How a 24-Year-Old Undocumented College Student Does Money
Giancarlo Tello is a 24-year-old New Jersey resident who peppers his Facebook feed with Yu-Gi-Oh! references, Magic the Gathering speak, and other geeky, pop culture talk. Bespectacled and somewhat unassuming at first glance, he comes off as a typical Rutgers University student.
Tello is anything but typical. He has been at the forefront in New Jersey and beyond for advocating in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants like himself, and being an activist on progressive, liberal issues. He’s protested Gov. Chris Christie at town hall meetings. He’s clashed with Democrats, whom he felt were not tough enough on their leaders. He’s been interviewed and covered by various news media outlets such as Univision, Associated Press, and The Huffington Post. He has visited the White House on official business— twice as part of his activism work. And he even briefly became an internet meme in August when Media Matters highlighted coverage of him receiving a college scholarship. Fox News Latino used the term “undocumented immigrant” (a term immigration reform activists prefer) in their news piece while Fox used: “Money for Illegals.”
Giancarlo and I are friends. We met last year at a speaking event for Jose Antonio Vargas, the well-known Filipino undocumented immigrant activist and journalist. It was at an event in New York City sponsored by the Fil-Am Press Club of New York, where I’m a member, and I’ve followed Giancarlo’s upward trajectory since then. He’s been tenacious along with fellow activists in securing in-state tuition for people like himself; Gov. Christie signed the New Jersey Dream Act earlier this year after wrangling with Democrats.
How does Giancarlo do money as an undocumented immigrant? Finances for an undocumented immigrant, who live in the shadows for the most part, must be complicated—especially if you are a college student. Giancarlo enrolled in 2008 at Bergen Community College, where he obtained an associate’s degree in applied science. He then enrolled at Rutgers, where he had dropped out last year due to financial concerns because he was paying out-of-state college tuition. According to the Star-Ledger, “In-state undergraduates at Rutgers University pay $13,499 a year in tuition and fees while out-of-state students pay $27,523.”
Giancarlo was gracious enough to do an interview with me.
Living with two parents and my younger sister who is 12.
How did you immigrate into this country? From where? How long have you been here?
Tourist visa. Via airplane from Peru in 1996. I have been here 18 years.
Are you the only undocumented immigrant in your family?
In my immediate family, just myself.
When did you find out you were undocumented? What were your feelings associated with it?
When I was 15 in driver’s ed. My parents told me when I tried to obtain my learner’s permit. I didn’t understand what undocumented meant until I did research. I found out I was vulnerable to deportation, with no chance for a driver’s license. I thought I couldn’t go to college because I couldn’t put a Social Security number on an application because I didn’t have one. It added up to one scared, confused 15-year-old. I was scared, confused, and hopeless.
When did you “come out” as an undocumented immigrant? When did you start to do activism work on behalf of undocumented students?
In 2010, during the National Dream Act campaign—same year as I traveled to Washington D.C. for the Senate vote on the Dream Act. [The Dream Act would have granted permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, graduated from high school, and meeting other conditions. That act died in the Senate.]
Any fears you had growing up as an undocumented immigrant? Did they go away when you “came out.” And how did your friends and adults in your life (such as teachers etc.) react when you came out as undocumented?
Yes, plenty of fears of what ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) could do to me and what other friends/colleagues could do to me. And no, they haven’t gone away, but I’ve never felt more empowered. :)
I came out in phases to different people until it somehow just became an accepted fact.
How did you earn money as an undocumented immigrant before President Barack
Obama’s executive order on DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals? [This act in 2012 granted work permits to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Giancarlo is under the DACA program.] Were you basically paid in cash before DACA?
Yes, I worked a few simple jobs such as coaching tennis and giving computer lessons to senior citizens.
What opportunities were opened to you once you received DACA?
I was able to obtain work authorization, a social security number, and a driver’s licence. I could drive :)
How did you pay for community college? Was it difficult to come up with the money? I understand you had to stop going to school.
Out-of-pocket by working, hence it took three years for me to obtain my associates degree. Out-of-pocket by working and overdrafting on my debit card, so it was pretty hard. Since graduating BCC in 2011, I’ve only been able to afford three classes at Rutgers Newark, dropping out last year. Three semesters, one class each.
What are you majoring in at Rutgers? How many more years/semesters
do you have?
Four more semesters until I graduate. Political science. I have been involved in the political process. I thought the best way to make a change is to learn how the system works so I can navigate it; learn the game to win it.
When did you start to do activism work for the New Jersey Dream Act? What were your feelings when it finally passed, and what were your feelings about the lack of student aid? (The final version of the bill that Gov. Christie signed removed state financial aid.)
New Jersey youth started its formal campaign for the New Jersey Dream Act beginning of 2013. I was very excited and inspired that the youth of New Jersey were able to pass a law in New Jersey in conjunction with our (political) allies. The lack of state aid showed that the GOP is still discriminatory at a basic level and only encourages us all to fight twice as hard.
What was your reaction with Christie’s stance on the Dream Act and its final form?
I feel he reneged on his promise once he got the Latino vote. He promised full equality, and the bill we sent him (in-state and state aid) was that. His conditional veto of state aid still discriminates against undocumented students.
I understand you just received a scholarship to go back to school. Could you please tell us about it?
I’ve been going back and forth with the Vice Chancellor of Rutgers Newark, John Gunkel, since my enrollment at Rutgers. He and the Chancellor—Nancy Cantor—both pushed for finding funding for me to return to school, which resulted in the scholarships and my enrollment into the Honors College, a school within the university.
It’s a $6,000 Rutgers grant and a $5,000 Chancellor’s scholarship for being in the Honors College, and $11,000 next year also provided I keep up my GPA. I need a 3.5 to stay in Honors College.
Your feelings on getting the scholarship?
I am very blessed. Not enough people get this opportunity to get higher education. I am not going to keep it to myself. I am going to keep trying to work so that higher education is affordable and accessible to people who want or need it. I hope I can make higher ed more affordable for anybody who needs it.
What kind of work had you been doing while you have been out of school?
I’ve worked a few jobs, ranging from working for the Communications Workers of America to the New Jersey Working Families Alliance [a progressive issues advocacy group]. My main campaign last year was working on the New Jersey Dream Act, which got conditionally vetoed, but still allowed in-state tuition rate for undocumented students.
The best moment during your successful activism work? What were you feeling at the time?
My best moment was when we were able to turn out so many youths to Trenton for the final vote on the New Jersey Dream Act in December and see the hope and power we all held, plus knowing that all our hard work actually paid off!