While Akash Patel was still a senior at the University of Oklahoma he embarked on a research project for class credit that turned into a career.
“We found that there were a lot of immigrant students who were going through the public education system who were falling through the cracks,” Patel says. “They weren't going to college and some of them weren't finishing high school.”
There are about 65,000 undocumented immigrant high school students from around the country that graduate from high school every year, and only 7.5 percent of them actually make it to college. The rest are at risk of being recruited to gang activity, employed illegally, exploited, detained or even deported back to countries they have little or no connection to.
This knowledge was what drove Patel to found the Aspiring Americans Initiative. It’s a coordinated effort with partners like Oklahoma City Public Schools and Dream Act Oklahoma to provide educational opportunities for undocumented students. It’s definitely a polarizing issue.
“I often get questioned with "Are you trying to make a culture to invite more illegal immigration? Why would we want to help people who have broken the law?"” Patel says. “What I say is, I'm not trying to advocate either of those things. We want to focus on the least political part of the conversation, which is empowering the young people.”
He has a personal connection to the issue. Patel and his sister Nisha were young children when their parents brought them to the United States from London. Complications with the immigration process caused them to accidentally overstay their visas, which meant the family was forced to the back of the line when it came to gaining legal status.
“We applied for green cards and that took 16-and-a-half years to get our green cards,” Patel says. “I got it just in time before graduating from high school to be able to apply for some other forms of financial aid and go to college.”
Nisha wasn’t so lucky. She turned 21 before the Patels received their green cards, and aged out of the application process.
“She continues to be undocumented today but enjoys having DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals),” Patel says. “Which allows her to get her work permit, driver’s license and get her Ph.D. here at OU.”
President Obama instituted DACA on June 15, 2012. It grants undocumented youth brought to the United States as children temporary permission to stay in the United States.
There are strict guidelines for eligibility for DACA. For example, applicants must:
- Have been born on or after June 16,1981
- Have arrived in the US prior to their sixteenth birthday
- Have no felony convections
- Pass a background check
The process can be confusing, and many eligible students don’t know how to navigate it.
“Federal data tells us that about half of the entire eligible population in Oklahoma that could be applying for DACA are not,” Patel says. “We are empowering counselors and teachers with this information and doing clinics and forums and informational sessions with the public school systems to make sure that everyone is applying for DACA and that they know what it is.”
Patel also works with pro-bono attorneys who consult with prospective applicants, and fundraises to help families who can’t afford the $465 application fee. But it’s not just bureaucratic hoops that discourage families from applying for DACA.
“It's a very complicated situation to be in and it’s more than just having the knowledge,” Patel says. “A lot of it is culture, is being comfortable talking about these issues, asking for help, knowing who to talk to, who do you feel comfortable asking these questions to?”
The Aspiring Americans Initiative tries to make these families feel like they have someone on their side that understands what they are going through.
“Before I do anything with these sessions with students and families I tell my own story first so that they know they're among friends, that they are among the same company that have gone through the same issues they have so part of it is very cultural,” Patel says.
And as for Akash’s sister Nisha, she went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree in microbiology, and after DACA pursued her Ph.D. in microbiology at OU, where she now works with the Center for Disease Control.
“I can't even imagine how many other Nishas are out there,” Patel says. “That's why we started it, to make sure that we're taking advantage of the talents, the contributions, the passions and the energies of all the other Nishas, all the other Akashes all the aspiring Americans who are out there today just wanting to make a difference in their communities.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Akash Patel welcome to World Views.
AKASH PATEL:Thank you for having me
GRILLOT: So Akash you've done this really interesting thing. You've started this organization called Aspiring Americans Initiative, here in the state of Oklahoma. But this has an international immigration focus. Tell us about this organization and what it is you're doing with Aspiring Americans Initiative.
PATEL: Sure, Aspiring Americans Initiative is a non-profit project that was born out of my research project at the University of Oklahoma last year. We found in the research project that there were a lot of immigrant students who were going through the public education system who were falling through the cracks. They weren't going to college and some of them weren't finishing high school. So just to sort of frame what we've been doing, I can tell you that there are about 65 thousand undocumented immigrant high school students from around the country that graduate from high school every year. And of that 65 thousand we know that only about 7 and a half percent actually make it to college. In this senior thesis I wanted to find out what happened to the 92 and a half percent. We found that a lot of them were getting recruited to gang activity in exchange for protection from deportation. They were getting illegally employed and exploited. Oftentimes they were getting detained and deported and other students were falling through the cracks and dropping out, and we just started keeping track of them. So the Aspiring American Initiative is a coordinated effort with the Oklahoma City Public School District and a few others partners like Dream Act Oklahoma to make sure we close those knowledge gaps to make sure that all students know about their rights and opportunities to help them finish high school and actually go on to college or VoTech, community college, whatever it is that the post graduate opportunities could be.
GRILLOT:So before we get to this knowledge gap and the specifics of what you do, could you tell us a little bit about what motivated you to do this. I mean this is quite a leap from a senior thesis research project to actually starting a non-profit organization and engaging in this very important contemporary issue that we face today. What sent you down that path?
