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Students United for Immigrant Equality provides scholarships for DACA recipients

UNC sophomore Carolina Mendez and UNC senior Rosa Elias pose for a portrait on the steps of the Old Well on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. Students United for Immigrant Equality is led by Elias as president and Mendez as co-vice president.

For Keny Murillo Brizuela, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — commonly known as DACA — is the reason he is able to attend UNC's School of Medicine.

DACA protects undocumented individuals who entered the United States as children from deportation. Without the work permit provided to him by DACA, Brizuela said he couldn’t be hired as a doctor in the United States.

“If there was no DACA, I would just be another undocumented individual with a medical degree,” he said.

Students United for Immigrant Equality at UNC, or SUIE, is currently accepting scholarship applications for individuals with DACA status. President Rosa Elias said the scholarship application opened at the end of October and will be available until Nov. 30.

SUIE is hoping to give four or five recipients $500 scholarships this year, although exact amounts of recipients and awards will be dependent on the amount of funding obtained by the award’s deadline. Elias said funding is coming from businesses in Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Asheboro and other surrounding areas.

“With that [funding], we've been able to raise more than $1,500,” she said.

Elias said one reason for the monetary goal is because DACA work permits cost $500 and must be renewed every two years. SUIE Co-vice President Carolina Mendez said DACA recipients must also pay out-of-state tuition regardless of if they are a North Carolina resident.

Beyond the cost of higher education, Brizuela said being a DACA recipient comes with extra financial restraints. For example, traveling out of the country requires an application for advance parole (I-131A) that comes with a $575 fee, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

“I think undocumented students are often overlooked in the school system, and we wanted to make sure we kind of provided a bit of financial support for anything,” Mendez said.

In an email statement, UNC Media Relations said the University does not currently have any scholarships specifically for undocumented/DACA students, nor plans to create any soon. Undocumented students are also ineligible for federal financial aid, Media Relations said, and as a public university, UNC must follow these national guidelines.

Elias said that there are around 141,000 DACA recipients in the country pursuing higher education and that students using the program must cover out-of-state tuition costs, housing and supplies, while most have jobs coinciding with their studies.

“It's much more of a financial burden for them,” she said.

Mendez also pointed out that although work-studies are available, they are limited. DACA students typically also need to go through employment sponsorships, which she said is a “very complicated process.”

Although the scholarship is now available for all DACA recipients to apply for, it began as an opportunity only available to UNC students. SUIE first expanded the award to include all students using DACA and recently decided to award student and nonstudent recipients in the United States, Elias said.

The application for the SUIE scholarship isn't complicated, Mendez said. Applicants must show proof that they are a recipient of DACA and write essay responses to questions.

“It's more of a way for us to get to know their stories,” she said.

Brizuela has previously donated a scholarship to a DACA recipient and said there’s always a sense of wanting to give back to his community. He said he thinks SUIE’s scholarship is awesome.

“It's great to know that SUIE is helping DACA recipients who may not have families or people in their lives who can help them financially speaking,” Brizuela said.

SUIE tries to support students in areas other than finances,. While a lot of students don’t want to talk about their immigrant status, she said SUIE strives to create a community with open discourse and privacy.

“Every month we talk about a new immigration topic, a new policy and spread awareness,” she said.

For those who use DACA, Brizuela’s advice is simple: “Be fearless.” 

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“Doors are going to close, but you only need one to open — and don’t give up,” he said.

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