Undocumented students work with University to provide more resources

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 6:36pm

History of undocumented student activism

History of undocumented student activism Buy this photo
Casey Tin

Latinx students have become the fastest-growing population at the University of Michigan, swelling from 4.75 percent of the student body in 2012 to 6 percent in 2016. For decades preceding this recent growth, however, they have been organizing for greater institutional support for their community. This long history can easily go unacknowledged, as it has in recent negotiations between the University and student organizations, said Public Policy junior Yvonne Navarrete, former director of the Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy.

Part of La Casa’s approach in working with the administration involved providing evidence of the decades of struggle the Latinx community has had at the University. They created a folder detailing data on the lack of Latinx representation and past documents of members of the Latinx community asking for University support. Navarrete said La Casa created this folder to show the University their history.

“A main issue we have with administrators is they try to tell us our issues are new, our situation is new, that the reason they don’t serve us that well is because they haven’t yet adapted to our new, growing population,” Navarrete said. “Part of us addressing that was creating this folder we shared with all of our members, you have access to and it’s open. It adds historical context to our issues.”

Over the years, however, the issues facing Latinx and undocumented students at the University have, in some ways, evolved. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy granting undocumented students certain protections, enacted via executive order by President Obama in 2012, filled Navarrete with optimism. She acquired DACA status in 2013, and from then on, focused on the jobs, programs and opportunities made available to her.

Yet, with the start of President Donald Trump’s administration and his promise to revoke DACA, she no longer has this luxury — now, the idea of being deported remains at the forefront of her thoughts.

“We have to regress and go back to thinking about the very real danger of being deported and more intense ICE enforcement and border control,” Navarrete said. “That’s been the hardest part. We were granted something and then they took it away. That’s the part that’s the scariest: the uncertainty part.”

Postdoctoral fellow William Lopez said this feeling is one affecting many DACA-status students, and can be crippling.

“What is it like to not know if tomorrow when you wake if you are going to be deportable or not?” Lopez said. “Tomorrow when you wake up you won’t be able to go to your job and you won’t be able to drive. You know, this is having a real impact on folks who have for the past three to four years lived in some relative safety from deportation and now have no idea what the future is going to hold from them.”

The most basic benefit of DACA is the two-year protection against deportation of people brought into the United States illegally as children. The other major advantage is DACA recipients’ ability to acquire work permits, which can further allow them to receive health care and pay for higher education.

Trump’s inauguration into the White House in 2017 brought Engineering senior Javier Contreras-Uribe back to reality, just like Navarrete. He said during the Obama administration, he had allowed himself to let down his guard and now, he is facing the consequences.

“As far as the other undocumented students that I know, we all sort of have the same feeling that things are getting real, that we got too comfortable and that now it is coming back to bite us,” Contreras said. “A lot of people stopped organizing, like I said, we got too comfortable.”

And according to Navarrete, being a part of the University creates this false sense of security. She said it can be easy to feel safe on campus and forget the danger surrounding her.

“When I’m in class or walking through campus, I kind of live in a bubble where I can almost forget about things,” Navarrete said. “This bubble, it’s false because at any point you can get deported. When you create a distance between your at-home community and this community, at least for me, you almost feel this false sense of safety.”

Undocumented students said they felt the threat of deportation last January when U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed up on campus. They parked their vehicle behind the Michigan Union, causing a panic among students and faculty.

It ended up being that CBP was on campus to recruit at a career fair held in the Union. But the sign of CBP’s presence was enough to remind Navarrete of her insecure status, even under the protection of the University.

“Last year at the career center they invited CBP and the CBP patrol car parked crookedly on the street, and the people in the career center were all geared up,” Navarrete said. “Those are little things that can remind you of the very real fears and dangers that can happen anywhere you are even when you’re safe on campus.”

There are little differences undocumented students experience going about their daily lives, such as friends discussing study abroad plans. But LSA senior Hwi Sun Yoo said the largest difference between the daily lives of undocumented students and those of others is the amount of stress involved. On top of schoolwork, clubs and part-time jobs, these students have to worry about their residence in the U.S. Yoo also noted his concern for his family’s safety is especially high.

“I think just about anyone you talk to will say that it’s their family they’re most worried about,” Yoo said. “Right now we are protected under DACA even if it’s temporary, but something as minor as a traffic ticket could really hurt our parents.”

Despite these fears, Yoo emphasized the importance of being vocal about his undocumented identity. He said Trump’s election triggered his decision to disclose his status. He wanted to raise the awareness of undocumented student issues.