PATEL: The energy and passion behind that came from my own experiences. My family came to the US from London when I was very, very young, I was just 15 months old and because of complications with our visas in the immigration system we accidentally overstayed those visas and as a result trying to get back in line was very difficult and doing things the right way. We applied for green cards and that took 16 and a half years to get our green cards so I got it just in time before graduating from high school to be able to apply for some other forms of financial aid and go to college. That's the good news is that my parents and I, we got our green cards. The bad news, the reason I do any of this, is what happened to my sister. She aged out of the application because she turned 21 before we got those green cards. So she continues to be undocumented today but enjoys having DACA which allows her to get her work permit, drivers license and get her Ph.D. here at OU. We know that a lot of our students don't make it this far and so that is why I started the project, to make sure that more students have access to these opportunities that I got lucky to have.
GRILLOT: Okay so let's talk now about the knowledge gap and the things that people don't know. You just mentioned DACA, D-A-C-A, tell us about that particular initiative and why that matters in this context of undocumented students.
PATEL: Sure. So, DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and is President Obama's executive order from a couple of years ago and in fact we just passed its two-year anniversary. People are renewing those permits now. What that means is that it provides critical relief in three ways to our undocumented population who are usually pretty young. It provides them protection from deportation, temporarily. It gives them work permits and drivers licenses. Federal data tells us that about half of the entire eligible population in Oklahoma that could be applying for DACA are not. Navigating our public school system doing our surveys and interviews with them tells us that's very avoidable, that we could just be talking about DACA more efficiently and more often. We are empowering counselors and teachers with this information and doing clinics and forums and informational sessions with the public school systems to make sure that everyone is applying for DACA and that they know what it is.
GRILLOT: So when you say that students aren't applying for it--this help is there for them but they aren't applying for it, they don't know about it in some ways, closing that knowledge gap and making students and counselors and their parents aware of these types of opportunities but isn't there something else that might be preventing them from taking advantage of these things. I would imagine, and you can tell me based on your case, that it is sometimes very difficult to talk about one's status in terms of being an undocumented young person in this country.
PATEL: Yeah it's a very complicated situation to be in and its more than just having the knowledge. A lot of it is culture, is being comfortable talking about these issues, asking for help, knowing who to talk to, who do you feel comfortable asking these questions to. So that's also part of what aspiring Americans hopes to achieve is by changing some of the culture, by making these conversations easier to have. By helping families and students through this process and knowing that they're not in this alone, that there are other people with them having gone through the same things and that's why before I do anything with these sessions with students and families I tell my own story first so that they know they're among friends, that they are among the same company that have gone through the same issues they have so part of it is very cultural. It's making sure that they're open to asking for help and they know where to get it.
GRILLOT: So obviously one of the difficult things is identifying students because of the lack of knowledge about it and perhaps the fear of discussing it. So you identify them. You are working with the Oklahoma City Public School District, you mentioned. Can you tell us a little bit more about the specific things that you do to help bridge that gap and spread the knowledge and then extend that beyond Oklahoma City. Is there a national movement along these lines? Are you collaborating and connecting with other people from around the country to try to raise and heighten this issue on a national level?
PATEL: Yeah, sure and so what we're doing now specifically, we're doing a few different things. In fact, a few weeks ago we did our first official staff training at US Grant High School where we had the opportunity to talk to 120 teachers at once about all the relevant resources and opportunities they should be giving to the students, so that went really, really well. Not just because it was a very good audience for us to give information to, but they are extremely enthusiastic. By the end of the conversation they wanted more information, they kept inviting us back to talk to their classes privately so we know that's going really well. Following up after those training programs we like to invite them to clinics and forums hosted by Dream Act Oklahoma hosted by our chief partner. What we do is we help students sign up for DACA after learning about it with the help of pro-bono attorneys that we recruited to help us out, to do consultations and at those clinics and forums we do a third thing. We identify students and families who can't afford to pay for DACA applications. They are costly. They are about 500 dollars per person every time you have to apply and renew, so we also fundraise. Aspiring Americans partners with different sponsors and individual supporters to make sure we meet the needs of these students who can't afford to pay for the application. So its a multifaceted process and we're excited to have so many partners.
GRILLOT: So you just mentioned the Dream Act, Oklahoma. Can you tell us a little bit about that for those of us who don't remember the specifics but also how that is specifically connected to DACA and those initiatives.
PATEL: Yeah so Dream Act Oklahoma comes from the national movement that came up a few years ago, United We Dream. So its the single biggest youth-led movement to help immigrant youth today and when DACA came out they were the chief proponents to make sure that everyone was signing up for DACA, they knew what it was they knew where to get help, where to get resources to follow through on the whole process, so Dream Act Oklahoma has been really helpful making sure we reach those target audiences to make sure everyone knows about it. That's why its relatively easier to have a national conversation about it because we have such big partners, recognized players in the game, if you will, who have credibility and a track record of empowering these communities.
