The hundreds of undocumented students attending the University of Texas at Pan American are more fortunate than many others throughout the country. They can pursue an education thanks to the state’s DREAM Act, which allows immigrants brought by their parents to the country as children and meet certain qualifications to attend college paying in-state tuition rates.
Once they graduate, though, those students hit a hard reality. With no state or federal documentation, they can’t get a job.
So President Obama’s announcement last week that an administrative order that would prevent them from being deported, and potentially pave the way for them to obtain work permits, was well-received, to say the least. But confusion surrounding how long the rule will remain in effect, what information will have to be disclosed and what happens if a person is denied work status has left many students struggling with the same question as always: Is it safe to come out?
And at Pan American, 10 miles from the Mexican border, where the futures of hundreds of undocumented students are up in the air, the apprehension isn’t limited to those at risk. "On our campus, the feeling is very palpable because there are so many of these students. When you’ve got 600 of 19,000 students that are [undocumented] and are active, everybody knows. And you live and breathe the DREAM Act,” said Robert S. Nelsen, president of Pan American. “We’ve got a moral obligation to help these kids. They are the best and some of the brightest…. They’ve come to college knowing that it was against all odds. They wanted an education and they want to be productive. This is their home.”
Esther Herrera, a graduate student at Pan American who is undocumented, said she feels supported by the university itself. But she and Nelsen still field insults from critics who say that taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting illegal immigration, that students benefiting from the DREAM Act and Obama’s policy are unpatriotic and un-American. "It’s not something that you particularly advertise about yourself. Because while the community is relatively accepting, there are still people who aren’t," Herrera said. “So you have that fear of being rejected.”
The policy halts deportations and allows for “deferred action status” and the right to apply for a two-year work permit for people who came to the country before age 16, have lived here for at least five years and are in school, have graduated from high school or are military veterans in good standing. They must be under 30 and have no criminal record. Unlike the national DREAM Act, which once had bipartisan support but is now blocked by Republicans, Obama’s directive does not provide a pathway to citizenship, but has been estimated to affect more than 1 million young people.
The Obama administration said it will take about 60 days to set up an application process. The president announced the policy June 15. Should Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney win the election in November, he could overturn the order. Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act and favors a long-term solution to illegal immigration rather than a temporary one.
In the meantime at Pan American, a new student group called the Minority Affairs Council is trying to help students and their parents work through some of the uncertainties and know how to proceed once the order takes effect. Students started the group in February after an undocumented Texas high school student committed suicide. While it’s unclear why, his family speculated it was because he thought he couldn’t attend college.
The council has hosted forums in recent weeks where lawyers fielded questions from students and parents, some of whom are afraid that seeking deferred status might mean exposing information about parents who are living in the country illegally. Others fear that if they don’t qualify under the rule, they could be deported anyway.
“Right now there is a lot of uncertainty,” Herrera, who helped form the Minority Affairs Council, said. But, she added the administrative order has also helped more students come forward. “I guess it gives them a sense of empowerment, in a way.”
Joe Martinez, an undocumented student in his second year at Pan American, didn’t know about deferred action until he heard about it at a MAC meeting last week.
“To me, it was kind of like a shock,” Martinez said. “Good news.”
And while he’s planning to seek deferred status, Martinez said, he wants to make sure he qualifies first so as to avoid anything unexpected.
While the Minority Affairs Council’s stated purpose is “to affect change in a proactive manner towards political and social issues among the minority community,” a key part of that is spreading information. And that’s a crucial contribution, said Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Student Association.
Obama’s announcement was quickly followed by a slew of ads in Latino newspapers from lawyers claiming to offer help to young people seeking deferred status, and charging exorbitant prices to do so. And with a lack of clarity from the administration on how undocumented people can apply for deferred status and what protections and rights they have, it’s easy to capitalize on uncertainty.
“There’s not enough education that happens to help spread the word,” Sanchez said. “Not only do we have to combat the large piece that is educating an entire community…. It’s also now combating the misinformation that’s being put out there.”
Another major question mark causing consternation for undocumented students is what happens to those who are already going through deportation proceedings, Sanchez said. And while USSA is doing everything it can to spread information, the “know-your-rights aspect” is still missing. But for now, all they can do is hope those protections and other procedures all become clear once the order takes effect.
“There has been confusion generally,” Sanchez said. “It definitely doesn’t change the overall strategy to push for the federal DREAM Act. I think folks still see this as a temporary solution to a much larger issue.”
Herrera is in a particularly unusual situation. While not technically a legal resident, Herrera was adopted by relatives who are U.S. citizens when her mother, after bringing Herrera to the country from Mexico, decided to go back but her daughter didn’t want to leave. (Both Herrera and Martinez credit their ability to attend college in part to the U.S. Education Department’s GEAR UP program , which awards grants to low-income students to attend college.)
Herrera first applied for legal residency in 2004. After a few paperwork mix-ups with the lawyers, her application was finally approved five years later. Now, she’s putting off the final step: filing for a change of legal status, where she must either prove how she entered the country or return to Mexico to ask for a pardon. Because she didn’t have the proper documentation when entering the country, Herrera is afraid she’ll have to show who she was with.
“There’s that fear where I don’t want to implicate who brought me into the country,” Herrera said. “I waited for so long that I’m scared to confront. So it’s something that I’ve been postponing, but I guess now with the executive order, it also brings me the confidence to actually pursue that.”
A graduate student studying public administration, Herrera isn’t sure yet what career she would pursue if she is approved for residency or a work permit. Those who can’t find work take different paths, Nelsen said. Some continue on to graduate school, “trying to delay it as long as they possibly can.” Some move north to Canada, where they can work legally. Many try to find work as contract employees.
But Obama’s new policy could make a world of difference for students like the one who worked on graphic design for the Pan American administration. Despite having known her for several years, Nelsen was not aware that she was undocumented until he went to give her a hug at graduation two years ago.
“I asked her, ‘What are your plans for the future?’ and she started to cry. She said, ‘I have no future,’ because she was graduating that day without the possibility of having a job,” Nelsen said. “We invested in them to get a high school education. Why would we stop investing now?”