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Undocumented students hope for university’s protection under Trump

16 Nov

Denea Joseph has struggled to get out of bed each morning since Donald Trump won the White House. The 22-year-old college senior had hoped to get a job in communications or political consulting after graduation, but now she doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to legally work in the US – or even stay in the country.

Joseph, an undocumented immigrant who moved from Belize to California at age seven, has temporary deportation relief through Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) policy – but that protection could quickly disappear under a Trump administration.

“The uncertainty is very daunting,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California (UC), announced this week that she would be meeting with undocumented students like Joseph, and said the institution remained committed to supporting these students.

In the wake of her comments, students and professors across UC, one of the largest public college systems in the country, are now pushing administrators to take aggressive steps to protect thousands of undocumented students from potentially devastating policies, which could strip them of basic rights and lead to mass deportations.

Some have urged UC to be a leader in what they hope will be an organized movement of American universities fighting back against Trump by forming “sanctuary campuses” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

“University systems have a certain degree of autonomy to lead the way,” said Cinthia Flores, manager of the Dream Resource Center at the UC Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Center. She added that they could “demonstrate ally-ship to undocumented students and their families”.

Whether UC will take a strong stance, however, remains unclear, particularly since Napolitano previously served as US secretary for homeland security under Obama, whose administration oversaw more deportations than any other in US history.

While immigration advocates have long been disappointed by Obama’s deportations, the threat of Trump has them significantly more alarmed.

As with many policies, the specifics of the president-elect’s immigration plans remain undetermined, though on the campaign trail he relied on xenophobic and racially charged speeches, pledging to triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and launch a “special deportation task force”.

Trump is also expected to end Daca, which provides protections for 741,500 people.

Advocates said there were a number of tangible ways colleges could protect undocumented students, arguing that California’s public university system was in a good position to chart the course.

California already has multiple progressive policies designed to support undocumented immigrants, including measures that help them access healthcare, driver’s licenses and student loans. Across the state, UC’s 10 campuses have resources tailored to undocumented people.

The idea of sanctuary campuses is rooted in the existing concept of “sanctuary cities”, local governments that don’t cooperate with all federal immigration enforcement. Trump has repeatedly denounced such policies and threatened to cut federal funding from those municipalities.

Madeleine Villanueva, an undocumented UC Berkeley student who moved from the Philippines at age nine, said a sanctuary policy would help put some students at ease.

“No one should be scared to go to class because someone can deport them,” said the 23-year-old political economy major. “I haven’t been this scared to be in this country for awhile.”

María Blanco, executive director of UC’s Undocumented Student Legal Services Center, said the university could consider a sanctuary system that blocks campus police departments from collaborating with ICE agents. The administration could also commit to shielding students’ records from law enforcement.

“The university could in a unified way say … ‘We will protect all our student information,’” said Blanco. “For the students to know that and for the university to actually do that, that is a big protection.”

Institutions like UC “are in fact a form of state government”, noted Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA law professor and immigration expert, arguing that the university had the power to enact specific policies.

It is unclear, however, if Trump could attempt to revoke federal funding – for scholarships and research, for example – if a university were to declare itself a sanctuary campus.

Regardless, colleges have an ethical obligation to assist undocumented students against threats of deportation, Motomura said. “It follows through on the educational mission. We want to see young people get an education, so we’re troubled by anything that prevents that from happening.”

Daca also allows eligible undocumented immigrants to legally work, and if Trump ends the program, Flores said, the university will have to find a way to ensure that students can continue to be employed on campus.

“Undocumented students are some of the most financially challenged students on our campus,” added Lisa Garcia Bedolla, UC Berkeley professor of education and political science.

In addition to standing up to Trump’s federal government, advocates said, UC needs to provide extensive legal services to threatened students as well as mental health counseling they may now require.

“After the election, it’s like we all woke up in a nightmare,” said Gladis, an undocumented 26-year-old UC graduate student who requested to be identified only by her first name, given the uncertain future of Daca. “The first thing that came to me is: how am I even going to continue in my program?” she said. “It’s just been overwhelming.”

Despite the threats, Joseph, a major in African American studies and public affairs at UCLA, said she was determined not to let Trump’s victory silence her.

“At a time like this where undocumented people are definitely under attack,” she said, “it’s crucial that there are people still out there to speak up.”

Villanueva, who is part of a student group called Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education, said undocumented immigrants would not stop protesting Trump. “We’re here. We’re willing to fight back.”