GRILLOT: Now you were talking earlier about the enthusiasm that you've been greeted with in working within the Oklahoma City public school district, particularly teachers that are welcoming, advisors, counselors, families and students, but there's also that other side of this that some say "No, these are illegal immigrants. These are people that we try to prevent from coming into our country." This issue has been heavily politicized, right? So, how do you overcome that? What has the response been on that side? I'm happy to hear there's been so much enthusiasm but theres also this other side of it. Tell us about the reaction that you're receiving there and some of the obstacles you face in pushing this agenda forward.
PATEL: You're absolutely right. It's not an easy conversation to have with all stakeholders or all people who could possibly help and I often get questioned with "Are you trying to make a culture to invite more illegal immigration? Why would we want to help people who have broken the law?" And what I say is, I'm not trying to advocate either of those things. We want to focus on the least political part of the conversation which is empowering the young people. The students that are already here, that have been here for years, they are residents of the state. They're in the public school system and they have so many talents, so many contributions to make to the community but they're being sometimes left behind by systems that weren't designed to facilitate this success. And that's through no ones fault. It's just a function of the complicated systems in place. And one example of why I've been able to enjoy that safe space to talk about this in a way that is not political came up recently with an interview with FOX 25. We talked about, the whole time in the interview, just about helping young people, helping the students. I thank Michael Carnuccio for that for allowing us to have a safe space to make sure that what we're talking about it doesn't really matter whether you're a republican or democrat. All that matters is, I would think that on the most basic level that we should be helping the young people in this state.
GRILLOT: These young people had no real say in whether they came to this country. Those are the kids you are focusing on. The ones that came with their parents. Parents brought them. You're not focusing on parents or the families at large, right, you're focusing on these children or people that came, like yourself, at a very young age and didn't come by choice. You ended up here and this is your home. This is where you grew up. Can you imagine having been deported and sent back to your country of birth or your ethnic origins. Is that what your emphasizing? Focusing on that?
PATEL: That's exactly right and that's been the national sentiment for decades in fact, since the Supreme Court came out with the ruling in the seventies, I think it was Plyler vs Doe. Public School systems around the country aren't allowed to ask about immigration status because it doesn't matter. Public school education is a right for everybody so we want to make sure everybody knows what those rights entail, what resources are available to them in this system, whether it's immigration relief for education opportunities. In Oklahoma City that's still a feasible conversation to have in that we enjoy that space to be able to make sure we have supporters to help us with that mission.
GRILLOT: How at all has your effort been conflated with the very recent problems that we've been seeing with unaccompanied children migrating, particularly from Central America, into the United States because of this perception perhaps that the United States will have a very difficult time returning children to their homes if its dangerous and not conducive to human life. We have a considerable amount of concern about young people. How has that affect you, because that has been so visible? We've heard so much about it these days. Has that affected the response to your efforts? It's not exactly the same thing right but its related. It seems like it would effect how people respond to you.
PATEL: Yeah, you're right. It's really affected the tone of the national conversation and culture when we think about immigration to the United States. So in that way we had more complicated conversations after we had the unaccompanied minors at Fort Sill. People were asking us in the project, "Are we doing anything for them?" or "Does this have implications on the public school system?" and we say no it's not related. Of course we have a stake in their success here in the way that the system processes their applications for migration and for how they are handled, for example being screened for health or whatever it was. But what we know with the Aspiring Americans our focus is very different. We're focusing on the students that have been here for years, already enrolled in the system, already residents of the state who would otherwise be eligible for in-state tuition--those types of things. So, it's a separate conversation, but it did complicate our discussion when people would ask us about what we thought about the unaccompanied minors or if we were going to be helping them and the answer was no. Those missions are starkly different but they are related to the same broad conversation about immigration and the United States.
GRILLOT: And the conversation about immigration is definitely not going anywhere, right? So you've definitely gotten yourself into an area that has a complicated but very important future. One of the things that I think is really inspiring about you work, and you mentioned this earlier about telling your story and telling the story of your sister. You know I think the one thing that comes out of that in reading the materials about you and speaking with you before is that theres and emphasis on all of the missed opportunities that, if we don't address this issue, your sister for example and the work that she's done in the medical science areas, that those are missed opportunities if we don't find a pathway for these students, for these young people, to stay in this country. They've been educated in this country, this is their home, and yet there is some missed opportunity if we send them back to some place that isn't their home. Is that what you're ultimately trying to demonstrate here is that it's not a matter of human rights it's a matter of all the things we'll miss if we don't address this issue?
PATEL: That's exactly right. And so I use my sister as the best story for that. She went on to get her bachelors from OU in microbiology but for several years after that wasn't able to publish her research, take internships, travel, take a job, go to the grad school program and so DACA came out. She enrolls in DACA, starts getting her Ph.D. in microbiology at OU and now she's working with the Center for Disease Control through OU. So we know that she's got a huge mind for science and a huge passion for public health research and her name is Nisha and I can't even imagine how many other Nishas are out there. That's why we started it, to make sure that we're taking advantage of the talents, the contributions, the passions and the energies of all the other Nishas, all the other Akashes all the aspiring Americans who are out there today just wanting to make a difference in their communities.
GRILLOT: Well Akash, thank you so much for being here with us today. This is such an important issue and we appreciate the work that you're doing. Thank you for sharing it with us.
PATEL: Thank you very much.
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