Daniela Gerson: I'm hearing undocumented students ask, what will happen next?
Some have sanctuary on campus but many more do not, she says
Editor’s Note: Daniela Gerson is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, and a former community engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.
The last time I saw Miguel he gave me a copy of the US Constitution as a gift.
Miguel is an undocumented immigrant and cannot vote, but he is vice president of his Indiana community college’s student government. He had been handing out the booklets for Constitution Day in September, encouraging his fellow students to vote in the presidential election.
Miguel was my student as part of a youth journalism program I ran in Los Angeles, where he grew up. After a rough start with college locally, he joined his parents, who had fled gang violence to Indiana, and finally felt like things were coming together. He has a job at a convenience store distribution center, his grades are up, and he is thinking of applying to Notre Dame, his dream college.
I’m thinking about Miguel – and so many of my current and former students – as students on campuses around the country are agitating in favor of making their schools “sanctuary campuses.”
The morning after the election, Miguel called me at 8 a.m. “What is going to happen to my work permit?” was the first question he asked me, slowly, and then his words sped up as his panic increased for himself and his family.
I tried to calm him, but he has read the Constitution. He knows that a president can reverse an executive order, and how much power a president combined with a Congress from the same party can wield.
Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant students like Miguel are still reeling. They received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a temporary status that President Obama created in 2012. It means they can work and live here without fear of deportation. But it’s not a permanent status and it never was. And Trump has vowed that on day one in power he will revoke it.
On the campus where I am a professor, we have more than 1,000 undocumented students, among the highest enrollments in the nation. That means I likely have at least one terrified student in class.
These are kids like Miguel, who arrived in this country when he was smuggled across the border at age 2 in the back of a car. His father, who had fled military threats in Mexico, woke before dawn each day to sell tamales on the streets of Los Angeles and later to work 12-hour shifts in Indiana dairy farms. Many may blame his parents for coming here to seek better opportunities for their children, but Miguel never knowingly broke a law.
To punish children who came here through no choice of their own is not only inhumane, it’s a tremendous waste of human capital. We invested in young people like Miguel in our public schools. They have entered our colleges. They want to serve in our military.
That is the argument that some leading conservatives once promoted. In 2001, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, along with Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, introduced the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that would have created a path to a permanent legal status for undocumented youth.
But that bill did not pass both houses and this inaction prompted President Obama to issue DACA. Hatch, and most other Republicans, have since stopped advocating for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrant youth, and rebuked Obama’s move as an abuse of power. The humanity argument has fallen behind the need to secure borders, or perhaps votes.
In California, politicians and civil leaders have vowed to stand up for these young people.
Miguel, however, is in a different situation. While there has been a sanctuary movement advocating to protect students on campuses across the country, that has not reached Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso, Indiana. He has yet to meet another undocumented student.
Some states, like Georgia, ban undocumented students from college outright. It’s likely, in the current environment, others will follow that lead.
Leading up to the election, Miguel tried to mobilize other students to vote for Hillary Clinton by sharing his story with other students.
“Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you,” he was told over and over again by the other students on campus, many of whom supported Trump. “You’re a good person.”
But Miguel knows better than to trust that logic. He has read the Constitution.
As I consider Miguel’s plight, I think back to a decade ago, when I sat down to interview another student, also an undocumented member of college government who was trying not to panic. Walter Barrientos’ relatives had put him on a plane from Guatemala at 11. Only when he was older did he realize his tourist visa had expired years before and he lacked a Social Security card. His senior year of high school, 9/11 happened. He was scared and isolated as he felt the xenophobia rising in his small town on Long Island, where he was one of the only immigrants in the school.
A year later, when he entered Baruch College at City University of New York, he thought he was the only student in this situation. Then one day he went to the administrators to submit a form he needed to sign saying he would legalize if provided the opportunity. When he did so, he realized he was not alone. He spotted an entire drawer filled with hundreds of affidavits from undocumented students like him. He started an immigrant student committee, and participated in the massive mobilizations that occurred a decade ago for immigrant rights.
The day Walter graduated, however, he cried himself to sleep. He found a job in a factory folding luxury sheets. A few months later, he was detained on a train near the Canadian border, spent two days in a detention center and was almost put in deportation proceedings. And then, in a strange twist of fate, being the victim of an assault enabled him to remain in this country. “There’s this saying that this country rewards hard work,” he said. “And I found out they didn’t. Technically, they just rewarded me for being beat up.”
All the while, he kept organizing, working closely with another undocumented student from Queens College at City University of New York, Cristina Jimenez. They fell in love, and with other undocumented students created United We Dream, a membership organization which represents 100,000 immigrant youth and allies and 55 affiliate organizations in 26 states.
In 2012, when President Obama issued DACA, it was an extraordinary victory for Miguel, Walter, Cristina, and hundreds of thousands of young people and their families. This was a temporary move, but it radically changed their lives. Cristina and Walter encouraged all their members to sign up. “It’s something we had won. It’s something we had fought for,” Walter told me last week when I called to see how he was doing. And he is not second-guessing that decision. “I believe that having it, and having applied, has put young people in a better position and put their families in a better position.”
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Young people who received DACA are now in every field: doctors and medical assistants, members of the military, journalists, financial analysts, hotel receptionists, teachers and organizers like Walter and Cristina. And even in the despair of the moment, Walter finds some hope that out of the panic over DACA’s precarious position in a Trump administration, a new generation of young people like Miguel will be mobilized in a way that only being threatened can activate.
“The unthinkable has happened,” Walter said. “It’s their turn to join the movement and take us forward because they and their families are feeling the most bitter taste of this situation.”