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As End of DACA Looms, Colleges and Organizers Ramp Up Efforts to Protect Undocumented Students

Colleges across the US are hunkering down to resist any attempts to deport undocumented students.

Colleges across the US are hunkering down to resist any attempts to deport undocumented students. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Within days of the presidential election, Maria Ferrera, a professor of social work at Chicago’s DePaul University, began hearing stories that worried her. Calls to suicide hotlines were up, she learned, and many of the callers were undocumented students or people with Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival [DACA] status. Worse, rumors of actual suicides — as yet unconfirmed — were circulating. Fear and anxiety continue to be palpable, she told Truthout. Will US-born children be separated from their undocumented parents? Will DACA recipients be stripped of their legal status and forced to drop out of school? Will the mass deportation of three million people happen, as Trump has promised?

“It makes me angry,” says 27-year-old Syndia, a DACA recipient and graduate student at a large Midwestern college. “Thanks to DACA authorization, I’ve been able to work to pay for my living expenses. If DACA ends, how will I support myself while I finish my Master’s degree? How will I pay back my loans?”

Worrying about these things has been extremely stressful, Syndia says, not only for her, but also for friends, family members and colleagues who are in similar straits. In fact, she continues, “the constant anxiety has made it hard to be a normal student.”

As she speaks, Syndia’s fury becomes increasingly audible. “How could so many people support a candidate who is so anti-immigrant, so against everything I value?” she asks. “It’s hard not to despair. Some of my friends have confided that they’ve felt self-destructive and hopeless since the election. We feel like we’re losing control of our lives, that our lives are no longer in our hands. We don’t know if we’ll get to do the work we entered school to prepare for. We don’t know if we’ll get to finish our degrees. Our entire future is insecure. I mean, I went to the store to buy garbage bags recently and had to think about whether I should buy a package of 100. I stopped and asked myself if I think I’ll be here to use that many or if I should just buy the 30 pack.”

Syndia’s situation is not unusual. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many college and university students are undocumented or have DACA status — there is no composite list and estimates range from the low thousands to tens of thousands — we know that their ability to stay in school is far from assured.

But college faculty, staff and students are mobilizing, marching and drafting letters and petitions to demand that school administrators do something to protect students who are vulnerable because of immigration status. Already, meetings with community activists, religious leaders and legislators have taken place to strategize about how best to proceed. Those involved are debating tactics ranging from contacting the Trump administration to planning a nationwide strike to highlight the valuable work of immigrants.

Widespread Support for DACA Students

Already 598 college presidents — out of a possible 4,726 — have signed onto a letter demanding that Trump not only continue DACA, but expand it. “Since the advent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, we have seen the critical benefits of this program for our students,” the letter states. “DACA beneficiaries have been exemplary student scholars and student leaders.” The letter touts the fact that, thanks to DACA, students and alumni have been able to work in an array of fields — including business, education, medicine, law and the nonprofit sector — and also notes that many are actively contributing to local communities. Continuing DACA, the presidents conclude, is “a moral imperative and a national necessity. America needs talent — and these students, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community.”

For his part, Trump has said that he will revoke DACA within his first 100 days in office. That promise has prompted more than 200 public and private colleges, two-year and four, not only to declare their support for the DACA program, but also to declare themselves sanctuaries or safe zones for the undocumented. This number is expected to increase once the spring semester gets underway. The colleges have further pledged not to comply with immigration agencies unless forced to do so by a court order, subpoena, or judicial warrant.

It is worth underscoring that none of the schools have indicated a willingness to break the law, risk arrest, or shelter people who have received deportation orders. Nonetheless, they’ve struck a reactionary nerve. Already, conservative lawmaker Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, has introduced HR 6530, the No Funding for Sanctuary Campuses Act, which would deny federal financial aid to students attending classes on sanctuary campuses. Similarly, an effort to amend the Code of Virginia is presently before that state’s Assembly. The proposed bill would require all employees of “public institutions of higher education to cooperate in the enforcement of federal law by US Customs and Immigration enforcement on the institution’s campus, in any non-campus buildings or property, and on public property.”

Small wonder that even the term sanctuary has become contentious, with some campus activists insisting that using the word is the best way to demonstrate their commitment to protecting and defending students at risk of expatriation. Others disagree, arguing that it is deeds, not labels, that matter most.

“The word sanctuary can be difficult to understand because it has a different meaning in every context it is used,” Jessica Hanson, a Skadden Legal Fellow at the National Immigration Law Center, explains. Unlike houses of worship that have provided literal shelter to people facing expulsion, “schools are not talking about providing physical harboring since that would make them subject to anti-harboring laws and penalties. Instead, colleges are reaffirming that they will not be strong-armed to do the work of federal immigration enforcement and will not violate the Constitutional protections of their student body.” For residential campuses, she adds, this means that a dorm is akin to a student’s home, so immigration agents cannot barge in without a warrant to search the space or make an arrest.

More generally, she continues, schools are working to increase the resources available to undocumented students — including financial assistance from private sources — and are erecting barriers to impede Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and any new enforcement entities that the Trump administration might create. Furthermore, they’re working to reaffirm their authority to oppose immigration laws that will adversely impact their students.

