The Undocumented General

Termination of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is possible in 2018. Undocumented students are seeking clarity from W&L about what might happen to their mostly invisible population.

Hannah Denham

On Nov. 8, 2016, freshman Anthony Wilson was sitting with a group of about 15 other students in the Chavis House at Washington and Lee University, all eyes glued to the television. It was election night. Some of them held bowls of soup, others watched the New York Times polls on their phones, whispered to their friends or held their hands over their open mouths.

Wilson was pensive about the election results himself, with his own status as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico on the forefront of his mind. He waited, watching, until he realized the votes were leaning in an unexpected direction. He slipped out, walked across campus and climbed the stairs to his dorm room in Graham-Lees Hall.

He needed to be alone when the candidate who had threatened to take away his ability to work, study and live in the United States without fear was elected president.

Campaign promises take shape

Less than a year later, President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are now possible. On Sept. 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA will end by March 5, 2018 if Congress doesn’t take contrary legislative action.

The program was enacted in 2012 by then-president Barack Obama to allow work permits and temporary protection from deportation for young people who were born outside of the U.S. and immigrated to the country as children without documentation.

As of 2016, the end of this program would strand about 740,000 young undocumented people like Wilson, according to U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Jane Davis, a recent W&L graduate with DACA who grew up in northern Virginia, echoes a similar fear.

“You know the feeling of trying to swim from one end of the pool to another using a single breath?” Davis said. “That panic feeling thinking you might not make it to the end of the pool and your instincts start telling you to hyperventilate. That’s pretty much the feeling I get when I read about the possibility of DACA being removed or DACA-mented individuals being detained … but [the] reality is that it’s a terrifying idea to think that, from one day to another, my life could change when I have had no say in the matter.”

Experiencing W&L under DACA

Undocumented students find an opportunity for free higher education at Washington and Lee that they can’t access at public universities.

But once they arrive on campus, they are still barred from certain aspects of college life because of legal issues with their citizenship status and, in some cases, the university’s inability to communicate with them about their concerns.

Study and research abroad is extremely risky, even with DACA’s travel provision of advance parole. Many DACA recipients come from low-income families, a financial status often perpetuated by limited citizenship status, which excludes students from federal funding for research or internships.

Post-graduate opportunities, or lack thereof, for undocumented students impact their career aspirations while at Washington and Lee. Wilson plans to attend law school and pursue a legal career after graduating but his options are very limited because of his undocumented status.

“I realize that the path to become an attorney and practice law in a country where I am considered as one to break it might not be the easiest,” Wilson said, “but I am willing to do so in order to become an advocate for the undocumented population and bring change to our country’s immigration laws.”

Davis was on the pre-med track while enrolled at the university and wanted to take advantage of the university’s ample opportunities to study abroad early on. But her faculty advisor encouraged her to stay on campus.

“If anything happened, he wasn’t sure who would help me,” Davis said.

Peter Nicholes, ’17, faced the same issue. He was not eligible for advance parole and could not travel internationally. He talks about how professors would advise him to study abroad and he had to explain that he couldn’t.

“Every administrator cares, and you can talk to any administrator or professor if you’re comfortable about your concerns,” Nicholes said.

He was also on a pre-med track—until he dropped it.

“Not being able to find opportunities for research and internships in the medical field was a big factor,” he said.

Nicholes also talked about a general sense of fear that followed him throughout his time at W&L.

“In college, it was more, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to graduate, and if I do, I don’t know if I’ll have to leave and I don’t want to leave the U.S,’” he said.

To renew a two-year work permit through DACA, undocumented students have to travel to the nearest federal immigration office. The closest offices to Lexington are in Charleston, West Virginia, or Fairfax, Virginia. Both are roughly three hours away.

That’s an issue if they don’t have a car or the $495 for the renewal fee and potentially additional service fees. If it isn’t processed, it could affect a student’s scholarship, their ability to work and their security in the United States.

“I am always concerned about losing what I’ve accomplished for my family and myself,” Wilson said. “It could happen to any one of us.”

