Wilbur Cross Dreamers School Legislators

Markeshia Ricks PhotoHartford — 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.

“Connecticut Students”

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.”

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posted by: Paul Wessel on February 13, 2018  10:43pm

How can one not be moved and impressed by these Dreamers?

posted by: Bohica on February 14, 2018  12:35pm

I can think of one way not to be impressed by these “dreamers”.  Try being the one who has to turn down financial aid to the American citizen with a dream to attend college because an illegal immigrant was shuffled to the head of the line because their parents may or may not have paid taxes, may have received most of their income under the table or through a fake social security number thereby showing a greater financial need on the financial aid form.  You can blame this mess on gutless Democrats and Republicans who should have secured our border a long time ago, either way we solve this somebody is going to lose.

posted by: Perspective on February 14, 2018  12:54pm

This topic keeps coming up all the time.  No one is disputing the compelling reasons why they came to this country and it is admirable they want to further their education. The issue is citizenship.  If you are not a citizen of the country how can you expect to gain all the benefits and privileges of being a citizen.  Can I go to Canada and get their health benefits if I have a compelling reason? Why do I need a passport to travel abroad if citizenship doesn’t matter? Even within the US you must be a resident of a state to receive in state tuition.  While I understand residency is different than citizenship rules are rules.
Also—Can anyone explain exactly what the “student-generated financial aid” is? 

“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.”
No bias here. The rules were not changed as a bias against these folks, they want the rules changed.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 14, 2018  2:17pm

Perspective, most provisions in the law apply to “persons”, not just citizens. This is true for both rights and penalties. You are subject to criminal penalties if drive drunk, whether or not you are a citizen. And you are entitled to due process and equal protection, in either case. This does not mean that Dreamers are entitled to financial aid. But the idea that “illegal immigrants” have no rights is simply incorrect.

posted by: Perspective on February 14, 2018  3:55pm

@ Kevin McCarthy- Who said they have no rights as a person?  But again I ask the question should anyone who comes to this country qualify for financial aide simply because they now live here?  BTW: We have numbers of legal high school students working 20-30 years to pay off college debt or forgoing college due to the crushing costs so what are their “rights”

posted by: JCFremont on February 14, 2018  5:14pm

How is it exactly funded? A percentage of tuition goes into this fund, does this include funds from student loan payments? Sounds like the schools are creating their own endowments with federal funds. Sen. Looney “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,” Yes Senator but these fiscal schemes are a good reason why the cost and overhead of “higher” education has exploded and continues to grow.  Mr. Ojakian many are finding they can not afford to live in the Connecticut you want to live in. It is truly amazing that Connecticut according to our politicians and our “journalists” that there has been absolutely no added costs to this states “Welcome Wagon” programs.

posted by: 1644 on February 14, 2018  5:58pm

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.
I am confused.  As the article notes,  immigration status does not affect eligibility for the New Haven Promise scholarship, only length of residence in New Haven and attendance at New Haven Public Schools.  I Sandy has immigrated legally, I don’t understand why her brothers would not have immigrated with her in the same status.  They should, also be legally here.  Why did she get an immigrant visa, but her brothers didn’t?  If her brothers also have immigrant visas, then their issue is with the New Haven Promise rules, not immigration.  Or is it that she isn’t an immigrant at all, but a native-born citizen, while her brothers are illegal immigrants?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 14, 2018  6:45pm

Perspective, my point was that citizenship is not the relevant issue. “Where they live now” routinely determines whether a student gets into a state school and the tuition rate they pay. This is true for citizens and non-citizens.

There is a compelling need to make college affordable, which includes dealing with the issue of student debt burden. But that is independent of the issue of treating all state residents fairly, without regard to the actions of their parents.

posted by: Inside 165 on February 14, 2018  10:04pm

@kevin

I think the issue being raised is these benefits are for residence of the state. If you’re not a legal resident of the United States then your not a resident of the state. That’s why they had to amend the law a few years back to give people illegally resideing in the state the right to in state tuition. That cost, mind you, is subsidized by the income tax paying residents of Connecticut. They government has to pass some laws to straighten out this mess and get whatever standards in place with a navigatable path to citizenship. But passing laws to give people illegally here the same benefits as people legally here doesn’t motivate people to pursue that path. Thats why you read about people being deported who have been here for 10 or 20 years. I am empathetic to most of these folks but I does leave a bad taste in my mouth when I watch them protest, testify or whatever like they are entitled to something. People can try and mince words all they want but the fact is living here illegally for XX amount of years and being a good person doesn’t make you an American citizen.  Sorry but that’s a fact.

posted by: 767biggie on February 15, 2018  12:20am

Why does the Connecticut legislature NOT hold hearings for American students whose families have paid Connecticut taxes for years and who face many financial burdens?

Every one of the students cited in this article will push an American from a place in college or take their job.

posted by: BevHills730 on February 15, 2018  10:38am

1644, sounds like you would make a good interrogator of kids in high school.

posted by: 1644 on February 15, 2018  11:01am

BevHills:  I am just trying to get the facts straight.  You will see a similar comment from me on the BoE contracting practices about a former Alder’s state employment status, which NHI got wrong but corrected.  I, also, brought a mistake of Paul Bass’s to his attention in an article about local 33, where the correction favored 33 (slightly).  Much of the language used in the immigration debate is misleading or outright false.  For example, lots of immigrants here illegally have documents, its just that they have the wrong documents.  For example, they have a passport and visa, but the visa is a non-immigrant visa, doesn’t allow them to work, or has expired.  Their continued presence in the US, therefore, is illegal, even though their entry may have been completely legal, and nothing increased border security would prevent.  Similarly,  the press often refers to those here illegally as “law-abiding”, when their very presence is a violation of our laws.

posted by: 1644 on February 15, 2018  11:22am

1.  There is a finite pool of financial aid.  If we expand the type of students eligible for that aid, there will be less to go around, and likely smaller awards, but few legal residents will actually not get an award because of an illegal resident.  Alternatively, the Regents could raise tuition to increase the size of the aid pool, shifting the burden to those more able to pay.

2.  While admission of an illegal resident may displace a legal resident at UConn, the rest of our state higher education system has falling enrollment, and plenty of room.  At some locations, we are giving in-state tuition to Mass. & NY residents because there aren’t enough Connecticut students to fill the seats.  Okjakian could respond by trying to “right-size” his system, but the SEABAC agreement makes faculty and staff reductions difficult, and campus closures would be opposed by many affected.  Offering lower tuition to more potential students allows him to justify the existence of his system at its present size.

posted by: 767biggie on February 15, 2018  2:26pm

I am troubled that “1644” thinks it is acceptable for American citizens to receive smaller awards so that illegals may be funded and that it is acceptable for an American citizen to be displaced at UConn by an illegal. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defending his policy of deporting African migrants from Israel, said that Israel needs to look after its own citizens first.

America needs to do the same!

posted by: 1644 on February 15, 2018  2:52pm

767:  Where did I say it was acceptable?  Please, read my comment.  I express no opinion.

posted by: 767biggie on February 15, 2018  3:08pm

1644, I read your comments as though you were supporting the options you set out.  If you were being neutral, I apologize.

I’m not neutral. I unapologetically support American citizens over immigrants, both legal and illegal, no matter their story.

Only after our own are well taken care of can we take care of others.  We are not helping our own.