My friend Ernesto is an undocumented AB 540 student at UCLA. He grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from a California high school, was the student body president for Rio Hondo Community College and has never been in any trouble. The only trouble Ernesto gets into is debating with his friends how he prefers Lil’ Kim over Nicky Minaj.
Now a fourth-year English major with dreams of going to grad school in public policy and a career as a public servant, Ernesto’s road to attaining a higher education has not been easy.

[media-credit name=”Ian Sanders” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]Ernesto, along with tens of thousands of other students in California, faces an unjust two-tiered financial aid system that creates insurmountable barriers to pursuing higher education. Despite the fact that Ernesto graduated from a California high school, has lived here most of his life and has beat the odds to become a UCLA student, he is denied any access to state grants, scholarships, subsidized loans and institutional aid.

As students know all too well, our fees at UCs, CSUs and community colleges have skyrocketed over the past few years. Fees at the UCs are now well over $10,000, and total cost can easily surpass $30,000. Like all other students in higher education, undocumented students struggle to afford these fees and costs, yet also have no access to any systematic financial support.

For Ernesto, these costs have made pursuing an education nearly impossible. It took him four years at a community college to get to UCLA, working long hours to save up enough for tuition, and has had to take a number of quarters off since coming to UCLA to be able to deal with the costs.

While Ernesto has found a way to stay in school, countless others have been forced to drop out. Further, because of this inequitable system, the tens of thousands of undocumented students who graduate from California high schools each year may feel that the dream of higher education will always be beyond their reach. With California and the nation facing a recession, we cannot afford to curtail the dreams of so many of our talented young people.

It is because of fellow students like Ernesto — a student and Californian who is our friend and colleague — that the UC Student Association has chosen financial aid for undocumented students as one of our top campaign priorities this year.

The California DREAM Act, also known as AB 130 and AB 131, would go a long way towards fundamentally fixing this unfair system. Under the current policies, undocumented students pay into the financial aid pot, just like all other students, but are unable to access it. If the California DREAM Act were to pass, undocumented students who graduate from California high schools will be able to access financial aid at UCs, CSUs and community colleges. No special treatment, just the same access to compete for aid that is available to all other California students.

Right now, students at every UC statewide are collecting thousands of postcards addressed to Governor Brown asking him to sign the California DREAM Act this year. We will be delivering these postcards to him and to the legislature at the annual UCSA Student Lobby Conference later this month.

The proposed cuts to higher education in Brown’s budget will have a devastating impact on quality, access and affordability for all students in higher education.

UCSA opposes these cuts and will continue voicing our opposition to the governor and state legislature. These cuts will also have a particularly sharp impact on undocumented students. Even during tough economic times, we cannot shirk the responsibility to do what is right.

As students, we always seem to be the fallback option for who should bear the burden of the state’s fiscal ills. The more we are attacked, the stronger our solidarity and the louder our voices will become. We demand an educational system that is affordable and fair for all of our students. The future of our state depends on it.