HomeCampusKorean "Dreamer" Champions NJ Bill for DACA Students

Korean “Dreamer” Champions NJ Bill for DACA Students

Esder Chong
Esder Chong gives a speech at a rally on Rutgers University’s Newark Campus supporting dreamers. Photo courtesy RU Dreamers

By Hye-Jin Kim

To defray the six-figure price tag of a four-year diploma, Esder Chong, a Korean American sophomore at Rutgers University, patches together a handful of private scholarships each semester. And though she has lived in New Jersey for more than a decade, she’s barred from any state or federal need-based aid for which she might qualify — because she is undocumented.

Only all this could change in a matter of weeks. Later this month, New Jersey lawmakers will vote on a bill to offer state financial aid to undocumented students like Chong who are protected under DACA.

Nineteen-year-old Esder Chong is arguably New Jersey’s most famous DACA recipient, or “dreamer,” as of late. Earlier this year, congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) invited her to Capitol Hill to listen to President Trump’s State of the Union address, helping build awareness for the threatened federal program officially known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA — now shielded by a federal court order — protects immigrants illegally brought into the U.S. before their 16th birthday from deportation.

And thanks to another New Jersey law passed in 2013, Chong’s school fees are lower than they might have been in other states like Arizona or Indiana, where DACA residents can’t qualify for in-state tuition. But she says that’s not enough.

“I invest hours and hours searching and applying for this narrow pool of scholarships because my education depends on it,” Chong said, who also competes in track and field and runs her own student club. “It is time-consuming, frustrating and morale-draining to constantly worry about my attendance for next semester.”

Introduced back in January, the state bill to open up tuition aid for “dreamers” cleared the budgets and appropriations committee earlier this week. This change will likely cost New Jersey’s tuition aid programs an extra 1 percent relative to current spending, doling out an estimated $4.5 million to undocumented students each year. In the last fiscal year, eligible students at four-year universities received an average of $7,451 for tuition from state coffers.

The grants could be used for either private or public universities. Requirements for undocumented students to apply for state aid would be near identical to those for in-state tuition: students must have spent at least three years at a New Jersey high school, have a state high school diploma, be enrolled in college and file an affidavit that they already have or will apply for legal immigrant status.

Nearly 600 undocumented students at four-year universities qualified for in-state tuition, according to the most recent state count in 2015.

“This legislation is a critical step … to push back against federal attacks on the immigrant community,” Chong said, who also runs an student advocacy club for “dreamers” like herself.

In New Jersey, there were 17,620 DACA recipients as of January 2018. Data from the Migration Policy Institute also suggests that 20 percent of the state’s estimated 498,000 undocumented immigrants came from an Asian country.

Nationwide, there are roughly 7,000 South Koreans enrolled in the DACA program — the sixth most common nationality after Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru.

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