What do you do when you get into law school, only to discover you can’t get a loan because of your immigration status? USF School of Law students Gabriela Garcia and Monica Valencia decided to take matters into their own hands by creating the DREAMer Fund, a nonprofit organization to help undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law students pay for law schools in the Bay Area. A DACA recipient herself, Garcia knows personally the difficulties of paying for higher education after she faced withdrawal from the law school because of her struggle to pay tuition.
Created in 2016, the DREAMer Fund has assisted undocumented and DACA recipient law students in the Bay Area at USF Law, UC Hastings College of the Law, Santa Clara University School of Law and Golden Gate University School of Law. By putting on community events, including happy hours and a benefit concert, they have raised money for its tuition scholarships and emergency aid scholarships. “We decided we needed to come with a better solution, a more permanent solution than people just having to work so many jobs to pay for tuition,” Garcia said. Garcia is in her third year at USF Law.
Garcia and Valencia came up with idea for the fund after Garcia approached Valencia, explaining that she was about to be withdrawn from the school for not paying her tuition. Led by Valencia, students and professors who worked in the Immigration and Deportation Clinic at USF Law began to organize. They created a CrowdRise campaign for emergency tuition funds for Garcia. Valencia noticed that other undocumented and DACA recipient students were in the same situation.
“We realized that the law school only had a scholarship everybody had to pull from, and there was no scholarship in particular that the undocumented students could pull from,” said Valencia.
According to Garcia, programs like DACA and the California Dream Act offer help for undocumented students and nonresident documented students, but only at the undergraduate and community college level. “Once you get to the graduate level there really is no help,” Garcia said.
In addition, Garcia said undocumented students find it difficult to get a loan. “They would deny the loan based on immigration status,” she said. “They would say ‘we don’t know if you’re going to be here and then who is going to pay your debt when you’re gone,’ and if no one has any real legal status there is no reassurance.”
While the DREAMer Fund’s main focus is to fundraise, they are also establishing the DREAMer to DREAMer mentorship program and immigration policy research to better help university policies. “As more and more people who have DACA are applying for graduate school I think it’s important that we educate our schools and administrators about what our struggles are. And trying to help them come up with a solution on how to fix it” said Garcia.
“A misconception when you think about lawyers or law students is you think about this rigid process; someone that just follows the rules upholds the law and things like that. You also don’t think about the fact that at the very fundamental level, law students and lawyers are all advocates in some way,” Valencia said. This advocacy aims to use various expression of art and storytelling as “tools to change and benefit the future of undocumented law students,” according to the mission statement on the DREAMer Fund’s website. Valencia describes this as an attempt to create safe space to uplift the voices that are not always present in the conversation regarding undocumented students.
The DREAMer Fund is currently in the process of expanding to assist undocumented and DACA recipient law students in Southern California.
Featured Photo: Gabriela Garcia, co-director of the DREAMer Fund, spoke at the nonprofit’s inaugural event #undocufest on Saturday, Feb. 10 at El Rio. COURTESY OF IRYNA GORB