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

by Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout | Report –

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.”

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout