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Undocumented Students in Gray Area for College Admissions

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Monday, June 3, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Chaza Banda is saving up her paychecks from Dave's supermarket so she can pay for college, a dream that is complicated by her status as a deferred action immigrant.

It’s been nearly a year since the Obama administration gave leniency for some children who immigrated to the United States illegally.

Known as DACA – deferred action for childhood arrivals – the measure gives these young people some protection even though they aren’t citizens or legal residents. Nearly 2 million people are eligible for the DACA program.

This is the first year DACA students are applying for colleges, but their uncertain legal status can be a problem.

[audio href="" title="Certain students who came to the USA as undocumented immigrants are considered international students."][/audio]

18-year-old Chaza Banda works as a cashier at a Dave’s Supermarket on the east side of Cleveland. She’s saving up her paychecks to pay for college.

But college may not happen for her.

Banda immigrated to the US 8 years ago from Zambia to join her father in the United States. She’s an outstanding student – top ten in her class. Her high school did not have a soccer team, so she started one. She took a plethora of AP courses to get ready for college.

Banda is a DACA student. She can now get a social security number and legally work and study in the United States. But she’s not on a path to citizenship. and many universities consider her an international student even though she’s lived in Cleveland for almost a decade.

"Because of all the immigration issues and the international issues I would be satisfied with any place that’s decent," Banda says. "I just want an education, that’s it. I don’t care where it’s from, I just want an education.”

For example, Miami University admitted her, but would charge her more than $40,000 a year – double what in-state students have to pay.

Federal student aid and work programs are out of the question – DACA students are ineligible. Same goes for a lot of scholarships.

“I applied for a lot of different scholarships, but a lot of them I couldn’t do because I’m not a citizen," Banda says.  "A lot of scholarships the requirements were you had to be a citizen or a permanent resident.”

Banda has had to adjust her expectations. She’s looking at going to a more affordable school, like Cuyahoga Community College

“Even if I have to do Tri-C for two years, that’s fine with me and then I can transfer to Cleveland State (University) as long as I get a four year degree so I can get my masters and a PHD because I really, really want a PhD one day," she says. :So, it doesn’t matter where I go.”

A dozen states allow undocumented immigrants to qualifiy for in-state tuition. They have to have lived in the state for much of their lives and graduated from a high school in that state.

State senator Charleta Tavares co-sponsored an Ohio version of the DREAM act last session, but it didn’t go anywhere. She hopes to reintroduce the Tuition Equity Act – in the near future. It would allow undocumented immigrants pursuing citizenship to qualify for in-state tuition.

In the meantime, Ohio colleges are left to figure out how to handle students like Banda on their own.

Miami University spokeswoman Claire Wagner says they’ve gotten no guidance from the state.

“That I think is where we are left," she says. "Somewhat unclear with the deferred action students.”

Wagner says they’ve been using a chart written by the Board of Regents that details how to handle various immigrant students. That chart is seven years old and out of date.

So Miami, like many other colleges, considers DACA student’s international.

“I think unfortunately a lot of schools are passing the buck," says Lauren Burke, an immigration rights lawyer with AtlasDIY. "They’re sort of not wanting to deal with the issue and so they’re sort of saying we can’t admit you without thinking about what is both the case in legal circumstances but also what’s the case of a majority of students.”

Burke gets a lot of questions from DACA students hoping to attend college. Many of them, she says, are flat out rejected.

It is legal to admit DACA students.

But while states and universities struggle with the legal complexities, students like Banda are left watching their friends go off to college while their own future remains unclear.

“I just want to be at a university this fall, or a college, or a community college," Banda says. "I just want to be learning something.”

Banda has gotten some help. The Cleveland Plain Dealer profiled her as an outstanding student in their annual Senior Standouts series. That led some Miami Alums to offer assistance.

But not every DACA student gets a write-up in the newspaper.

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