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.”