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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

Students with undocumented status share fears, calls for action


This is the second part of a two-part series produced by the Daily’s Investigative Team. All students and people mentioned in this article who have undocumented citizenship status are referred to by their first name only due to concerns for their safety.

On Sept. 5, just hours after Tufts’ first day of classes began, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would begin phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in March 2018. DACA, an Obama administration policy implemented in 2012, gives any child of immigrants with undocumented status who was 31 or younger at the time of the program’s initiation a two-year deferment from deportation as well as eligibility for a work permit. Most notably, DACA has allowed young people with undocumented status to apply for college openly and qualify for state or college financial aid.

The repeal’s effect on community building efforts

For some students with undocumented status at Tufts, the introduction of DACA, paired with the university’s own efforts to welcome and support them, created the conditions under which they felt comfortable and safe enough to “come out” as undocumented. This allowed them to build community amongst themselves and to share the stories and experiences they had previously kept hidden out of fear.

The move to build community at Tufts around embracing one’s undocumented status that began with the creation of theundocumented student working group in 2015 was successful in many ways. According to Student Success Advisor Margot Cardamone, the Office of Student Success and Advising (OSSA) began offering a seminar specifically aimed toward students with undocumented status, colloquially known as “the dreamer’s seminar,” in 2015, taught by advisers in their office. Both Diego and Cardamone pointed out that participation has been significant.

“As a safe outlet for a lot for our students, this is the first time that they are openly discussing their status and removing that initial barrier and you do not have to explain yourself,” Cardamone said.

But for some, DACA’s repeal means that this openness is much more difficult to maintain.

“It is because of DACA that I feel like I could fully express my story and feel a lot safer, but now that ... is being stripped away from me,” Alejandro, a Tufts student with DACA status, said. “A couple years ago, I would speak openly about my status because it empowers me and my community ... I feel like I am delving deeper into the shadows.”

Still, Alejandro said that the community at Tufts has been helpful in coping with the repeal, saying he and the other students with undocumented status have been “building solidarity.”

Spaces like these are not only organized by the OSSA. The Latino Center, student groups like United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) and more provide students with undocumented status with opportunities for community building that center around their own lived experiences.

“Undocumented folks can find a community of love and support at the Tufts Latino Center,” Julián Cancino, director of the Latino Center, told the Daily in an email.

Unlike many marginalized communities at Tufts, the undocumented community faces challenges in gathering together and even meeting one another due to the legal risks associated with openly embracing and amplifying one’s identity as an undocumented person.

University efforts: Successes and failures

Tufts, many students and community members note, has been particularly supportive of students with undocumented status in recent years. In spring 2015, Tufts implemented a new policy to welcome open applications from students with undocumented status, and assured that the expected financial aid for undocumented students without DACA status would be supplemented with grants from the university, the latter of which Monaco told the Daily in an email. And in the wake of the DACA repeal announcement, Monaco reaffirmed the university’s commitment to provide through university grants any discrepancy in funding created by the loss of federal aid.

“Tufts by far [is] pretty supportive compared to other universities,” Mario, another Tufts student with DACA status, told the Daily. “Their statement to support [DACA students] to the entire university, their willingness to meet with us personally, the services that they offer us makes us feel safe, their willingness to work with us to make us feel safe as possible on this campus ... truly shows how much they are willing to stand with us.”

Other students have referenced support systems created by administrators, faculty and students that have been essential throughout their time at Tufts, especially after the repeal announcements made by the Trump administration in September.

The university has also made efforts to provide legal advice and support to students with undocumented status to help better support them in environments on and off this campus.

“The University has offered several free ‘Know Your Rights’ clinics for undocumented and DACA students,” Monaco offered in an email to the Daily. “The clinics usually take place in a group setting and offer general advice and information regarding significant changes in immigration law and policy. During these sessions, the university tries to offer practical advice about travel, work opportunities and best practices for interacting with immigration officials.”

Monaco also wrote that individual legal consultations are available for students to “discuss their own personal immigration status with an attorney who specializes in immigration law.”

While students who spoke with the Daily expressed a great deal of appreciation for the resources provided to students with undocumented status at Tufts, there have been situations where university institutions have fallen short in the eyes of Tufts community members with undocumented status.

