Administrative working group to address needs of undocumented students on campus

Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin announces Tufts' support for equity in the education of undocumented students at UIJ's National Institutions Coming Out Day in Support of Undocumented Education Equity on the Lower Campus Center Patio on Tuesday, Apr. 7, 2015. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Plans to create a working group to address the specific needs of undocumented students at Tufts began over the summer. This follows the university’s announcement last April that it would accept and provide aid for undocumented students and the subsequent enrollment in the Class of 2019 of the first group of undocumented students.

According to Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ) President Elizabeth Palma, many of these undocumented students from the Class of 2019 face several specific issues, including foreign and domestic travel-related problems and lack of access to federal work-study aid and internship grants.

“The Class of 2019 had the first official cohort of undocumented students, so we’re seeing issues they might have in the future,” Palma, a senior, said. “We’re hoping Tufts is held accountable in not just admitting [these students], but [in] supporting them and backing them up with resources throughout their time here.”

The planning process for the undocumented students working group was started by Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon and will include faculty, staff and students, according to McMahon. It will be co-chaired by Director of the Latino Center Rubén Salinas Stern and Associate Dean of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies Robert Mack. Members will identify ways to educate the Tufts community about the challenges that undocumented students face in higher education and will work to solve these specific challenges, she said.

According to Stern, the working group hopes to have a report or recommendation for the university out by the end of the year, so the group will officially be in place sometime during this fall semester.

Stern said UIJ members and, possibly, undocumented students will be involved in the working group, which will also have representatives from different offices at Tufts, including the Tufts Office of Residential Life and Learning, Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services and Tufts Career Services.

“Right now, we’re looking for who could best represent each office, and obviously we want student input,” he said.

The working group will include students from UIJ and Student Immigrant Movement (SIM), the groups whose campaigns helped lead to Tufts’ decision to accept undocumented students on campus, according to McMahon. SIM is a Massachusetts-based non-profit that campaigns for the higher education rights of undocumented students, according to its website.

“With input from student leaders and from the [SIM], our offices worked over the summer to identify barriers undocumented students face and [to] start addressing them,” McMahon told the Daily in an email.

Stern said the working group aims to ensure that every department, office and community member at Tufts is knowledgeable and sensitive about the problems undocumented students face. This begins with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and how it communicates with undocumented students, their families and other parents who have questions about Tufts’ new policy, he said.

Palma added that professors should get involved with the working group and educate themselves about the issues that undocumented students face. When representatives from SIM came to Tufts over the summer to train representatives from Counseling and Mental Health Services, Financial Services as well as the academic advising deans and other faculty members, no professors attended the workshop, she said.

“We’re hoping this [workshop] is an ongoing process, not just a one or two-time thing,” Palma said. “It’s always difficult to get professors to come to outside events, but it should be their priority since they’re the ones that are teaching and shaping the environment [for] undocumented students in their classes.”  

Stern also echoed this sentiment, explaining that the working group should aim to change the way undocumented students are discussed in classes and viewed by the Tufts community.

“I’ve known of faculty members who use the term ‘illegal immigrants,’ and when they’re confronted about it, they still won’t change it,” he said.

Stern hopes that the working group will be able to acquire funding to address these areas of concern and added that he is in contact with a lawyer and Tufts alumnus who is interested in advocating for undocumented Tufts students from a legal perspective.

In addition to establishing the working group, McMahon said Tufts is endeavoring to make on-demand translation services for faculty and staff more readily available. This would allow them to better communicate with any non-English speaking family members of students.

“This has already proven to be a beneficial change for many Tufts families,” she told the Daily in an email.

Palma added that Tufts should also replace the federal work-study aid and internship grants, for which undocumented students are currently ineligible, with Tufts aid when applicable. In addition, she said the university should help students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) statuses, an immigration policy that allows some undocumented immigrants to be exempt from deportation, renew these statuses, as this process costs over $400.

Stern said that many of the undocumented students at Tufts do not publicly share this information about themselves. While he knows of five undocumented students in the Class of 2019, there are other students who are not public about their immigration status or who are citizens, but have parents or family members that are undocumented, he said.

These students face their own specific difficulties and concerns, Stern said.

“I’ve heard stories of parents in jail, the responsibilities that students feel for them and the guilt they feel about leaving family members behind [while at Tufts],” he said.

Stern said that some of these students might also face issues regarding general expenses, including printing, storage of belongings over breaks and medication, which low-income, undocumented students might have trouble accessing.  He also acknowledged that there may be more issues that he has not even considered.

“It’s a process of trying to figure out what all the issues are,” Stern said. “Part of it is being proactive and getting ready for future years when this undocumented community will grow.”