Colleges as Sensitive Locations

On a practical note, Hanson says that since 2011 colleges and universities — like medical centers and religious bodies — have been deemed “sensitive locations,” meaning that immigration authorities have been instructed not to conduct enforcement activities in these places unless national security is threatened. Unless the law is changed, Hanson says, “immigration authorities are more likely to conduct investigations in easier locales, so instead of going on campus to get a person they want, they’ll go elsewhere. There are many other ways for immigration officials to get information. Nonetheless, it is important for schools to put up every possible legal barrier to make it harder for them to get what they want.”

These barriers, she continues, are most effective when they include four specific promises: to limit the sharing of student information with federal immigration authorities; to restrict immigrant agents’ access to campuses and allow them entrance only with a warrant or court order; to prohibit campus security from collaborating with federal immigration authorities for enforcement purposes; and to provide concrete resources and information to immigrant students and their families.

Providing factual data is essential, Hanson stresses, since immigration officials often come to people’s homes and intimidate them into waiving their fourth amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. “They use people’s fear and ignorance of their rights to violate these rights,” she says.

Connecticut College is one of the schools that is stepping up to make sure that undocumented students and their allies know what immigration authorities can and can’t do. John McKnight, Jr., Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, reports that, like dozens of other schools, Connecticut College has brought immigration attorneys to campus to consult with DACA students and educate the campus community about their rights and obligations. The school has also established a fund to assist any DACA students facing a legal challenge. In addition, its Office of Community Partnerships has been in contact with faith-based organizations in New London to see what other concrete measures can be taken.

A Growing Number of School-Community Partnerships

Indeed, the partnership between colleges, community groups and religious bodies is impressive and growing. DePaul’s Ferrera, for example, is working with community mental health practitioners, students and immigrant rights groups to create the Mental Health Coalition for Undocumented Immigrants. Once it is off the ground, the coalition will facilitate care for those triggered by Trump. And, since the need for services is pervasive, practitioners are hoping to organize a national meeting of mental health workers to share best practices and strategies for treatment and outreach.

In addition to showcasing the need for direct services to help impacted constituencies, Trump’s election has also boosted people’s interest in learning the ins-and-outs of activism. At New Jersey’s Rutgers University, the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) is playing a pivotal role in helping students learn the basics of community organizing.

According to union president David Hughes, a spontaneous student-led demonstration to demand that Rutgers declare itself a sanctuary campus was held three days after the election. The march ended up at the union’s office. “More than 100 students came in on November 11 and we put together a statement to declare ourselves a sanctuary campus,” Hughes said. “We denounced Trump and said that his plan to summarily deport 11 million people would disrupt Rutgers and make for an unhealthy learning environment.”

A few weeks later, Rutgers President Robert Barchi agreed to protect the identity of undocumented community members, assigned an office to counsel DACA students, agreed to widely publicize this office and said Rutgers would continue to allow DACA students to pay in-state tuition fees. He also agreed to train faculty and staff in how best to support undocumented students, and said that Rutgers would not voluntarily share student data with immigration authorities.

The union-student group counts this as a huge win; the union has since facilitated weekly meetings with student activists, not only to build support for sanctuary but also to address how best to oppose the wider Trump agenda.

That wider agenda is also motivating students at Georgetown University. Alexis Larios, a junior majoring in Government and English, says that despite the fact that college president John J. DeGioia was quick to make Georgetown a sanctuary campus, faculty, staff and students still had concerns about other at-risk populations. “We created a petition with lots of asks,” she begins, “not only for undocumented and DACA students, but to protect other marginalized groups. It seemed clear to us that it was not just undocumented students who were going to be targeted. We wanted our bases covered to make sure all students can be comfortable to live their lives and learn without having to worry about discrimination.” Among their demands: opening one gender-neutral bathroom in every building; providing cultural competency training to all counselors and psychiatric services staff; offering an American Sign Language class; and organizing a teach-in on how to effectively respond to racism in the classroom.

Jennifer Fink, an associate professor of English at Georgetown, adds that even before Trump won the presidency, there was a solid foundation for resistance on campus. “We have a program in Justice and Peace Studies which is one place where professors and student activists intersect on campus. There was already a big immigrant rights movement run by students, so as soon as Trump got elected, the students got right on it.”

Although Fink says that conversations about harboring people on campus have yet to take place, she stresses that everyone wants to make sure that the needs of university staff are acknowledged and met. “We have many new Central American immigrants on staff,” she says. They came to DC because some Catholic churches in town have been providing sanctuary since the 1980s and there are links between these parishes and Georgetown and other Jesuit schools. This might prove helpful later. For right now, all I can say is that DACA and undocumented students and staff are absolutely terrified. At the same time, they know that the right wing is mobilizing, so [we] have no choice but to try to counter these attacks.”

“I’m not panicking for myself,” says Oscar, a 33-year-old DACA recipient and community-college student who has lived in New York City since he was a child. “I’m more afraid for families that will be separated. My sister is blind. She is also undocumented. Her husband is undocumented, too, but they have two US citizen daughters. If my sister has to return to a place she has not lived [in] since 1993, she will lose her independence. We’re all afraid and talk about it constantly, but I’m at a point where whatever will happen, will happen. I try not to dwell on it, but it’s hard to think about anything else.”

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