Liliana Rios Melchor, 18, grew up in Los Angeles and knew the story of how her teenage mother, carrying her as a baby, had hopped over barbed wire along the U.S.-Mexico border, fearful that she might cry.
Rios Melchor was told she did not make a sound that day as she and her mother began a new life, but now she, like many brought illegally to the United States by their parents, wants to be heard about her identity and her future.
“I think it’s essential to who I am,” Rios Melchor said of her undocumented status. “I do feel part of a larger group. Even though I don’t know them, I know they share the struggle.”
California is home to the largest population of young people known as “Dreamers,” – undocumented, immigrant adults who came to the United States as children. Many of them attend Long Beach State University, one of 12 campuses nationwide, and the only four-year California school, that will be part of TheDream.US, a new scholarship program for this group.
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The scholarship’s aim is to help fill the funding gap facing undocumented students, who in California may receive state aid to pay for college, but not federal loans or grants.
President Obama in 2012 granted temporary, discretionary residency for those who have no serious criminal record and are pursuing an education or a military career. Supporters say the program has economic and cultural benefits, while opponents contend the policy rewards illegal immigration.
Regardless of how their parents arrived here, some California students often have no memory of their birth country.
Maria Lopez, a junior at Long Beach State, came to the U.S. at age three with her mother and older brother, who was recently deported.
Lopez, 22, did not learn she was undocumented until she was a high school senior and preparing to apply for college. She asked her mom why they came here because she “felt like all the doors were being shut.”
“I grew up thinking I was American, like every other kid,” Lopez said. “I went to school every day with American kids.”
Lopez said her brother’s situation has occupied much of her mother’s time and left Lopez in charge of her younger siblings while juggling school.
“I guess my way of coping is not thinking about it, which is not healthy because I’m not dealing with it,” Lopez said.
Stress associated with relatives’ deportations and family obligations remain barriers to higher education for undocumented students,” said William Perez, associate professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and author of the book, “We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream.” Financial worry can lead to “constant interruptions in enrollment,” which makes students less likely to graduate, Perez said.
The aim of the new scholarship program is to make college financially accessible to highly motivated, undocumented students, said Candy Marshall, president of The Dream.US. The scholarships make sense, since 65,000 graduate from American high schools each year, she said.
“If we don’t act, it will be a lost generation of students,” Marshall said.
The program, co-founded by former Washington Post owner Donald E. Graham, has raised over $30 million so far, including from the Graham family and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to fund 2,000 scholarships over the next decade. The Dream.US plans to award over 300 scholarships nationwide this year for incoming freshmen. To continue to receive the scholarship, students must maintain their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ status, a 3.0 grade point average and stay continuously enrolled in school.
Long Beach City College is the other California school included in the program. The two Long Beach campuses were chosen because of their partnership with the local school district to offer support and stress completion, Marshall said.
Long Beach State Interim President Donald Para said ensuring a path for the students to complete their college degrees is vital to meeting the state’s projected workforce needs.
He said there are about 600 undocumnted students on campus.
“Student success is our mission,” Para said. “We are in the business of human potential.”
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, said the students are assets who should be supported.
“There’s still a lot of challenges and obstacles in their way and we want to make sure they have every opportunity to be successful,” he said.
To overcome difficulties, Dreamers seek each other out for support.
Elizabeth Zambrano, a Long Beach State senior, has found comfort in student groups on campus like Future Underrepresented Educated Leaders, where she can meet other undocumented students and learn about resources and opportunities.
Zambrano’s parents came here from Mexico when she was 18 months old. At 23, Zambrano thinks daily about the risks her parents took and their struggles. She has worked multiple jobs to pay for school, rides the bus to campus and will be the first person in her family to graduate high school and college.
“I’m only here because of my parents. My parents sacrificed so much,” Zambrano said. “I study as much as I can. I do it all for them.”
Family histories and experiences have shaped the students’ outlook about immigration reform, higher education and their future as a generation of undocumented children who grew up here.
Rios Melchor said she realized when she was applying to college that people could neither answer her questions nor advise her about where she could apply and whether any financial assistance was available to her. Frustrated by the lack of support, she created a club in her high school to help other undocumented students.
At Long Beach State, she has joined several student groups, was just elected a senator-at-large in student government and ultimately wants to help other students and their parents as an immigration lawyer. She also is among a group of students lobbying Long Beach State’s administration about the need for a resource center on campus, like one that recently opened at Cal State Fullerton. Officials say opening one at Long Beach State is under consideration.
“We need people on campus who are trained to be able to help us,” Rios Melchor said.
Zambrano, an English major, has been active in student government and hopes to get her master’s in public policy and administration. She would like to work in the public sector or for a nonprofit on immigration legislation.
The diligence of her parents inspires her.
“My mom will be up at 4 a.m. getting food ready,” Zambrano said. “I can’t complain. For me, I have no excuse not to succeed here.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.