The higher education community reacts

Especially since Trump was elected, those with DACA have found themselves the subjects of a political rollercoaster.

Wilson said during this time, he felt a heightened sense of fear of losing DACA, not being able to study abroad, losing his work-study permit and not even feeling safe enough to drive.

“I felt a sense of hopelessness here,” he said. “The only people who knew anything were back at home and I wasn’t able to go home.”

Federal ICE agents have arrested an average of 13,085 undocumented immigrants each month from February to June, including those with DACA. Legal backlog has slowed deportations—more than 610,000 cases are awaiting completion as of June.

The constant limbo risks undocumented students’ access to education, ability to work and potential deportation, leaving many of them wondering if they will be next.

A national conversation about undocumented students in higher education began after the 2016 presidential election. Pomona College initiated a petition among American universities in support of DACA in November, which was subsequently signed by more than 600 college and university presidents.

Then-W&L president Ken Ruscio was one of them.

“The conversation and issues that occurred in the fall did, I think, bring awareness to us,” said Jason Rodocker, who is the associate dean of students and the dean for first-year experience at W&L. “It caught everyone’s attention.”

Wilson said he contacted faculty and administrators for possible resources and advice during his first semester, even before the election. He approached Rodocker but said that Rodocker wasn’t well-informed about DACA and didn’t answer his questions, only asking how he was doing three months later.

Rodocker said that he would refer undocumented students to Professor David Baluarte, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at W&L School of Law, who was abroad the second semester of the 2016-17 school year, during Trump’s election and the tumultuous months that followed.

“We’re not experts, but we wanted to be prepared if a DACA student did come to us,” Rodocker said. “We are excellent referral agents.”

Wilson seemed to disagree.

“It’s a difficult circle to navigate,” he said. “It’s just a loop of people directing you to other people without actually giving you helpful information.”

Similarly, Davis said that after the election, she reached out to her advisor with a request for administrators to make Washington and Lee a sanctuary school.

She said that she never heard back from the administration.

Seeking a clearer W&L policy

Rodocker said he was tasked with finding out if any undocumented students attended the university and coordinating with admissions and administration on how to provide resources for them. He said there is no current record of the number of undocumented students that attend W&L.

“One thing I have learned is how much additional effort an undocumented student has to do to be documented or go through the right process,” Rodocker said.

On Sept. 19, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a “Communi-tea” event on DACA. Baluarte and Jennifer Kirkland, the acting General Counsel, led the discussion.

Forty people, most of them students, gathered in the Center for Global Learning to learn more about the program and to ask the panelists questions.

It was the first such event at W&L since public threats were made against the DACA program.

Davis had previously spoken on the importance of these types of discussions among those with DACA and their allies.

“There isn’t awareness between the DACA students,” she said. “Something that would help would be just letting the DACA students know of each other.”

University president Will Dudley confirmed in August that more structured support programs for DACA students are in the works for the 2017-18 school year. Namely, class deans will offer the opportunity for undocumented students to connect through a formal support group or just informal conversations.

“Inclusion is a fundamental value at W&L,” Dudley said. “We are committed to a diverse community in which each member can thrive. This applies to everyone, regardless of nationality or citizenship status.”

He also said that the feedback gained from meetings with class deans will contribute to the Diversity Working Group, online resources for incoming and current students such as a new Culture and Diversity web site and a developing opt-in list with information regarding DACA for individuals.

Davis indicated that this kind of program would be an improvement.

“I think [the administration] understand it’s hard and that we’re not like the typical student,” Davis said. “I think it was just a lot of misinformation or maybe just not enough information for the administration to be that supportive.”

Davis added that there were many times that she felt alone as a DACA student.

“One of my biggest concerns was moving to Lexington and thinking, ‘God, I’m going to be the only one here,’” she said.

Professor Florinda Ruiz, the director of the university’s creative writing program, teaches a writing class on immigrant voices. An immigrant from Spain, she works with immigrant families in the Lexington courts and schools.

