SRJC expands its Dream Center, legal services for undocumented students

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On a wall at Santa Rosa Junior College’s newly expanded Dream Center is a framed, whimsical drawing of a woman with her eyes closed and hair windswept, surrounded by dozens of monarch butterflies. Above her head, white letters read: “My dreams are not illegal.”

For many of the 1,800 students at the college who are undocumented, monarchs, which migrate thousands of miles between Mexico and Canada, symbolize hope.

“When students walk into the center, I hope that they see the empowerment and the possibilities of what life can bring to them, even sometimes when you’re in the shadows and question what you can do and how far you can go,” said Alma Valverde, who was hired last summer as the center’s coordinator.

The center handed out cut-out butterflies at its grand reopening Thursday, held in celebration of its expansion. The center moved into a larger, more private office area in Plover Hall on the north end of campus and added free legal services. An immigration lawyer and paralegal will be stationed there three days a week.

“Education is a big goal of mine, and I’m sure it is for many undocumented students. But often it’s a fear as well — trying to progress — because you have so many obstacles and people telling you that you can’t do it,” said Karla Rubio, a 19-year-old undocumented student who works as an assistant at the center.

The Dream Center provides students with attorney consultations, enrollment assistance, scholarship and financial aid resources, and help filling out paperwork for AB 540, a state law that allows undocumented students who graduated from California high schools to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. It also offers parent training, know-your-rights workshops and training for allies of undocumented students.

The center used to be located in an open area in Plover Hall. The new space, which previously was occupied by the Office of Equity, will allow students to have confidential conversations with the immigration attorney and paralegal.

No renovation work was required, just new furniture. The college spent about $22,000, which came from Measure H, the $410 million facilities bond voters approved in 2014.

The center’s expansion comes at a time of intense scrutiny by the White House of undocumented immigrants. President Donald Trump last week called a national emergency to build a wall at the southern border, arguing illegal immigration poses a significant threat.

College officials say they hope the Dream Center serves as a model for other state universities and colleges.

“We live in times when undocumented students are being attacked and providing resources is important,” said Jordan Burns, SRJC Board of Trustees president.

The legal services will be provided by Santa Rosa nonprofit Vital Immigrant Defense Advocacy and Services, also known as VIDAS, founded in 2014 by immigration attorney Richard Coshnear. He has provided legal consultation at the college once a month over the past four or five years.

“It’s been a dream of mine to somehow find subsidized services for kids. They’re so deserving, and they usually came here through no fault of their own,” said Maureen McSorley, an immigration lawyer with 25 years of experience. “If you just enable them, they’re going to do wonderful things for our country.”

“They become empowered, in a sense, by being able to have these services available to them in a safe, secure setting,” she added.

The legal services will be available in April. They’ll be funded by the state Department of Social Services and the Sonoma County Secure Families Fund, said Margaret Flores McCabe, VIDAS executive director.

During the celebration Thursday, in front of a packed room, SRJC President Frank Chong said he was proud of the expansion. He did not mention President Trump by name, but alluded to his immigration agenda.

“No walls, we want bridges,” Chong said. “What sets our community apart is that we are a community of inclusion, not exclusion. We include everybody. ”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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