Despite having an undocumented student population of more than 5,000, and more than a third of undergraduate students who are born outside the mainland U.S., the entire CUNY system has only two such “immigrant student success centers.”

Daniel Parra

A banner hung at the City College campus entrance earlier this month. The school has since announced plans to open a center for immigrant students.

City College of New York (CCNY) will create an Immigrant Student Success Center, a one-stop shop for undocumented college students, City Limits has learned—following five years, countless hours of meetings and two-tenure presidencies of the CCNY Dream Team club, a group of students that’s been campaigning for it.

“CCNY is in the process of trying to build an immigrant student success center,” President Vincent Boudreau told City Limits via email. He’d met with CCNY Dream Team students in March about the proposal, similar to one presented to him in 2019.

“Next [fiscal] year, we will be using grant monies to turn that into an immigrant student success center—but we literally have no clear idea where funding for that will come from after next year, but I’m looking for that,” he added.

Despite having an undocumented student population of more than 5,000, and with more than a third of undergraduates born outside the U.S. mainland, the entire City University of New York system (CUNY) system has only two such immigrant student success centers, at John Jay and Brooklyn College.

Public university systems elsewhere have opened similar offices: California had 46 such centers five years ago, and at that time, Texas had three.

The immigrant student success centers are a one-stop shop to guide undocumented students in their college, financial, and legal life, and a space for connecting with other immigrant students.

“The centers also provide training to faculty and staff, to build their knowledge of challenges and enable them to better support students who are immigrants,” CUNY said last year when announcing the creation of a “director of undocumented and immigrant student programs” position for the CUNY system. 

“So many struggle and have questions, and we don’t have a centralized point to go to,” said Lorena Modesto, current president of the CCNY Dream Team, explaining the need for a center at CCNY.

In 2019, when she joined the CCNY Dream Team, a student club to connect and educate immigrant groups within the college, Modesto didn’t know about the passage of the NY Dream Act that year, which made immigrant students who’d been previously cut off from assistance eligible for state-administered financial aid.

“So many of us weren’t able to apply before,” said Modesto. “I had already paid my first year out of pocket when I found out.” 

Roxana Herrera, CCNY Dream Team club president from 2018 to 2020, said the idea of a center “was a consistent talking point,” for students for years.

“It took me a while to gather the courage to go to their meeting,” said Herrera recalling the first time she finally attended one, where students also planned to launch an undocumented guidebook, create a WhatsApp group, and organize financial aid workshops. “That was the first time I shared with students I was undocumented,” Herrera added. 

While the idea of creating such a center emerged in 2018, it was only in 2019 that Herrera and her club group landed the first meeting with the CCNY president. But months went by without news.

Then, in 2020, the whole world was transformed by the pandemic, campuses closed their doors, classes went into remote learning mode, and the club’s plans were put on an undefined hiatus. 

“I wanted to keep the space alive after I graduated,” said Herrera of passing the baton to the club’s successor, Modesto.

As soon as the classrooms reopened, under strict controls of testing and the use of facemasks, little by little the group broke the ice to meet and resume their work in 2021. Two years later, they met again with the CCNY president to press him on the idea for the center, but were told  finding the funds would be the hardest part, according to Modesto.

“We are currently in the process of cutting $10.3 million dollars from our budget for next year and that severely limits our capacity to undertake new programs,” said president Boudreau. 

In all, the April 2023 executive budget unveiled last month would reduce CUNY’s bottom line budget by $41.3 million each year between fiscal year 2024 to 2026, according to the Comptroller’s office.

“We need funds for a Center director and will try to use existing funds for student interns to round out the staff,” said Boudreau.

CUNY’s announcement comes two weeks after a banner was draped across the CCNY’s North Academic Center entrance, zip-tied and chained to a handrail. “CCNY fails undocumented students,” it read. “Immigration center now!”

Actions like this have taken place on other CUNY campuses, such as John Jay, said students who were part of the fight to create CUNY’s first Immigrant Student Success Center in 2018.

“We did two banner drops,” said Lisa Cho, vice president of the JJDreamers Club in 2019, adding that theirs lasted for months.

Cynthia Carvajal, the inaugural director of the Immigrant Student Success Center at John Jay, recalls seeing the banner when she went to the on-campus interview for the position. She spent several years in charge of the first center there, helping more undocumented students enroll and access scholarships or grants.

In 2022 she was named CUNY Director of Undocumented and Immigrant Student Programs. 

One of her main tasks is to open more of these centers where they are needed. While CUNY does not collect data on students’ immigration status, she estimates there is a great need for a center at City College.

“A lot [of immigrant students] come from CCNY,” Carvajal said.