What’s next for undocumented students protected by DACA in a post-election world?


When the news of Donald Trump’s presidential election reached 20-year-old College of the Canyons student Carlos, a pseudonym given to the student to protect his identity, he decided to change his area of study from COC’s musical theater program to the college’s Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program.

The change in majors was not due to a lack of passion or change of heart, but because of a concern for his future in the United States with his undocumented status.

“Due to this election I had to make a decision and look at my options and see if I did move back to my country, what kind of trade I would be able to contribute to my country,” he said.

Carlos is just one of more than 740,000 nationwide that are worried about their futures as the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—a 2012 executive order passed by President Barrack Obama protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation—is uncertain.

DACA allows Dreamers, individuals who were brought to the U.S. as minors, to receive a renewable two-year deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit if they are currently in school, under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2015 and have no criminal history.

During the campaign, Trump pledged to tighten immigration laws and end the DACA program, causing students nationwide to fear for their future while they are trying to take exams and get a degree.

“I have friends at UC schools that are worried and are trying to finish school sooner,” Carlos said.  “They’re taking courses that allow them to graduate quicker with a BA in something so they can have a job and be steady.”

Others have noted their anxieties about the information submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which requires a criminal background check, an address and a country of birth, among other personal information.

With nearly 367,000 approved applications, California is the largest state with Dreamers protected by the DACA program, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

And now community colleges and private universities statewide are doing everything they can to ease fears and protect their students.

California colleges and universities stance

On Nov. 29, leaders of California’s three higher education systems—University of California President Janet Napolitano, Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White and Chancellor-Designate of California Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley—submitted a joint letter to President-elect Trump, urging him to allow students to continue their education without fear of deportation.

“The University of California, California State University, and the California Community College systems each have thousands of DACA students studying at our institutions,” the letter read.  “They are constructive and contributing members of our communities. They should be able to pursue their dream of higher education without fear of being arrested, deported, or rounded up for just trying to learn.”

Less than a week later, on Dec. 5, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office sent a guiding set of principles to the system’s 113 colleges to protect, advocate and support their students in light of possible immigration policy changes.

“The underlining message of that is nothing has changed,” said Eric Harnish, COC’s vice president of public information, advocacy and external relations, to the college’s Board of Trustees at its Dec. 7 meeting.  “It is reinforcing the fact that none of the laws have changed.”

Jasmine Ruys, dean of enrollment services at COC, said there is a level of concern among students who are interested in applying to the college or who are currently enrolled in the college.

“They’re scared for the rhetoric that’s out there,” Ruys said.  “In admissions and records our message is that nothing has changed.  Come in and talk to us, we are a safe place.”

Ruys said COC does not classify students as Dreamers in its student information system and that the conversation within her office is about the possible change in tuition payments, not about students’ immigration status, as students who were undocumented still attended COC before DACA.

“The conversation is about what you’re going to pay for college; it’s about the cost, not about visas or being here documented or undocumented,” she said.  “We try to give them that security that they’re in this place to have a safe conversation.”

Ruys reiterated that the enrollment office’s perspective on students has not changed and that it is trying to stop rumors and give confidence back to students.

“Our students will be fine and our concern is that they’re comfortable and that their focus is on their studies,” she said.

Private colleges and universities stance

Private universities, like California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), are taking a similar position against the possible termination of DACA.

CalArts President Steven Lavine joined more than 500 college and university presidents from public and private institutions nationwide in signing an open letter to uphold DACA.

The letter cited the need to continue the mission of higher education and free inquiry of individuals who “have been exemplary student scholars and student leaders, working across campus and in the community.”

“With DACA, our students and alumni have been able to pursue opportunities in business, education, high tech, and the non-profit sector; they have gone to medical school, law school, and graduate schools in numerous disciplines,” the letter read.  “They are actively contributing to their local communities and economies.”

Pending Legislation

Some lawmakers are not waiting to see what the Trump Administration will do with DACA.  Instead, they are writing bills and urging the government to protect students and create “safe spaces” for those who are undocumented.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) are working on a bill to protect Dreamers if Trump does terminate the DACA program by drafting legislation that will provide temporary legal status to immigrants.

“Lindsey Graham… and I are joining in an effort to draw up legislation to achieve that goal and at least to give those eligible for DACA a temporary reprieve so if there is elimination of this executive action, we don’t eliminate the protection that keeps them here in the United States,” Durbin said in a statement.

In California, Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) announced SB 54, the California Values Act, Wednesday which will create safe zones to protect immigrants in California schools, hospitals and courthouses.

“To the millions of undocumented residents pursuing and contributing to the California dream, the state of California will be your wall of justice should the incoming administration adopt an inhumane and overreaching mass-deportation policy,” de León said in a statement.

The bill would ban the “use of state and local resources to aid federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in deportation actions” and will create “safe zones” on school, hospital and courthouse grounds by preventing immigration enforcement.

It would also require state agencies to update their confidentiality policies to protect immigrants.  SB 54, however, would still comply with judicial warrants and transfers of violent offenders to custody of immigration agents.

Uncertain Future

The president-elect will take office in less than two months, and it is still uncertain what will happen to those currently protected under DACA.

Trump offered to find an accommodation for Dreamers in his Time “Person of the Year” article released Wednesday.

“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump said in the Time magazine interview.  “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Until then, students, like Carlos, are turning to friends, family and teachers for support and guidance through the uncertainty.

“I have a lot of friends that are worried and others that are very supportive.  The support is outstanding because you never would think that some of the people you never see would say they’ll be here for you,” he said.  “This is something so important moving forward and should be the topic of conversation.”

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On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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