In October 2016, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, in conjunction with the Office for Campus Life, hosted a roundtable discussion with different people related to the field of immigration before the lecture given that evening by Roberto Gonzales, author of the 2016 Common Reading book "Lives in Limbo."  

Tisch College invited Amy Newman, a Tufts alumna who was working in the Office of the General Counsel for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the time, to the event. Jennifer McAndrew, director of Communications, Strategy & Planning at Tisch College, and Sherri Sklarwitz, associate director of Student Programs at Tisch College, explained to the Daily that Newman had assured them she would be attending the event as an expert in immigration law, and not in any capacity connected to her position at DHS.

Lupita Rodriguez, a junior, was co-president of UIJ at the time of the event. She recounted to the Daily that she and a cadre of UIJ members, including a number of students with undocumented status, decided to attend after an invitation was extended to the organization. Rodriguez and some others sat at Newman’s table.

Despite advertisement of her position in a brochure, many of the students were unaware of her position within DHS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a sub-organization within the department.

Alejandra, Rodriguez and Diego, a student with DACA status, said that this disregard for student safety is a common theme for Tisch College and that they do not feel the college usually prioritizes the well-being of marginalized community members.

“Tisch is always about ‘hearing the other side,’ but what does that mean when the other side criminalizes your existence?” Alejandra said.

Rodriguez emphasized the importance of protecting Tufts students over protecting comprehensive discourse on campus.

“I should not have been surprised because Tisch does this thing where everyone’s voice should be present, but student safety should be more important than making sure that everyone’s voice is heard, because these are literally their lives,” Rodriguez said.

McAndrew and Sklarwitz told the Daily that they are open to meeting with students about this incident.

Emma Kahn, a senior and UIJ member, told the Daily that UIJ had scheduled a meeting with Tisch College for this reason on Nov. 9 2016, but that the previous day’s U.S. presidential election results made it difficult for members — many of whom were deeply affected by Trump’s victory — to follow through, so it was cancelled.

McAndrew said that while Tisch College is open to criticism from UIJ and any other students who felt uncomfortable, they felt the event was carefully planned with student safety in mind.

“With the common read book events and everything that we do, we strive to be very thoughtful about who we bring to the Tufts campus and opportunities, we try to have informative events and opportunities where students can interact with speakers that they agree with, disagree with ... This is not something that Tisch College will shy away from now or in the future,” she said.

Still, McAndrew insisted that Tisch College is cognizant of students with undocumented status’ needs and that they are a priority for the college.

“That is part of our mission, making sure there are not barriers, whether direct or indirect, in our undocumented students from participating in programs,” she said. “That’s the broader message, that we aim to support undocumented students in everything that we do at Tisch College. Full stop.”

The students who attended the event, however, dismissed this claim outright.

“I felt used... They do this stuff all the time,” Alejandra said. “I didn’t even feel like going to the [Nov. 9] meeting, because I’m tired of Tisch doing this. I’m done with Tisch.”

“DACA was never enough”

The end of DACA has very real and traumatic implications, but nearly all the sources interviewed for this article insist that there are many flaws with the program that have been present from its inception, chief among them being its exclusivity. Of the estimated 11 million plus immigrants with undocumented status living in the United States, DACA only protects 690,000 of them.

Mario said that while DACA did help him feel more secure in his day-to-day life, the program’s lack of accessibility has led him to feel guilty for receiving its benefits.

“I feel guilty that [I] have [DACA], which allows [me] to work and have an actual life ... while others are still living in the same conditions,” he said. “[I] felt horrible. [I] have a better job now, [but] [the older generation] is still breaking their backs. So it just gives me that guilt.”

Another issue with the program is its financial inaccessibility. Mario, who transferred to Tufts after two years of community college and working multiple jobs, told the Daily that he was only able to benefit from DACA because he could help his family pay the $500 renewal fee.

“Imagine if [someone] had three kids, that's $1,500 and you are talking about people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “It comes down to the point where you have to choose the child you want to succeed. I can only imagine what it would take to make a decision.”