“The fact that we’re such an invisible community has always been a double-edged sword because, on one hand, it’s really hard to target undocumented people because there’s no distinguishing physical feature,” Yoo said. “On the other hand, it does make us an invisible community and without people speaking up, and calling out, and talking about the issues that we’re facing other people have no idea of knowing them.”

Navarrete acknowledged the difficulty of disclosing — when she first told her high school counselor she was a DACA-status student, her counselor seemed startled. This reaction, she said, made her wary of telling anyone else. But she ultimately became vocal in college for the same reason as Yoo: To raise awareness, and to better her situation as an undocumented student. She noted how the recent discussions of DACA in the government have increased awareness significantly.

“It started this huge wave of awareness and now everyone knows what DACA is, which I feel like is the silver lining of what’s currently happening,” Navarrete said. “It was way different a year ago. I had to constantly explain it no matter where I went.”

Navarrete and Yoo are part of a student group for undocumented students called Student Community of Progressive Empowerment. SCOPE aims to build community and to advocate for undocumented student issues. Last semester, they held a rally on the last day of DACA renewal submissions to push for more University support and resources.

They also met with administrators and presented them with four demands: Granting them a primary contact person for undocumented students, fulfilling financial need, improving outreach to prospective undocumented students and altering a policy requiring students to enroll 28 months after high school graduation — as 28 months, they argued, is often not enough time for students to gather enough money for college.

The first demand was met successfully with the appointment of Hector Galvan as undocumented students program coordinator.

Yoo said she feels the appointment of Galvan has been helpful in working with the administration.

“When I initially got more involved within the undocumented community, there were not many resources to work with in the school, but with the appointment of Hector, I feel like a lot has changed, quite rapidly to be honest,” Yoo said. “We’ve gotten a lot of work done this semester.”

Galvan’s role is to serve the undocumented students and DACA recipients on campus by being the bridge between the students and the administration. In an email interview, he said he is currently working on gaining the support of more allies on campus.

“As we know, this initiative is fairly new to the university, I am also working on building a referral network of allies throughout campus to provide additional support,” Galvan wrote.

Earlier this semester, La Casa presented the administration with their own list of demands. These demands centered around working to have more Latinx representation within the administration, more support for Latinx students and an appreciative environment surrounding the Latinx community. La Casa made sure the document containing the demands was comprehensive and accessible to everyone.

The reason SCOPE’s demands were less publicized, Navarrete said, was because that community is smaller and also more invisible. She also said SCOPE had to have a different approach with their demands because it is hard for the University to provide more undocumented representation, as that community has less access to those jobs.

SCOPE hasn’t yet compiled documents describing the history of undocumented student struggles, but there certainly has been a history in recent years. In 2013, the Coalition for Tuition Equality fought for the right of resident undocumented students to receive in-state tuition — a fight Contreras was a part of.

Contreras said since then, the University has created a program to help DACA students financially each year, though the existence of the program seems precarious.  

“The issue with DACA is you can’t receive FAFSA, just because it is federal aid, or loans as well, so the University did set up a pilot program, the keyword is pilot,” Contreras said. “Every year the Regents vote on it to decide how much funding there will be and if there will be any funding at all. So far, we have gotten lucky, ever since 2013 they have been continuously voting to fund it.”

The University has stated its support for the undocumented student community multiple times. Last January, President Schlissel released a statement pledging his support of students regardless of their immigration status and his refusal to disclose their statuses. This Friday, after the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of DACA ruling, he released another statement reiterating his support.

Galvan believes the University should carry on with their current work in supporting the undocumented community and should aim to provide more resources.

“The university should support the student population by continuing the efforts they are doing now in addition to expanding resources thoughtfully,” Galvan wrote.

Navarrete wishes, though, for the Office of Enrollment Management specifically to be more vocal. She thinks if they voice their support, they could have a large impact in encouraging prospective undocumented students to apply to the University.

“I think the Office of Enrollment Management is the one I feel like has not been responsive,” Navarrete said. “And it can be the most powerful one in serving undocumented students because it encompasses financial aid, admissions and the registrar’s office, and those are the three offices that obstruct the people from coming to U-M.”

Yoo said even though resources for undocumented students may be improving right now with the appointment of Galvan and the continued discussions with the administration, the struggle will always be constant.

“Just because we’re doing well right now, I don’t want people thinking the issues are over,” Yoo said. “It’s always going to be an uphill battle.”