California Dreamers -- and Their Nightmares

For many undocumented immigrant students at California State University, Fullerton, it's been a tough semester.

April 14, 2017
 
California State University, Fullerton

The night of the presidential election, students gathered at the Titan Dreamers Resource Center at California State University, Fullerton, to watch returns.

“The atmosphere changed dramatically as soon as the results started coming in,” said one student, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“For that week afterward, we felt like we were all mourning. I think we were all mourning different things, but for myself, I felt like I was mourning my chances of education and of work and of having my family together -- my chances for a future that I thought would be possible,” said the student, one of five undocumented immigrant students, or Dreamers, who agreed to be interviewed by Inside Higher Ed on the condition that their names not be used. All five students are undergraduates.

Since the election, many undocumented immigrant students at campuses across the country have been grappling with heightened anxieties about their own safety and that of their loved ones, as well as new uncertainties about their future opportunities in the U.S.

Many of these students are benefiting from the DACA program, which allows certain immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to receive two-year, renewable work permits and temporary relief from the possibility of deportation.

President Trump has sent mixed messages about whether he will keep the program, which was established under President Obama’s executive authority and therefore could easily be undone by Trump. Trump said during the campaign that he would immediately end DACA, which he described as an overreach of Obama's executive authority and a form of "illegal amnesty." But he has not touched it to date -- much to the relief of undocumented immigrants and their advocates -- and has more recently said he wants to “work something out” for Dreamers (without offering a specific plan).

Many undocumented immigrant students are also concerned that, even if DACA remains in place and continues to offer them employment opportunities and protection, new, expanded immigration enforcement priorities outlined by the Trump administration could make their parents -- or, in some cases, siblings -- more vulnerable to arrest and removal.

All of it adds to up to this spring having been an exceptionally stressful semester for many Dreamers on college campuses.

“I’m hearing much more extreme challenges than ever before,” said Henoc Preciado, the coordinator of CSU Fullerton’s resource center for Dreamers, which the university started in 2014.

“I have met students who have been told by immigration attorneys that there’s a pathway to residency for them if they get married to a U.S. citizen partner, and I know of students who are going in that direction, who are in a committed relationship with a U.S. citizen and who are speeding up the process to marriage, so they can be protected,” he said.

“I’ve met students whose parents have sat down with them and told them a very concrete plan of action in the event the parents are deported,” Preciado continued. “I’ve met students who have written letters to their loved ones, in the event they themselves become deported.”

“There’s a general fear within the undocumented community,” Preciado said. “There’s a fear among students in the event DACA is taken away, ‘how will I as an undocumented student … find employment, how will I support my family members who depend on me?’”

“Being a college student is already such a difficult thing in and of itself,” Preciado said, without “adding on the additional challenge of worrying about loved ones and worrying about one’s future on a very regular basis.”

“I know all my information, my fingerprints, everything is out there,” said one CSU Fullerton student, a junior, in reference to the information she provided to the government in order to sign up for DACA. “I would be easy to track.”

“My parents don’t have DACA, unfortunately, so that’s another stress that’s added,” said this same student, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was two years old. “I know in a sense, I’m sort of safe, but they’re not. They have no protection, so there’s just this constant fear.” The student worries especially about her dad, who has to travel around Southern California for his construction job. She calls home every day. “I always call at a time when I know my dad will be home,” she said. “Every time I call, my mom says, ‘oh, your dad’s here.’ She knows what I have in mind but am not asking."

A Center for Dreamers

The center Preciado oversees at CSU Fullerton is relatively rare. One of five identity-based resource centers under the Department of Diversity Initiatives and Resource Centers -- the others are the African American Resource Center, the Asian Pacific American Resource Center, the Chicana and Chicano Resource Center, and the LGBT Queer Resource Center -- the center offers a living room-type space for Dreamers to hang out and a variety of programs, including a twice-monthly empowerment program called Undocumented and Unafraid.

Among its activities, the center organizes support groups facilitated by professionals from the university's counseling center, organizes a special graduation ceremony in the spring for Dreamers and their families, and organizes social events like karaoke nights.

“We’re very fortunate that here at Cal State Fullerton we are a campus that is in many ways leading the way in a very public way in supporting undocumented students,” Preciado said. “We are unapologetic about the fact that we have a resource center specifically for undocumented students.”

After the presidential election, the center organized support groups facilitated by professionals from the university’s counseling center -- Preciado said one of those support groups meets in the Dreamers’ resource center, while the other meets in the counseling center’s space -- as well as a daylong immigration law clinic. The center has continued to host law clinics every Friday, at which students and their families can sign up for free 30-minute consultations with immigration lawyers who volunteer their time.

CSU Fullerton reports enrolling about 900 undocumented immigrant students this academic year. Many of CSU Fullerton’s undocumented students are among the more than 700,000 people nationwide who have benefited from the temporary protections offered by DACA, but not all of them have even that measure of protection.

One student interviewed by Inside Higher Ed just barely missed being eligible for DACA. To be eligible, immigrants have to have been under age 16 when they came to the U.S. and to have lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007. This student arrived in the U.S. as a 14-year-old from Mexico one month later, in July 2007. Former President Obama proposed an expansion of the DACA program that would have included him, but that expansion was halted by the courts.

“I’ve been here for 10 years,” said the student, who started at a community college before transferring to Fullerton and has known he's wanted to be an occupational therapist since his junior year of high school. “I’ve got a life I’ve already started to build here. I’ve got to finish my education. A lot of people ask me, ‘once you’re done with your education, do you want to go back?’ I’m not planning to.”

The student described being a Dreamer as an identity. “I am a Dreamer. I am a person who is here for my education, and I am fighting for my education,” he said.

Another student at Fullerton who does have DACA status said she was once asked, “As a Dreamer, what is your biggest dream?”

“I said I want to stop being a Dreamer. I want people to stop telling me that all I can do is dream. I want to make them happen,” said the student.

“I try to stay in a positive state but also be realistic,” the student continued. “I’m not married to the idea of DACA staying forever, but I am hopeful that there will be something or there will be a way.”

Uncertainty and Anxieties

Hundreds of higher education leaders nationwide have signed on to various letters calling on the Trump administration to keep DACA’s protections in place. One letter to Trump, organized by the American Council on Education and signed by more than 560 college presidents, said that many DACA recipients “now live in fear that the program [DACA] will be rolled back or revoked. In order to lift this cloud of fear, we ask that you commit to allowing these productive and high-achieving individuals to continue to work and study while your administration and Congress arrive at a permanent solution.”

Higher education leaders in support of keeping DACA stress that undocumented college students -- many of whom were brought to the U.S. as young children and have never known any other country -- have talents and tax revenues, they can contribute to the U.S. and its economy if they are able to work legally. Opponents of the program argue that it's unlawful and serves to reward and encourage illegal immigration.

As for Trump, he has changed his tone since the campaign, when he said he would “immediately terminate” DACA, but he also has not made a straightforward commitment to keeping the program. In February, he described many DACA recipients as “incredible kids” and said he was going to deal with the issue “with heart.”

Several of the students interviewed by Inside Higher Ed credit the establishment of DACA in 2012 with giving them the motivation and -- by virtue of the fact that DACA enabled them to work legally -- the financial means to pursue four-year college degrees. Undocumented immigrant students are not eligible for federal loans or grants, though California is one of a small group of states, along with Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington, where students are eligible for state-level financial aid.

“DACA came out one year after I had graduated [from high school]. I had started at a community college, but I think at the time I wasn’t really motivated to continue higher education,” said one student, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was four years old. “In addition to finding it really difficult to pay for school -- at the time my parents were helping me to pay for tuition and the rest of the school expenses -- I didn’t have that big of a motivation to continue pursuing a degree. When I received DACA, because of the fact that I was able to work and find a job, that helped me, I think, continue on to university.”

“At that time,” the student said, “there was a lot of talk about why undocumented students would go into higher education if their job opportunities after graduation were zero.” DACA has changed that.

The student got married last year to his girlfriend, a U.S. citizen whom he’d dated for five and a half years, and has applied for permanent residency. While his application is pending, he remains subject to the uncertainties surrounding DACA.

“It’s kind of awkward knowing it’s a 50-50 chance every single day, what would happen to the program and what that would mean for someone like myself,” he said.

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