With DACA set for repeal, dozens of Tufts students face a return to the insecurity and risk of life with undocumented status. This photo of one Tufts student with DACA status does not include their face out of concern for their safety. (Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily)

As DACA repeal looms, Tufts’ undocumented students face setbacks, insecurity

This is the first 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 undocumented immigrants 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 undocumented people to apply for college openly and qualify for federal financial aid.

The Daily met with Alejandro, a Tufts student with DACA status, three times. The first of these meetings took place two weeks after Sessions’ announcement, in which he lamented the Trump administration’s decision in no uncertain terms.

“DACA gave us a certain amount of humanity and freedom that we had not had before,” he said. “Our lives were entwined with DACA, and now to see it gone is devastating.”

Diego, another Tufts student with DACA status, told the Daily that the program has changed his life tremendously, and that the prospect of its repeal is heartbreaking and scary.

“I think about how my lifestyle has changed from high school and before that to now, I feel like now I’m pretty much rich,” Diego, who comes from a low-income family, said. “I’m living off campus, I can afford to have my own room, we have a Costco card … I mean there’s so many things. So DACA and other laws passed have helped bring more security and more comfort. The removal of that, the stripping of it, is jarring for so many people, myself too.”

For Mario, another recipient of DACA, the renewed threat of deportation is equally as unsettling as the material changes its repeal would bring about.

“This is our home country … Ecuador will always be where I was born and it will always be a part of who I am, but all my friends, everyone that I know, all of the memories that I have are here,” he said.  

DACA’s repeal entails a number of specific changes to the lives of students who previously benefited from the program: work authorization permits will no longer be eligible for renewal after their expiration; the deferment of deportation action referred to in the program’s title will also dissipate completely once it expires, placing about 690,000 young people around the country at risk of deportation once again; as of Oct. 5, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will no longer accept first-time applications for DACA, nor will students on DACA who didn’t renew before the 5th be able to; and for students in state schools in states that allow DACA students to receive in-state tuition, such as Massachusetts, this benefit will be revoked as well.

In addition, although the DACA program has been criticized for its strict application process and subsequent exclusivity, undocumented students currently in high school or younger who may have seen DACA as a stepping stone out of social, economic and political marginalization have lost that light at the end of the tunnel.

“For the group of undocumented students transitioning out of high school and looking to apply to colleges, there is now this gap that looks very different from their peers before,” Alison Kuah (LA ’16), a Tufts alumna and director of youth programming at Somerville immigrant-focused community organization The Welcome Project, told the Daily.

Warning Signs

For many members of the Tufts community, the prospect of DACA’s repeal began to loom soon after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States last November. University President Anthony Monaco issued a statement on Nov. 30, 2016, just days after the election, titled “Supporting and Protecting our Undocumented Students,” in which he guaranteed legal counsel for students and promised not to “assist in the enforcement of immigration laws” except when under court order to do so.

Margot Cardamone, a Student Success Advisor and a suggested contact for Tufts’ undocumented students according to the Student Life website, said that she’d been preparing for this kind of announcement since Trump’s election as well.

“It was something that our office and legal counsel were keeping an eye on, so before the announcement was made, we pulled our students together to have a conversation on the potential implications of what this could mean,” Cardamone said.

For undocumented students here, the intensifying political rhetoric around anti-immigrant sentiment has been extremely harmful in its own right.

“Just of having a part of the nation [going] against us … and the same country that we have been trying to move forward with is now saying ‘oh, never mind, maybe we don’t want you,’” Mario said. “It makes me feel angry in a sense, in that does [our community] actually want us here and are we actually worth keeping?”

Diego pointed out that it’s not just angering and invalidating of his experience; the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric actually places him and other undocumented people at greater risk of violence and hate.

“That is being brought back even more. Not just because of the repeal of DACA, but because Trump and this administration has brought that hate out in people more and more,” he said.

Despite these warning signs, the news came as a shock to many. Diego said that despite hearing rumors of a statement on the program, Sessions’ announcement caught him off guard.

“We already knew beforehand that something like this would happen, so I was mentally preparing for it, but still, the repeal came as a shock because it made it more real,” he said.

Both Championed and Forgotten

Monaco and University Provost David Harris met with undocumented and DACA students on Sept. 6, the day after the announcement, to field questions about the university’s response and listen to student concerns. According to Monaco, they also discussed possible legislative responses to DACA’s repeal.

“At each of these meetings, I have been duly impressed and deeply moved by Tufts’ undocumented and DACA students,” he wrote. “In the face of increasing uncertainty, they continue to demonstrate poise, strength and compassion.”

In addition, Tufts filed a declaration alongside a Sept. 6 lawsuit by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, as well as other attorneys general, opposing the decision to end the program. The complaint stated that more than 25 Tufts students are enrolled in DACA.

In addition, in a statement made to the Daily by University General Counsel Mary Jeka after the repeal announcement, the university reaffirmed their financial commitment to students, including those whose federal financial aid would be revoked with the loss of their DACA.