Students worry that in applying for DACA, they may have put their families in danger

To receive DACA status, students must provide extensive personal information on their applications. Because of this, some students say they regret applying in the first place, since they are concerned that mere act has now placed them and their families in greater danger post-repeal.

“You have to enter like every tiny thing [in the application]. Everywhere you’ve lived, everywhere you’ve been, all your contacts, every time you’ve left the country, all of your information on like every aspect,” Diego said. “So what is being done with this information if DACA is being repealed? I mean, the government isn’t going to throw it away, it’s very valuable.”

Marion Davis, director of communications for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), told the Daily that MIRA changed its standard advice regarding DACA after Trump took office for this exact reason.

“It used to be we would just encourage people [to sign up for DACA], do it, it’s worth it. We would tell them, there are risks to be aware of, but overall this is a positive thing and you should do it. After the Trump administration came in, we began to say you know, think about it really hard, because you’re putting all of your information in there,” she said. “And not only are you putting your info in there, when you register for DACA in particular — because by definition DACA is about ‘I was brought here by my parents, or someone else’ — in the very process of detailing how they came here, they’re not just providing information for how they could be deported themselves, but also how their families can be deported.”

Many students emphasized that they felt relatively secure at Tufts, which as a university is still technically protected under Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) Sensitive Locations Policy (though there has been a recent uptick in instances of this policy being ignored, to the point where the American Medical Association has issued a statement condemning ICE presence in hospitals and urgent care centers). Their main worry, many say, is that information about their homes will be used to target family members.

“Their concern is not even for themselves but for their families,” Cardamone said. “They applied for their protective status and now ... have exposed their families to all of these new dangers.”

Mario said that his immediate fears around the repeal were for his family’s safety.

“I was mostly afraid for my family than myself. If somebody decided to call the immigration [patrol] on me, and goes back to trace my family to it and everything, I am [afraid]. Whatever happens, I will find my way through it. Just how I found my way through my entire life here [in the United States],” Mario said.

Diego said that his mother is already planning for this worst-case scenario.

“As much as I’d like to think that, after being in this country for some years and fighting for her place, that we wouldn’t have to give up so much, she still said, ‘you know, if it comes down to it I’d be okay with giving up my place in this country as long as you guys got to stay,’” he said. “I’m like, 'Damn don’t say that we can try to fight for this. You’re already so far away, I don’t want you to be completely inaccessible because I wouldn’t be able to visit her because I can’t leave.'”

Another obstacle that will be difficult for students with DACA status is the inability to travel domestically in addition to prior international restrictions. Alejandro testified to the hardships that lack of identification papers and increased ICE checkpoints have created in his life.

“It is pretty hard hitting because … I cannot fly back home … and if you have to pass through red states, there are various checkpoints, and when it goes into effect, I won't be seeing my parents until my DACA expires, or Trump is out of office, so I may not see them for a good three years which has been really hard,” he said.

Temporary Protected Status

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a status designated by the U.S. government to certain nations where conditions within the country provide for an unsafe environment for returning nationals.

While the Daily was unable to reach any members of the Tufts community who are currently protected under TPS, Cardamone confirmed that “TPS is a status that affects our students on campus.”

Jennifer Hernandez is an immigrants rights organizer at Centro Presente, a Massachusetts-based Latin American immigrant organization that began a campaign to “Save TPS Now” in the wake of Trump’s inauguration in January. She explained to the Daily just how disruptive the program’s repeal will be to the 325,000 people who, according to the Center for Migration Studies, are at risk of losing their status.

“We’re talking about people that have been living here for 20 years, maybe the greater part of their life ... who have not experienced a change of what’s going on in Central America in terms of violence, in terms of economic changes, in terms of government changes, and who have basically laid roots in the U.S. and made it there home. And if TPS gets terminated, [they] will become undocumented again,” she said. “If you have a job you’ve been working for the last 15 years, if you have a business, a home, a car, kids... This could all literally go away from one day to the next.”

Hernandez said that TPS works almost identically to DACA — the program provides recipients with a work permit, protects them from deportation and allows them to get a driver’s license — but that it mostly affects adults due to its timeline.

However, she added that there are some TPS recipients in college who arrived in the country as young children, and, even more concerning, there are many young U.S. citizens whose parents have TPS that are now at risk of losing their source of economic support even if their parents aren’t deported.

