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The University of California, Berkeley is taking the DREAM Act a step further. Today, the school announced a million-dollar scholarship fund specifically for undocumented students. Young people in the country illegally are not eligible for federal student loans or grants.
As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Berkeley's program will begin by helping 200 such students with more to come.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Jesus Chavez is a slight and shy 21-one year old. Glasses, thick mop of black hair, he was brought to this country illegally at the age of three. Chavez was raised in an agricultural town in California's Central Valley, where he earned the grades and test scores to enroll at the highly competitive UC Berkeley.
JESUS CHAVEZ: I fell in love at the environment, the atmosphere. In my mind, I just pretty much told myself this is where I'm going to come.
GONZALES: Chavez has learned that staying in Berkeley is almost as hard as getting in. Because he's here illegally, he's ineligible for federal financial aid, so he covered his first year expenses with small private scholarships and odd jobs. But the scholarships dried up his sophomore year and it's been a grind making ends meet ever since then.
CHAVEZ: The thing about undocumented students is that if you don't have the money, then you get registration blocks and you can't add classes for the next semester or you have to drop out. So you're constantly hustling and it's nonstop.
GONZALES: Chavez's story is familiar to Berkeley's chancellor, Robert Birgeneau. He says there are about 200 undocumented students from 20 different countries at Berkeley. Birgeneau says he knows undergrads who work full-time or who drop out or even wind up homeless because they can't afford room and board.
ROBERT BIRGENEAU: And once I heard the real-life stories, I thought to myself, you know, these are astounding young people. We can't afford to waste this kind of talent.
GONZALES: Birgeneau has been a leading advocate for students like Chavez, the so-called DREAM Act kids. His efforts received a major boost with the announcement today that the Evelyn and Walter Haas Junior Fund is giving UC Berkeley $1 million to provide scholarships for undocumented students.
BIRGENEAU: This turns out to be unprecedented in the United States. And it's the single largest gift that has ever been given to support financial aid for undocumented students.
GONZALES: But not everyone is applauding.
MARK KRIKORIAN: It's outrageous. I mean, there's no legal violation or anything like that, but clearly it's unethical.
GONZALES: Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. that favors tighter immigration controls.
KRIKORIAN: What it means is that this foundation is valuing illegal immigrant students above American or legal immigrant students who can't afford the tuition at the UC system.
GONZALES: The gift from the Haas Fund is legal under the first stage of California's version of the DREAM Act, which makes private resources available for undocumented students. Later this year, such students also will be eligible for state financial aid.
Berkeley senior Jesus Chavez calls the scholarship fund a game changer.
Do you think it's going to change your life?
CHAVEZ: It's changed my life.
CHAVEZ: 'Cause even - OK, now there's no excuse for you to not focus on your academics.
GONZALES: Berkeley officials say since word has spread about the million-dollar scholarship fund, other private donors have stepped forward with significant new gifts for undocumented students.
Richard Gonzalez, NPR News, San Francisco.
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