Student gov. president fights for pay despite illegal status
The student body president at California State University, Long Beach is ineligible to receive his salary because he is an illegal immigrant, but is looking to create a loophole that would change that.
Jose Salazar, who was elected to the position in the spring with over 50 percent of the vote, is pushing a policy that would redefine the position’s $1,264 per month fellowship as a scholarship to get around laws against employing illegal immigrants, The Long Beach Press Telegram reports.
At issue is the fact that the student government is run through Associated Students, Inc. (ASI), which the school describes on its website as “a nonprofit membership association and auxiliary organization of the university.” The student body president acts as the CEO of ASI, with job requirement and compensation arrangements that constitute an employer-employee relationship.
“As an employee, Jose, because of his undocumented status, is unable to receive compensation,” CSULB spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp confirmed in a conversation with Campus Reform, adding that the university is “caught between the complexities of state and federal law” on the matter.
Under a state law passed in 2011, AB 844, undocumented students are allowed to serve in student governments at public colleges in universities in California, and “may receive any grant, scholarship, fee waiver, or reimbursement for expenses incurred in connection with that service, to the full extent of the law.”
Previously, as a student senator, Salazar was able to collect $640 per semester in “director’s fees,” which aren’t considered compensation, but as president his fellowship qualifies him as an employee under federal law, though he is still able to take advantage of the full tuition waiver that also comes with the position.
“I felt like I was kinda done wrong,” Salazar said in an interview with local radio station KFI AM 640. “There was nowhere in the package that said you need a Social Security number.”
Once he became aware that his lack of legal status would preclude him from collecting his fellowship, Salazar told The Daily 49er student newspaper that he filed paperwork with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to obtain a work permit valid for up to two years. His application is still pending.
Jeff Klaus, ASI dean of students, says he spoke with Salazar when he first took office to explain that without his DACA approval or a change in compensation policy, he would have to serve in the position as a volunteer.
“As an advocate for students, I wanted to make sure that it was clear to him that here are the two options, and if those aren’t in place, in a sense, you would be volunteering, and are you comfortable with that?” Klaus said. “He said, ‘Okay, I’m okay with volunteering’.”
Interestingly, the entire controversy might have been avoided if Salazar had followed through on his original intention to file the DACA paperwork last December—a decision he claims to have postponed so that he could “prove a point to the students” and “empower the undocumented community” by winning the position without obtaining legal status.
CSULB is supporting Salazar’s belated application, but it remains unclear whether it will be approved in time for him to collect his pay under the current arrangement.
“We have been working with him, and we are in favor of him being compensated, but we aren’t obviously able to change federal law, though we have reached out to legislators in an effort to expedite his DACA application,” Uhlenkamp told Campus Reform.
Salazar may now be running out of options, though, because even if the ASI Senate adopts his proposal to adjust the president’s compensation, the change would not take effect until June 1, after Salazar’s term is over.
That outcome is far from assured, as several ASI members have expressed skepticism about the idea, noting that the existing system of compensation allows the president to be held accountable for fulfilling their duties, which include maintaining a 25-hour work week, attending various meetings, and appointing individuals to certain student government positions.
Richard Haller, executive director for ASI, told the Board of Control that the fellowship system was put in place for that exact reason, claiming that previous presidents had failed to adequately perform their duties, including one who left to take maternity leave.
“There would be no accountability,” warned ASI Treasurer Wendy Lewis. “And if that person, whoever the executive is, decides not to come in anymore—let’s say school gets hard like it always does … and they stop showing up—now we have to hire someone to do that job.”
Salazar’s proposal would also create technical difficulties, Lewis argued, because scholarships are paid in a lump sum during the fall and spring semesters, meaning executives would not be paid during the summer.
“From what I’ve seen and people I’ve talked to, when you keep it as compensation, people really stick to it,” ASI senator Miguel Garcia concurred.
Uhlenkamp offered another possible reason for the ASI’s reluctance to embrace Salazar’s proposal, telling Campus Reform that “he is the first ASI president to be undocumented, but he is not the first student leader to be undocumented,” and suggesting that other ASI executives may be reluctant to alter the form of their own compensation.
Salazar’s vice president at ASI, Miriam Hernandez, also lacks legal status, Uhlenkamp pointed out, but has been able to collect her executive pay because she completed her DACA paperwork on time.
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