“Even if students have economic support from schools or financial aid or whatever, people can’t always get scholarships to fill in the whole tuition, so you have to try to get a loan. But if their parents are undocumented, they can’t cosign for a loan, so it’s going to become more apparent. Not to mention you could lose your job, so you don’t have that financial security or some of that income you were planning on having,” Hernandez said. “If you lose your whole system of support, it’s just hard for anybody, whether you’re a citizen or a TPS or DACA recipient.”

When asked via email whether university employees with TPS status would be protected by Tufts, Monaco, while critical of the program’s repeal, was noncommittal.

“From the successive travel bans now being challenged in the courts, to ... the anticipated termination of Temporary Protected Status for individuals from certain countries, including Haiti, there is a great deal of uncertainty,” he wrote. “We continue to assess what information and supports we can make available to our faculty, staff and students.”

Similar to DACA, TPS was initially meant to be a temporary measure (hence the name). But the way it’s been implemented, Hernandez said, has been difficult and strenuous for families since the start.

“Of course the titles are temporary, but the government has extended it for 20 years — how temporary is that, even by their standards? So they sort of created this sub-citizenship or sub-residency program, that only legalizes the work aspect of a person,” she said.

Much like President Obama’s framing of DACA as a mutually beneficial way to incorporate youth with undocumented status into the U.S. economic system, Hernandez said TPS legalized enrollees’ labor without guaranteeing security or setting a foundation for their future.

“You need the labor, but you don’t want to give people their full humanity, full rights. So of course I think this is by design,” she said. “But this is what happened, and it has happened before with worker programs, and I’m sure that it will continue to happen. Because of racism in this country, and the fact that we only want brown people for their work.”

Next steps: Mobilization and community organizing

For the scores of young people with undocumented status who didn’t qualify for DACA, the program has never been enough. Alejandra, one such undocumented student, said she hopes its repeal will lead to the resurrection of conversations about a more permanent solution like the DREAM Act, originally proposed in 2001.

“Because DACA happened, the DREAM Act was taken out of Congress... But now that DACA is gone they have to decide what they’re going to do with these students, with these young people,” she said.

There has already been a significant push to pressure Congress to bring such a bill to the table in response to Trump’s DACA repeal announcement, and Davis said that her organization is currently working to engage state and national legislators around the issue.

“The battle is still going on, this is not a done deal. We are still very hopeful that there will be a DREAM Act,” she said.

In addition to the revitalization of this legal effort, some students are finding an outlet for their anger and helplessness in working with community organizations to improve people with undocumented status' daily lives.

Alison Kuah (LA ’16), a Tufts alumna and director of youth programming at Somerville immigrant-focused community organization The Welcome Project, told the Daily that community organizations can be helpful for students trying to navigate the recent policy changes around immigration.

“It’s easy to see your inability to go to college as a personal rather than a structural problem, so we show that this is bigger than oneself, and we unite to fight it,” Kuah said.

Diego said that with the return of his pre-DACA insecurity has also come a revived passion and urgency around action and immigrant justice work.

“Last year ... I kind of forgot that there was more out there than my next project or test or assignment,” he said. “I have a family, there’s people out there in need of things I am privileged to, and ways I can help. I want to see how I can give back.”

According to Alejandra, who is also the president of Tufts UIJ, UIJ has been organizing around promoting greater awareness on the part of the Tufts community, in an effort to foment greater action from people with the privilege to do something to help people with undocumented status.

However, Alejandra lamented that attendance for these workshops and actions is often limited to the same relatively small group of students, and that these students “are not the people who need to learn this.”  

Ultimately, these students expressed that what they really want is for people to mobilize around the protection of immigrants with undocumented status as crackdowns increase and opportunities for security are dismantled under Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Mario specifically emphasized that action, not sympathy, is the best reaction a U.S. citizen could have to hearing his story.

“We don't tell our stories to get pity, we tell our stories to make the situations aware ... so that people can [recognize] that it's not fair and that we need to stop it,” Mario said. “It's our lives. It is not something to take pity on, it's something to make changes about.”

Minna Trin contributed reporting to this article.