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Asylum Seekers Held in Tuition Limbo

Without in-state tuition grants, pending asylum applicants at Seattle Central College find it difficult to get an education. These are individuals who have fled war-torn countries, leaving everything behind to start a new life. Most of them are separated from their families and have to wait for years in the U.S to get their asylum adjudicated.

It’s a common problem facing the students of SCC to have their requests denied for in-state tuition. Marlene Enriquez-Campos, The Assistant Registrar of the SCC says, “ I have been approached by many students whose asylum cases have been pending, but as per my interpretation of the “Residency Book”, I was not able to approve their requests.”

However, she indicated that she would approve the requests of any individuals who meet the requirements of House Bill 1079 regardless of their immigration status or visa.

Signed by Governor Gary Locke on May 7, 2003, the HB 1079 came into effect in July 2003. Under this law, one must fulfill the following criteria to become a resident student:

– Received a diploma from a Washington high school or the equivalent of a diploma in Washington State such as a GED

– Lived in Washington for at least three years prior to receiving their diploma or its equivalent.

– Continuously lived in Washington since receiving a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Enriquez-Campos, explicitly stated that there was no way whatsoever she would grant in-state tuition residency to the pending asylum applicants unless there is legislation that allows her to.

Further complicating matters, asylum applicants tend to be young adults who have already completed a high school education in their home countries. Technically, under the HB 1079, they would not get in-state tuition unless they complete their high school or GED in Washington. This, in turn, would cost them time and money.

The affirmative asylum waiting period is an extremely long and exhausting process. Anyone who anticipates the adjudication process to take a few weeks or months, is wrong—It takes years. Most recently, last month, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services had an Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin (AOSB) on its website, which indicated that they were trailing almost three years behind with reference to interviewing the affirmative asylum applicants. It was vague and could not provide meticulous details regarding how long the entire process could take. In most cases, it took longer than expected.

Jason Dzubow, a prominent immigration lawyer from Washington D.C. says, “ the AOSB is a mirage in the desert–it may encourage you to keep walking, but it tells you nothing about when you might get your next drink of water.” Dzubow runs “The Asylumist,” an online website that provides information related to immigration in the United States. He has extensively written articles on the issues facing  asylum seekers in the United States.

He says, “As far as I know, there are no government regulations about this. My clients who have asylum pending seem always to pay out-of-state tuition, but there may be some universities where asylum seekers get in-state tuition.”

The asylum backlog started around 2012 when many asylum seekers flocked to the U.S/ Mexico border in order to request protection. They were “unaccompanied minors,” children without their parents. While the USCIS was increasingly focused on determining their credibility for asylum, the numbers of asylum applicants tripled, subsequently growing by more than 1,750 percent over the last five years.

During the backlog period, these individuals’ lives were literally put on hold. Most of them could not do anything except rely on minimum wage jobs to pay for their living and other personal expenses. With such low-paying jobs, they were not able to attend school to pay out-of-state tuition.

Unlike SCC,  North Seattle College was approving non-resident waivers to the asylum seekers until they were told to stop by the District Leadership. A resident expert at NSC told me on the condition of anonymity, “I don’t like inconsistency when one group of students have options while others don’t.” He further said that anyone, who had been fingerprinted by the USCIS and lived in Washington state for a year, was granted in-state tuition by NSC. Despite the fact that they were stopped in aiding the asylum seekers, they are searching for new ways to make tuition more affordable to them. However, the residency officer did not disclose any specific details regarding how long they were granting non-resident waivers to the pending asylum seekers.

In a quite similar situation, the State of Washington passed the House Bill 1487, also known as “The Microsoft Subsidy Bill.” The HB 1487, came into effect in July 2009, extends in-state tuition rates to foreign professionals such as Microsoft and Amazon employees and their spouses in any colleges and universities in Washington.

A student at SCC who goes by the pseudonym Jaffar said, “It is absurd that the Washington State give a tuition break to the foreign professionals and their spouses who can afford an out-of-state tuition, but denies the pending asylum applicants who rely on minimum wage jobs.”

In contrast, the difficulties facing the growing numbers of asylum seekers at SCC gains no political traction vis-â-vis a solution. Without powerful lobbying assets, fairness seems unlikely to be achieved.

Correction: the original version of this post misspelled Marlene Enriquez-Campos’s name. — The Editorial Board

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