The California Student Aid Commission began to see a chilling effect from harsh immigration rhetoric last year, when the annual increase in applicants they'd come to expect slowed.
This year, fears have been amplified as rhetoric gives way to high-profile enforcement action. California officials say students' personal information is safe with them, but it’s a tough sell.
In mid-February application numbers were down by nearly half compared to last year, but a major campaign to get the word out has had some impact. That gap has narrowed significantly -- now the numbers are down less than 10 percent and counting. Still, the commission is bracing for a decrease in applicants for the first time since the program began.
"Every hour I grow more and more concerned," said California Student Aid Commission director Lupita Cortez Alcala. "We’ve done everything that we can possibly think to do."
She said they’ve held press conferences, phone banks and information sessions across the state. They even got a celebrity DJ involved.
San Francisco City College student Alejandro Villeda did apply for aid, despite some reservations, and he encouraged his classmates to take advantage of this opportunity.
"I feel like the best (way) to make our voices loud is to have an education," he told the crowd at a news conference earlier this week.
But privately he said many of his friends had made a different calculation and chose not to apply, for fear immigration agents would get hold of their personal details. "They worry somehow that information gets shared and they’re gonna go look for them because they know exactly where they live," he said.
Alejandro Jimenez, director of City College of San Francisco's resource center for immigrant students, said he understands those fears, but encouraged students to think about what’s at stake.
"Having the California Dream Act is the difference between having to have two or three jobs and taking one class at a time, or moving along in your education," he said. "Please take advantage of this deadline."