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Raising the Voices of Undocumented Youth


While approximately 800 undocumented students graduate from Pennsylvania high schools every year, the majority of these qualified students cannot continue their education. Most of the students simply cannot afford a college education, since their existing financial constraints are further exacerbated by institutional policies that exclude them from accessing state financial aid and instead charge them high out-of-state tuition rates. These policies apply even when the students grew up and attended school in Pennsylvania.

Raising the Voices of Undocumented Youth
Youth participants in the workshops

Senior Fellow Carlos Gonzalez Sierra’s own experience struggling to reach higher education as an undocumented student inspired him to get involved with efforts to strengthen the undocumented community in Pennsylvania. His mother immigrated to the United States to give him and his sisters access to educational opportunities that their socioeconomic status denied them in the Dominican Republic.

Senior Fellow Carlos Gonzalez Sierra’s own experience struggling to reach higher education as an undocumented student inspired him to get involved with efforts to strengthen the undocumented community in Pennsylvania.

Soon after arriving in Pennsylvania, their visas expired, and Carlos and his sisters joined the ranks of the state’s undocumented students. Hoping to convince college admission’s officers to overlook his immigration status, Carlos learned English, excelled academically and contributed to his school and community. Ultimately, he was either denied admission or could not afford to attend the few colleges that admitted him.

Fortunately, Carlos found an opportunity at his local community college. Once over the enrolment hurdle, his biggest challenge became paying for school. Though he grew up in Pennsylvania, his community college designated him an “international student” who had to pay thousands of dollars more than his peers. After two years struggling to meet payment deadlines, Carlos transferred to Amherst College with a full scholarship. After graduating from Amherst College, he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, thanks to the generous support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. But Carlos’s story is the exception, not the norm. He wanted to ensure that other undocumented students in Pennsylvania are able to walk down a more certain path towards their futures than the one he had to take.

When the Pennsylvania DREAM Act was introduced, Carlos knew it was the perfect opportunity to bring together undocumented youth in the state to foster leadership, organizing and community building. The DREAM Act would make undocumented Pennsylvanians who spend at least two years in – and graduate from – a state high school eligible to pay in-state tuition and apply for state financial aid. Passing the DREAM Act would be a step in the right direction to ensure undocumented Pennsylvanians are able to fully integrate and contribute to the state they grew up in and love.

To be effective advocates for the Pennsylvania DREAM Act, it is imperative that the state’s immigrant youth come together to build community and strengthen their capacity to be effective organizers and advocates.

As successful tuition equity campaigns in other states demonstrated, passing the DREAM Act will require young undocumented students to put political pressure on their state representatives by sharing their stories and building support for the bill within their communities. However, the undocumented community in Pennsylvania is smaller, less politically visible and more dispersed than in other states.

In partnership with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition and several immigrant youth leaders, Carlos helped organize the 2015 Pennsylvania Immigrant Youth Conference, the first statewide leadership conference for undocumented young in the history of Pennsylvania. The conference was the culmination of weeks of planning, coordinating and fundraising. The organizing team held weekly conference calls to share recruitment updates, review fundraising goals and make logistical decisions.

Together, Carlos and his team convened 32 immigrant youth and allies from 10 cities for a weekend of leadership, organizing and community building. While the workshops were facilitated by experienced leaders, the conference itself was coordinated and led by immigrant youth. For many of the participants, the conference was the first time they were in a safe space where they could openly talk about their personal struggles as undocumented youth. As one youth leader said during the conference,

“I appreciate us being here. We are not supposed to be doing this. We are not supposed to organize. We are not supposed to rise up. But we are.”

In addition to formal and informal team building exercises, Carlos and his team held workshops on organizing techniques, effective advocacy, arts activism, self-care, identifying systems of oppression and the history of immigration policy in the United States. Carlos led the workshop on effective advocacy, and many of the techniques he shared with the group drew from his experience working as a Humanity in Action Congressional Fellow in the Office of Congressman Michael Honda (CA-17).

Raising the Voices of Undocumented Youth

A statewide week of action followed the conference. Conference participants were encouraged to share their stories on social media to increase awareness about their struggles as undocumented students and the need for the Pennsylvania DREAM Act, as well as visit the offices of their local representatives. During the week of action, the Lancaster Newspaper published Carlos’s Op-Ed, “Let qualified students contribute; support the Pa. DREAM Act.” Carlos also visited the offices of State Senator Lloyd Smucker, the author of the bill, and State Representative Michael Sturla.

Undoubtedly, Carlos’s biggest challenge was and continues to be identifying undocumented youth.  Carlos said that “It is illegal for schools and other organizations to disclose the immigration status of their students or clients and undocumented youth are often reluctant to disclose their status because of fear of deportation or being ostracized by their peers.”

To overcome these barriers, Carlos and his team had to develop a very targeted outreach model. They contacted school counselors, immigration attorneys and their Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition partner organizations and asked them to share information about the conference with anyone they thought could benefit from the experience. The conference was a strong first step in a long process of building the leadership and organizing capacity of undocumented youth in Pennsylvania. For the DREAM Act to pass, conference participants must return to their local communities and help identify and train other students. Carlos and his team are leading efforts to identify, convene and train immigrant youth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Our hope is that greater visibility will encourage younger students to come forward and raise their voices for greater access to higher education and a stronger immigrant community in Pennsylvania.”

You can support these efforts to increase access to higher education for undocumented youth in Pennsylvania by donating to the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. Your generous donation supports their advocacy and organizing work to mobilize the immigrant vote, build immigrant leaders, campaign for pro-immigrant policies at the local, state and federal levels, and support the effective implementation of pro-immigrant public policies.

Recognizing the limited financial resources within the immigrant community, Carlos and his team fundraised $5,000 to cover the transportation, lodging and meal costs for every participant. Participants from each region had a collective fundraising goal of $250. Carlos and his team surpassed their fundraising goal thanks to the generous support of local businesses, many of which were owned by immigrants.

This project was made possible by the generous support of: