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When Yadira Hernández Pérez graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2015, she faced many questions common among new graduates, such as how to save for retirement, how to apply for graduate school and which health-care benefits to choose.
But Hernández Pérez, an Indigenous Mexican from Puebla, also found herself wondering about a whole set of other issues related to her undocumented status in the U.S.: Should she disclose her lack of a green card during job interviews? And how could she find mentors? As a first-generation college graduate, she couldn’t turn to her family for advice.
So in 2017, she created UCLA’s Undocumented Alumni Association to help other undocumented graduates navigate the unique challenges they face in adapting to life after college. The association holds social events for undocumented alumni, connects alumni with faculty members and offers guidance on legal issues from visa status to securing a job without a work permit. The association also facilitates meetings between undocumented alumni and potential employers and provides career counseling and information about graduate programs. Most importantly, Hernández Pérez said, the association allows undocumented alumni to share their struggles and stories with each other.
Thanks to the support of the group she helped found, Hernández Pérez enrolled in the City University of New York Law School in August.
“One of the reasons I started the association was definitely a response to the anti-immigrant political climate that was happening” after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, said Hernández Pérez. “At the time, it was also my own experience being an undocumented alumni navigating my life after graduation and to create structures that will be helpful for future generations.”
Currently, the association is working on mentorship programs between alumni and current UCLA students. During the pandemic, she said, the association raised emergency COVID-19 grants for over 100 undocumented families—some alumni and some from the larger Los Angeles community—who didn’t qualify for COVID-19 stimulus payments.
“We wanted to provide a community and network for when students graduate and they are no longer students, they still feel connected to a community where they can come and be part of this space and connect with others,” Hernández Pérez said.
Since she created the Undocumented Alumni Association at UCLA, Hernández Pérez has worked with other institutions—including the University of California, Santa Barbara, and California State University, Long Beach—to establish their own undocumented alumni groups.
The struggles of undocumented students have won national notice in recent years, said Hyein Lee, director of measurement and evaluation at TheDream.US, the nation’s largest college and career success program for undocumented immigrants with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection or Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
“So much attention has been drawn to DACA over the last four years, especially with the Trump administration, and everything that’s been going on that I think the spotlight has been put on this particular group of students,” Lee said. “It certainly has moved the needle forward in terms of the conversation about raising awareness about who these students are and their particular needs.”
TheDream.US’s 2021 Alumni Survey Report, released last month, found that out of the nearly 1,000 TheDream.US scholarship alumni surveyed, 92 percent were undocumented, with 88 percent holding DACA status. Lee said the majority of survey respondents were recent graduates. Since graduating from college, only 8 percent of the alumni surveyed were able to adjust their status to conditional or permanent residency or citizenship in the U.S., the survey found. Two graduates emigrated to Canada.
Lee said undocumented alumni faced a particularly challenging application process this year, given that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported considerable backlogs in adjudicating the flood of new applications from December 2020 after the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s crackdown on DACA recipients.
“We consistently remind folks that provisions like DACA and TPS are only temporary provisions,” Lee said. “It places constant pressure on our alumni about losing their status. I know, especially this year, with [the Department of Homeland Security] receiving first-time applications again for the first time in four years, there was this rush of applications submitted, which created these long backlogs in processing renewals for our alumni that already had DACA.”
The DACA application process creates “unnecessary stress and constant anxiety” for new graduates since they don’t have a sense of permanency, Lee said. A survey last December by the UC Collaborative to Promote Immigrant and Student Equity (UC PromISE) and the Undocumented Student Equity Project (USEP) found that of 1,300 undocumented students attending California State University or University of California campuses, 39 percent reported that they, a family member or a friend had been detained or deported or otherwise involved in deportation proceedings. Sixty-five percent said they accessed immigration legal services on campus, and 67 percent acknowledged feeling distracted in class because they were worrying about their immigration status.
David Sun, associate director of diversity programs for UCLA’s Office of Alumni Relations, said some alumni—especially those from marginalized communities—feel “cut off” from their network after graduation, and undocumented alumni in particular miss the various services institutions provide to students. UCLA has an Undocumented Student Program that offers free, direct immigration legal services to undocumented students and their families, or to the undocumented family members of students with legal status.
“I think for many of our groups that have been historically excluded, it really serves as a way to allow them to know that UCLA does, in fact, really care about them, and that there is community for them, they’re wanted and that they are valued,” Sun said.
In the report from TheDream.US, 85 percent of alumni reported they were employed, and 76 percent of those worked in essential or front-line jobs. And while undocumented alumni had a high interest in attending graduate school, only 17 percent of undocumented alumni said they were actually able to enroll in a graduate program or had completed their graduate degree.
Securing funds to pay for graduate school was the biggest obstacle to attending, the report noted. While other alumni might choose a graduate school based on the strength of the program or the professional development opportunities it offers, Lee said, for undocumented alumni, the biggest factor is cost.
“The prevailing concern for our graduates is really the financial concern, because they’re not eligible for any type of assistance,” Lee said. “They’re not eligible for graduate school loans. For the most part, it becomes a very difficult situation to pay for graduate school.”
On top of everything else, a high percentage of undocumented students also face issues with food insecurity or mental health. In the UC PromISE and USEP survey, 96 percent reported worrying about not having enough money, 59 percent reported food insecurity and 53 percent reported using a campus food pantry.
The student respondents also reported struggling with mental health, with 72 percent saying they felt they needed to see a professional during the 2019–20 academic year because of problems with their mental health, emotions or nerves. However, only 48 percent reported seeking support.
Issues surrounding food insecurity, mental health and health care are at the core of the UCLA Undocumented Alumni Association’s mission, Hernández Pérez said. The group recently hosted a “decolonizing undocumentedness and resilience” event that focused on mental health and how people contribute to the exploitation, violence and trauma of undocumented immigrants when they say things like “undocumented people are so resilient,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the way that the U.S. doesn’t provide resources to undocumented individuals, we’ve had to be able to provide those resources, whether it’s navigating which resources are available for the undocumented community or advocating for policies that might be able to bring resources to the undocumented community,” she said.
Reaction from UCLA alumni to the Undocumented Alumni Association has been positive, Sun said.
“We’re the very first alumni network that is dedicated to the undocumented community,” said Sun. “So I think for our alumni, it also helps alleviate a lot of concerns they had for the well-being of the students.”
Lee noted that associations like the UCLA Undocumented Alumni program and others create a community for alumni during what could be a potentially tough time.
“Having someone like TheDream.US or other graduates who really care about what they’re going through has been really important to undocumented graduates, especially in college, but also after college,” Lee said. “In some ways, college is a protected environment. And then once you leave, you have to fend for yourself, and there’s a lot of questions that come up about your finances.”
Hernández Pérez said within the next five years, the association hopes to expand its membership, establish endowments that would generate scholarships for undocumented students, expand the board of directors and potentially create an advisory board.
“We have heard that when people feel connected to the space, they feel safe, and they feel like they have been able to find others and don’t feel alone in the journey,” Hernández Pérez said.