“We remain committed to honoring our promises to our DACA and undocumented students and to providing them with continued support, which includes financial aid, legal services, counseling, and assistance from the Office of the Associate Dean for Student Success and Advising,” Jeka wrote.

Monaco told the Daily in an email that, while finding the funding may be challenging for the university, they have no plans to retreat from this promise.

“Loss of funding for individual students is always of great concern to us. We are actively exploring ways to address their needs, and we recognize this will be difficult in the current economic climate and with so many competing funding needs, but we are committed to finding potential solutions,” he wrote. “We have made a commitment to these students and it’s important to honor it.”

Two days after Sessions’ announcement, Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) issued a statement in which they denounced the Trump administration’s decision and expressed concern that it could lead to serious consequences for students. “If Congress does not succeed in passing legislation in the next six months to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, many members of our own Tufts community could face action as serious as deportation,” they wrote. And on Sept. 12, the student group held a rally at lower Campus Center to galvanize community support for undocumented students and protest the DACA repeal.

According to the undocumented students interviewed for this piece, though, the frenzy of support from the Tufts community was short-lived in the face of a rapidly shifting news cycle.

Marion Davis, Director of Communications for the Massachusetts Immigration Reform and Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), told the Daily that this was a common theme outside of Tufts as well.

“In those days immediately after President Trump announced that he was ending DACA, everyone was all over the DREAMERs — everybody wanted to talk to them, everybody cared, everybody was really emotionally connected,” Davis said. “We certainly lost some of that emotional connection, some of that passion has subsided. I can tell you it has not subsided among the actual DREAMERs.”

Alejandro echoed this concern.

“What I learned is that people with privilege won’t generally speak out for us so we have to do the movement for us and gather support,” he said. “We have to be the forefront of the resistance in a way.”

Alejandra, president of Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) and an undocumented student herself, told the Daily that one of the reasons it’s difficult to engage most Tufts students on this issue is that the majority of them are not personally impacted by the repeal and live in “a completely different reality,” having never been exposed to the kind of struggle being undocumented in America entails.

“A lot of the things regular students here take for granted aren’t possible for undocumented students,” Alejandra said. “Like, study abroad will never be a possibility for me. Getting that internship at Tisch may not be a possibility… It’s the simple things, I can’t enjoy the pleasure of going to get a drink or going to a party where I have to show my ID.”

“I feel like the Tufts experience is not for everyone,” she continued. “During parents weekend, my parents couldn’t visit because they couldn’t travel. I don’t even know if they’ll be able to see me graduate. This is my Tufts experience.”

Alejandra never qualified for DACA, and dealing with the hardships that arise from being undocumented without the added security of the program has been difficult for her.

For students who have been living with the benefits of DACA, this change would signify a reversal of progress, and a revocation of the relatively small amount of security that the program provided them.

Davis said that, for DACA students with high levels of medical need, DACA’s repeal is even more serious.

“I was at a community college, MassBay, a couple of days ago, and we talked to a student who has DACA but his brother also has it and his brother has disability. And he was saying, ‘What are going to do? How is he going to get any kind of help?’ So for the people who are living with this, it is very disruptive. It really just sends your life into this really chaotic state, where you’re hoping for the best but afraid that the worst is going to happen,” she said.

Uncertainty and Mental Health Decline

All of the DACA students interviewed for this piece expressed that the insecurity and dehumanization surrounding the announcement has had a negative impact on their mental health and academic performance.

“This semester hasn’t been the best semester for me. I’ve been struggling a lot with classes and how I’m feeling,” Diego said. “For me, [being undocumented] has always been something that’s affected me on a deeper level, and this semester I’ve really been kind of more affected by it, and it’s now something that has definitely affected my performance [in class] and my mood.”

Diego said that he’s under additional pressure since his brother, who is also undocumented, went on academic leave for mental health reasons.

“He’s been struggling a lot with depression, which I think a lot of it has to do with this: all the pressures we’ve had to be successful in life, to be better and pull out families out of poverty,” he said. “When things are really difficult, it puts a lot of pressure on us to sort things out.”

Alejandro echoed Diego’s experience.

“I had a sense of safety and now it has been taken away from me,” he said. “I am reverting back to where I was and it has taken a toll on my mental health.”

Davis told the Daily that she’s spoken to other Tufts students who recounted similar struggles since the repeal announcement.

“There’s only so much mind space that you have, and if an enormous amount of your mind space is being consumed by existential fear… I worry that we will probably see the consequences of that in things like grades, because there’s no way that a human being can go through all of this and not show any effects,” she said.

“Some of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve heard, I heard at Tufts,” Davis added. “I heard a young woman at Tufts talk about how her mental health has been affected by this, and how she can’t really concentrate, she can’t really just go about her life because she’s terrified.”

Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) does offer resources to undocumented students specifically. Darleen J. Garcia is a staff psychologist who also serves as facilitator to the Students Impacted by Undocumented Status Group, according to the CMHS website.

Work Authorization and Employment Insecurity

However, one of the biggest concerns for students on DACA right now isn’t about their Tufts education, but rather what comes after.

