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The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid promised to be an easy process for all students, especially those from immigrant families. For the first time, students with undocumented parents were told, they would be able to complete this form online.

We should have known better. Students with undocumented parents are constantly getting error messages from the FAFSA portal and are struggling to create FAFSA IDs for their parents who don’t have Social Security numbers. When they contact the FAFSA helpline, they hear “It’s a glitch. Try at a different time. Try a different browser.”

As I have seen as a college adviser, the online process has only worked for a few of my qualifying students. Others were asked to send their parents’ documents for verification.

Many of these students are still waiting for approval and have been unable to complete their FAFSA forms. Delays in their FAFSA applications could mean delays in receiving financial aid packages and possibly mean getting less financial aid to cover the costs of college. Their FAFSA applications now echo the immigration policies in this country — forever in limbo, mired in legislative and bureaucratic delays.

It wouldn’t surprise me if those students’ documents were among the FAFSA program’s thousands of unread emails, indicative of its widespread failure.

Related: ‘Simpler’ FAFSA complicates college plans for students, families

This isn’t the only roadblock my students face while attempting to pursue a college education. And it just underscores their need for help from someone familiar with the system and the frustration it brings.

Sadly, there aren’t enough college advisers like me for the growing population of immigrant students in New York City. We need to earmark funds to hire more advisers because no matter how much we prepare students in high school to succeed academically at the next level, they also need someone trained in the intersection of immigration and education to get them there.

For nearly a decade, the New York State Youth Leadership Council (YLC) and Teach Dream, the council’s educator team, have pushed city officials for more support for immigrant students in schools.

Finally, in 2021, they launched the Immigrant Liaison pilot program in a collaborative project with CUNY’s Initiative on Immigration and Education. That program led to the creation of positions for school staff members with experience working with and supporting immigrant youth, undocumented students, their families and caregivers.

The pilot began with three New York City public high schools, including the one where I work; in its second year, it added two middle schools. But funds for the program ended last June, leaving many of us doing this work informally.

Two decades ago, I was an undocumented student in high school and was unable to complete the FAFSA because of my status. I did some research to try to find out if I would be eligible for academic scholarships. I made several inquiries to tri-state college admissions counselors.

Like many of my students, I wanted to be the first in my family to earn a college degree, but my research results were discouraging.

I’ll never forget one response: An admissions counselor said I would have to contact the office for “special education accommodation” — as if immigration were a disability.

Federal and state immigration policies have since changed, and options have multiplied for immigrant students. In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, began to allow eligible immigrants like myself to obtain work permits and Social Security numbers.

In 2016, New York State changed its licensing rules, allowing DACA recipients like me to earn professional certifications in teaching, and I was able to continue my career as a math teacher in the Department of Education. And in 2019, the New York State Senate passed the José Peralta New York State DREAM Act, which gave undocumented students in New York State the ability to qualify for state aid for higher education.

Yet even with all these changes, undocumented immigrants in New York State make up less than 2 percent of the students enrolled in higher education despite the fact that undocumented immigrants comprise roughly 14 percent of the state’s overall population.

How many more could go to college if they had someone in their high school who could properly guide them through the college application process?

Related: OPINION: I’m a college access professional. I had no idea filling out the new FAFSA would be so tough

At schools across the country, at all grade levels, not enough counselors and staff are equipped to navigate the intricacies of the complex and often confusing immigration system.

We need state or city-funded immigrant liaisons at every school. Securing funding will be like working with FAFSA: We will need to be persistent and patient.

It’s worth it. This winter, I walked a student through the steps on how to create her mother’s FAFSA ID. The mother then tried multiple times for a month until she was successful in creating it.

After that, my student completed her FAFSA form in 10 minutes. Now, we are waiting to hear whether she gets financial aid to attend college.

My work as an immigrant liaison is never finished. I only wish more could join me.

Juan Carlos Pérez is a project researcher for the CUNY Initiative on Immigration & Education and a college adviser at an international high school in New York City.

This story about immigrant students and FAFSA was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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