The challenges facing undocumented students at UC Berkeley, like Diana Ortiz Aguilar, extend beyond academic pursuits, impacting their financial security as well. She hopes the UC Regents will take action soon to ease that burden.
Ortiz Aguilar, a senior majoring in sociology, like many students hoped to secure a job on campus. However, her undocumented status presented a significant obstacle. She applied for a campus position that unofficially welcomed undocumented students. After being offered the job, she soon encountered complications.
The university’s human resources department struggled to navigate the intricacies of processing her documents due to her lack of authorization to live and work in the U.S. They informed the 20-year-old student that the onboarding process might be delayed until they could determine the best course of action. Over a month later, she still hadn’t heard back. Unfortunately, this situation was not new to Ortiz Aguilar, who has found herself unable to obtain student employment at the university or access other essential support while she’s in school.
“Food insecurity is a big thing,” said Ortiz Aguilar, who is originally from Mexico. She said that although undocumented students on several UC campuses can receive food vouchers, “it’s still not enough to cover how expensive groceries are.”
Undocumented students are not eligible for CalFresh, also known as food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They are also excluded from receiving any form of federal financial aid to fund their studies. A recent report from the California Student Aid Commission points out that just 14% of the nearly 45,000 undocumented students in California receive any type of financial aid for their higher education.
Ortiz Aguilar’s struggles go beyond economic survival and paying for school.
“It’s also about having professional opportunities,” she said. “We don’t have the opportunity to have an outstanding resume or develop skills.”
Students organize for a policy change
Ortiz Aguilar has joined with fellow Berkeley students to pressure the UC Board of Regents to eliminate hiring restrictions for undocumented UC students. In May, the Regents showed their support for “Opportunity for All,” a coalition comprising undocumented student leaders and legal scholars. They established a Regents working group tasked with developing an implementation plan by the end of November this year.
Regent José Hernández said that UC leadership “identifies UC as a progressive leader in the higher education system. And it is my hope that other states, other education entities will soon follow with us.”
Last month, several students from different UC campuses attended the monthly Regents meeting at UCLA to demand the board implement the removal of hiring restrictions for undocumented as soon into the school year as possible.
“As a student going into my third year of computer science with no internships related to my field of study under my belt, I am afraid of where my career will go without these opportunities,” said Cindy Guzman, an outreach director at the Undocumented Student-Led Network, during the board meeting.
“A quick implementation will give me a chance to get some field experience from my campus at just the right time in my educational career,” she added.
As the November deadline for the Regent’s working group approaches, students, faculty, and their supporters from the Undocumented Student-led Network, the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, and the UCLA Labor Center are gearing up for a rally at UCLA, where a Regents meeting is set to take place between November 14 -16. They plan to demand further clarification on the UC system’s strategies to ensure meaningful employment opportunities for all its students.
At the May meeting, the Regents agreed that federal restrictions on hiring undocumented individuals do not extend to state entities like the University of California. This critical distinction means that UC campuses possess the legal authority to employ undocumented students in all educational employment positions.
Yet, some legal questions remain. Catherine Fisk, Faculty Director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Work, said that the main obstacle for the working group could be finding a way around the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which prohibits employers from knowingly hiring any immigrant who is unauthorized to work. But there are ways around it.
“One might say that particular kinds of experience are part of a student’s education,” Fisk said. “And that the compensation they might receive in connection with their education and the services they perform is not ‘work’ within the meaning of IRCA, but is instead educational, hands-on experience.”
Ahilan Arulanantham, Co-Director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, said students are concerned that the university will take a very narrow or slow approach to implementing the proposal for undocumented students.
“They say working groups are where student activism goes to die,” he said. Still, he is optimistic that any legal obstacles can be worked out.
“We’ve agreed on what the policy should be, now it’s just a matter of figuring out the nuts and bolts on how to do it,” said Arulanantham. Questions revolving around how to hire someone without a social security number and whether human resources processes should be adjusted have yet to be answered.
The Undocumented Student-Led Network, will host several workshops and events this semester. One includes a teach-in on November 7, when student leaders will convene to discuss the history and struggle of undocumented students, cultural expressions from the community, and a renewed launch of the Opportunity for All campaign ahead of the November Regents meeting.
“We want to keep them accountable to the timeline they gave us,” Ortiz Aguilar said. “We want to show them that we still need this and our lives depend on it.”