Facing graduation, undocumented students enter uncharted territory

Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 7:12pm

The University of Michigan has pledged not to disclose the immigration status of its students.

The University of Michigan has pledged not to disclose the immigration status of its students. Buy this photo
Courtesy of William Lopez

The University of Michigan has pledged not to disclose immigration status of its students. However, once undocumented students at the University graduate, the future is hazy. This is especially true with those receiving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, which can be renewed every two years. One of DACA’s many benefits is its authorization of work permits, but with the uncertainty surrounding DACA in the government, the ability to legally work after graduation is no longer guaranteed.

This is something Engineering senior Javier Contreras is thinking about as he approaches graduation.

“This constant state of limbo and uncertainty is taking a great toll on a lot of my classmates and I,” Contreras said. “Just because we have enough to be stressed with. Myself, graduating this April, if I can’t legally work in the U.S., there goes my engineering degree. It is just a lot to think about.”

When these students’ DACA statuses expire, so does the eligibility for a work permit that comes with it, and the possibility of pursuing a salaried career in the country in which they got their degree disappears. DACA recipients can find a part-time job right before their DACA status expires, but once it does, they have to find a way to be paid under the table. Public Policy junior Yvonne Navarrete has peers currently navigating this struggle.

“I have friends who are undocumented and they’re seniors, ready to go into the workforce but their DACA expires in the summer,” Navarette said. “So they can only work for two months and then they don’t have work authorization. So then they would have to find a job that pays in cash. But what kind of job pays in cash that matches a college degree? That’s the biggest discrepancy.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement generally does not focus its activity in universities because they — along with hospitals and places of worship — are considered “sensitive locations.” Once students graduate, however, they are generally more susceptible to ICE detainment or deportation.

Workplaces are not afforded the same protected status. Over the summer, ICE inquired about the citizenship statuses of the employees of the restaurant owners at Café Zola and at Sava’s. In July, hundreds of Ann Arbor workers and residents gathered to condemn ICE’s increased activity.

Despite the fact that universities are mostly avoided by ICE, the agency’s activity can sometimes occur on the border between “sensitive locations” and the rest of the world. The Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights works to confirm ICE activity and posts these alerts on their Facebook page. On Feb. 5, WICIR posted about the Jan. 31 ICE detainment of a Latino man outside his place of work the corner of Willard Street and Church Street — just across the street from East Quad Residence Hall.

ICE did not respond to request for comment.

In addition to worrying about ICE, undocumented immigrants in Washtenaw County have to face federal immigration enforcement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection because Ann Arbor is less than 100 miles from the Canadian border.

While jurisdictions like the University and the City of Ann Arbor have procedures in place prohibiting their law enforcement agencies from soliciting immigration status, according to Jim Baird, chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department, ICE often prefers not to involve local law enforcement in investigations anyway. AAPD and ICE stick to their own duties, Baird said, explaining how the inability of local law enforcement agencies to verify citizenship is a key reason why ICE does not want their interference.

“If we come in contact with somebody, I have absolutely no way to know if that person is here legally or illegally,” Baird said. “There’s no way for me to even figure that out. So we don’t do the investigation, we just don’t care. It’s not relevant information for us all whether somebody is a citizen or not.”

The only instance AAPD inquires about citizenship, Baird said, is when they arrest someone. This is because that person has the right to make their country’s embassy aware of their arrest. If the person is arrested for a felony or misdemeanor punishable by 93 or more days in jail, they are fingerprinted. ICE receives a notification from the fingerprinting database after a number of hours. ICE can then request a “detainer” of this person, asking the county jail to keep them two days after their jail sentence terminates. But, Baird said AAPD would not hold a person longer because of a detainer. 

Despite the amplified national presence of ICE and CBP, Baird emphasized local law enforcement’s unwavering commitment to protecting the safety of all Ann Arbor residents, including undocumented immigrants.

“From a local law enforcement perspective, there has been no change whatsoever,” Baird said. “In Ann Arbor, we have enacted an ordinance and a policy, but it really didn’t change anything, it just kind of codified what we were already doing and the way we’ve been doing it for decades. It really is a federal issue.”

The ambiguous future of immigration policy generates a lot of media attention surrounding the safety of undocumented immigrant populations. AAPD also works to confirm immigration enforcement activity by contacting ICE directly when they receive reports. The work of these organizations helps to verify rumors, which quickly circulate through undocumented immigrant populations when there is suspected ICE activity.

Baird explained how AAPD has asked ICE to notify the department when they are working in the local area. Yet, these notifications have lately become more infrequent, which Baird speculates could be for multiple reasons.

“I’ve actually seen a significant reduction in the times they’ve let us know,” Baird said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily because a reduction of activity in Washtenaw County or if they’re just less strict about when they let us know.”

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, based in Ann Arbor, also serves the undocumented immigrant population providing legal counsel, education about immigrant rights and training for attorneys working on immigration cases pro bono.

Sarah Schoettle, Washtenaw staff attorney for MIRC, has observed the barriers that prevent undocumented immigrants from realizing their rights and helps her clients navigate the confusing nature of immigration law. Schoettle cites a host of reasons that discourage undocumented immigrants from pursuing legal pathways, including language barriers, unfamiliarity with the U.S. legal system and lack of knowledge regarding their rights.  

Yet it is often their immigration status itself that proves to be the biggest deterrent. Domestic violence and unsafe working conditions are two types of cases MIRC deals with that are often embedded in undocumented immigrants’ vulnerability and to fear of notifying law enforcement.

However, local law enforcement agencies within Washtenaw County encourage all people, including undocumented immigrants, to report crime — “see something, say something,” the saying goes.  Robert Neumann, chief of police for the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security, emphasized the department does not act as an enforcer of federal immigration law, though they cannot prevent ICE activity from occurring.

“We are not involved in immigration enforcement,” Neumann said. “We have other law enforcement that can operate lawfully and properly anywhere, but we don’t partner in that effort. That said, we don’t do anything to obstruct lawful law enforcement operation either.”

Just like DPSS, other University departments cannot intervene with ICE’s operations, even if those operations involve a student. However, it can provide undocumented students with resources. While the University does not provide legal assistance in immigration matters, Student Legal Services does work to connect those seeking counsel with a local immigration attorney. SLS will also cover the cost of their initial appointment.  

Despite the vulnerability of undocumented student populations, Judith Pennywell, director of the University’s International Center and chair of its DACA subcommittee, emphasized the University is closely monitoring legal developments around the program.

“Yes, many across the institution are actively working to interpret what’s happening with the status of DACA federally, to update resources and information online, and to support students through their emotional, legal, financial and academic concerns,” Pennywell wrote in an email interview.   

Pennywell urges students to know their rights and familiarize themselves with resources such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She mentioned several resources online students can delve into, as well as the University’s future plans to make a more centralized website.

Resources like these and the safety the University provides incentivizes students like Navarrete to continue their education after finishing their undergraduate degree. The University has some funds for undocumented students applying to graduate school, making it a considerable option. This way, Navarrete says she can remain under the University’s protection and build her educational worth, hoping for some eventual form of certainty.

“I think the safest bet the people around me are doing is to continue school,” Navarette said. “Because you get to stay incubator slash bubble of safety where you can continue building on your capital, even though you may not have documentation to work.”