Ruiz refers to a program at Harvard College called ‘Act on a Dream,’ which released “Documenting the Pathway to College,” a 29-page document on the college application process and the mentorship program for undocumented students.

“If Harvard has this, why doesn’t our administration?” Ruiz said.

“Our practice has been more about connecting with those students individually,” said Sally Stone Richmond, the vice president for admissions and financial aid.

Wilson said he had seen similar resources at other colleges and universities before arriving at W&L.

“I came in wishing for resources for undocumented students like I had seen at other campuses,” Wilson said.

Rodocker said initiatives would be more individually based.

“It’s pretty much on them to reach out to us on their own,” Rodocker said.

Undocumented students must self-report for anyone in the admissions office or within the administration to know of their status and find resources for them.

They aren’t registered as international students, Ruiz said. When asked in March, Center for International Education Director Mark Rush refers to the former international student advisor, Amy Richwine, as a resource for students covered by the DACA program. But Richwine said she did not work directly with undocumented or DACA students.

“No one seemed to have an idea, in terms of faculty working in the international department,” Wilson said about reaching out to administration after the election. “Undocumented students are in a weird place where we don’t fit in the international or the U.S. citizen category.”

Finding a place in Lexington and beyond

Barriers from their citizenship status surfaced for Nicholes, Wilson and Davis when they started applying for college.

Nicholes said he didn’t have DACA at the time of his college application process and he highly considered a scholarship offer from a local university. But then he discovered QuestBridge, a program for low-income students that partners with 31 colleges and universities that commit to accepting undocumented students across the United States with scholarships, according to the website.

Nicholes was a match for W&L, which means that he received a full-ride scholarship. Wilson’s college application process was similar.

“I decided to go with Washington and Lee because of the QuestBridge match process,” Wilson said. “The academics here are more than I could ask for.”

Richmond said that QuestBridge provides an implicit knowledge of accessibility to higher education, including for undocumented students.

“The QuestBridge program really helped diversify the socioeconomic pool, and we want to continue to build on that momentum,” she said. “We’re going to fund an admitted student regardless of their citizenship status.”

Davis didn’t have DACA during high school and wasn’t eligible for FAFSA. But she also discovered the university through QuestBridge and first visited W&L during Johnson weekend.

“I just remember it being a very positive experience,” she said.

She said that the Johnson scholarship, which covers full tuition, room and board as well as other expenses and a summer stipend, provided the funds for her to travel for her interview for medical school.

Davis gives advice for incoming and current undocumented students.

“Before the election, I would’ve said, ‘Don’t be afraid to share your story,’” she said. “But after the election, I think I would switch to, ‘Don’t give up and keep going’… We’ve been here a long time and I think we’re going to stay.”

On the verge of graduation, Nicholes provides his perspective as well.

“Don’t let it get to you,” he said. “Just because you’re undocumented doesn’t mean you can’t do most of the things or all that citizens can do.”

Although Wilson has nearly three years of college still ahead of him, he gives advice for other students in a similar situation.

“Ask questions and be informed rather than trying to hide and remain in the shadows,” he said. “If there’s something you don’t get answered, take action and voice your opinion because your voice will be heard no matter if it’s immediate or it takes a while.”

He said he has found hope in the support from the people around him.

“As a student who is very open about my status, I have thought about hiding in the shadows once again and not letting others know about my status,” he said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned while being open, however, is that with the recent detainments and deportation there comes a rise in the support from fellow classmates, administration, and legal professionals that will fight hand-in-hand with those who are threatened.”

Davis reminds herself of the same support, despite the political tumult that threatens DACA.

“Hearing that DACA might be overturned made me remember something I had forgotten while feeling safe under DACA protection: that I was here before DACA and I very much plan to live my life here after DACA,” she said.

“I have made a life and a career for myself in the US and as long as there are people supportive of justice and hard work, undocumented individuals will always have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

This story  is adapted from reporting that the author carried out during Winter Term 2017 for a journalism course. Quotes, opinions, and information from sources have since been added and updated. Student names have been changed to protect the privacy and security of those interviewed.