“Coming from a low-income, first-generation background, the push for college has always been based on going for a better lifestyle, pulling my family out of poverty,” he said. “Once my DACA expires, how will I be able to get a job that requires some sort of status?”

Since she didn’t qualify for DACA, Alejandra has been trying to make ends meet without a work permit, a reality that any undocumented student who must work to afford their education may have to face in the coming years. Alejandra manages through babysitting, often for her professors, but says that most undocumented students are forced to look for service jobs where they can get paid under the table — much of the time, less than minimum wage.

Alejandra’s future career prospects are similarly limited; in fact, despite passionately pursuing an education major, Alejandra would be completely unable to get a job as a teacher in Massachusetts, due to the requirement that she pass a background Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check. According to USA Today, all 50 states require aspiring teachers pass some sort of background check before they’re hired.

“I’m an education major, I want to someday be a teacher, I want to impact students, but I can’t get close to children if I can’t pass the CORI check,” Alejandra said. “It’s like, this is my dream but … if I want to take the test or get a license to become anything —a teacher, lawyer, doctor — you need licenses.”

People with DACA, though, would be able to pass a background check. “Even though DACA is not the ideal, they can pass those background checks and do a lot of the stuff that would not be a possibility,” Alejandra said.

Alejandra, like all undocumented students, has no idea whether her Tufts degree will ever help her get a job, a concern that DACA students must now face as well.

“The uncertainty kills me every single day,” she said. “I’m graduating from this school Tufts, this really good school, and I’m still gonna wash dishes when I graduate. That’s just how it is, I get the education and I can’t use the degree.”

This is the reality that all students with DACA, whether their work permit expires in four months or two years, will have to face once the program is repealed. Taking stock of this sudden retraction of what has been a pathway to a “successful” life (if not full citizenship) has been taxing on many DACA students’ mental health.

The university has experience supporting undocumented students who don’t have DACA, but the repeal poses a challenge to staff and administrators who have been developing resources since the creation of the Undocumented Students Working Group in 2015, in part around the needs of students with the possibility of legal employment, which DACA created an opportunity for.

According to Donna Esposito, director of career development at Tufts’ Career Center, the DACA repeal announcement has prompted the Career Center to work on supporting students whose employment options will be more limited.

“We have been actively pursuing a range of possibilities for life both during and after Tufts for all of our students with undocumented status through a variety of means and targeted resources,” Esposito told the Daily in an email. “This includes connecting with national immigrant advocacy and immigration law organizations, leaders in the community and colleagues in a number of fields, potential employers and more.”

Esposito added that the center is currently working on an event for undocumented students in conjunction with UIJ, the Latino Center, the Office of Student Success and Advising and the University Counsel’s Office.

Diego, who said he’s been working with the Career Center on this event as a member of UIJ, believes that bringing an undocumented person with experience navigating the workforce to Tufts would be helpful for students who are insecure about their post-graduation plans.

“I’ve been talking to other students, but I’d love to talk with someone who is working,” Diego said. “Do they have DACA? And if they have DACA, then what’s their plan once it expires? If they don’t, how are they working and what have they learned?”

Esposito also said that the Career Center has been working to address the needs of low-income and otherwise underprivileged students through the Equity, Access and Student Equality (EASE) Committee, of which the Career Center is a part, as well as in conjunction with the First Gen Council.

Julián Cancino, director of the Latino Center, said that he is looking forward to expanding employment resources to be more inclusive of immigrant experiences.

“Tufts Latino Center is excited to bring immigrant entrepreneurs to campus soon,” Cancino told the Daily in an email. “Our aim is to highlight the experiences, both professional and personal, of immigrants who followed their dreams and forged paths for themselves and others.”

Cardamone said that, while the loss of work authorization for Tufts’ DACA population does pose a challenge for university employees tasked with advising them, there are options, most notably the forming of a Limited Liability Company (LLC).

“We have experience with helping our students navigate how to put their degree to use which is significantly more difficult [without DACA and work authorization],” she said. “A common path is forming an LLC or some kind of workers’ cooperative.”

Cancino also emphasized that fulfilling and fruitful employment is not impossible for those with undocumented status.

“The repeal of DACA is truly devastating because the lack of employment authorization is limiting for many students. But, fortunately, being hired is not the only option,” he wrote in an email to the Daily. “A Tufts degree may be put to use by creating a new business or becoming a consultant… It’s about not taking no for an answer.”

Diego, who studies engineering, said that while he enjoys his studies, his decision to enter the field was primarily motivated by his socio-economic status, and that the uncertainty of employment after graduation that comes with DACA repeals is thus especially disheartening.

“If getting an industry job doesn’t work out, I’m trying to see what else I could do. I guess that’s just how life is, things don’t always go according to plan,” he said.

Alejandra emphasized that, despite the unlikeliness of achieving her dream job in education, she still values her Tufts education.

“I value the education I am receiving even though … for us, college is not a job, it’s more about the knowledge you can obtain. Because even knowing I can’t work, I still decide every day to go to class,” she said. “This is my reality, I can’t do much about it … but there are a lot of things I do control. I control the knowledge and information that goes through my mind, I control the ethics, the morals that I hold in my life.”

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