is not sure he will be eligible for the New Haven Promise scholarship. (The program doesn’t exclude people based on immigration status. But many dreamers may not have been in the city or the school system long enough to qualify.) He argued that having access to the pool of student-generated financial aid that he would be paying into would not only be helpful but fair.
“To not be eligible for help,” he said, “that’s not fair.”
Sandy Martinez is a documented immigrant and has attended New Haven schools for much of her life. Her dream is to be an immigration lawyer. She will be eligible for a New Haven Promise scholarship but her brothers will not.
State Rep. Pam Staneski, a Milford Republican, asked one student how he plans to pay for school without access to federal aid such as Pell grants and even loan programs. He said he’d have to take multiple jobs and try to get private scholarships.
Testimony for the hearing lasted more than five hours Tuesday. During that time not one person spoke in opposition to the bill.
A number of public figures, not just students, spoke in favor of it.
New Haven State Sen. Martin Looney, who serves as the Senate president pro tempore, argued in testimony at Tuesday’s hearing that immigrants are the future workforce of Connecticut’s future. So, he said, it is in the state’s best interest to make sure that that future is educated.
He applauded the committee for previously championing bills that allowed certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition and to reduce from four to two years the time necessary to receive that tuition. He said passing House Bill 5031 would be the next step along a path toward equity for Connecticut students already paying into the institutional aid fund.
“Most of these students have lived virtually all of their life in Connecticut,” he said. The ability to attend a university in the state means that the students are more likely to make Connecticut their home, Looney said. And the higher number of degree holders in the state, the likelier Connecticut is to meet workforce demands.
“Degree holders already pay more in taxes, are six times more likely to have a job, are higher paid, less likely to encounter the criminal justice system or seek government assistance of any kind,” Looney said.
When asked if Connecticut should wait for the federal government to act on behalf of Dreamers, Looney said no. Instead, he suggested that by passing this bill, the state would prepare Dreamers to have the best grounds to demonstrate that they plan to be an asset to the United States because they have pursued a higher education.
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, called the current exclusion of undocumented immigrants from accessing a pool of funds that they pay into “one of the most unfair things I have ever seen.”
“This is not the Connecticut that I’ve chosen to live most of my life in,” he said. “I truly believe as a state we have been very welcoming to all people. People choose to come here because of that environment. I just think it is a basic question of fairness.”
He said the undocumented students impacted are Connecticut students from families that choose to stay here. He said 94 percent of students in his system are from Connecticut; between 78 and 80 percent go on to build their lives in the state after graduation.
“The students in my system are Connecticut students,” he said. “They live in Connecticut and they stay in Connecticut.”
During a press conference after the hearing organized by Connecticut Students For A Dream, a student-led activist organization that helped get the Wilbur Cross High students and other students from universities across the state to Hartford, New Haven State Rep. Juan Candelaria said he believes this will be the year that the bill makes it to the finish line.
Last year the bill had support in the House but was derailed after an activist and former University of Connecticut student was arrested for on-campus acts of vandalism.
This is the fourth time this bill has been raised. Candelaria said he thinks that his colleagues are beyond last year’s incident and understand that allowing undocumented students to access the funds is a question of fairness.
State Sen. Bye expressed a little bit less optimism about the road ahead for the bill, though no organized opposition was in evidence Tuesday or even last year. She said at the press conference that there is enough opposition in the Republican Party to make the bill hard to pass, pointing to the questions during the committee meeting from colleagues who asked why the small average award from the funds — roughly $2,300 — is such a big deal to students and what they should tell their constituents if they were to support the bill.
“Something has changed in this country,” Bye said. “There are groups being demonized, and one of those groups being demonized are undocumented people.”
“We cannot ignore the undercurrent of bias in our state and our communities,” she added. “I urge the students to look legislators in the eyes just like they did today. They’re going to have to be in this building telling this story.”