Students without legal status face increasing marginalization
THE SANTA CLARA
January 26, 2017
On a cloudy fall day, the air crisp and the light low, Marlene* stood at the base of the cross in front of the Mission Church grasping a microphone. Nearly 400 people stood with bated breath between her and the front doors of the church. Addressing the crowd, she shared one of her innermost secrets—the reason for the fear she experiences on a daily basis.
“I’m undocumented,” Marlene said. “For those of you who have never met an undocumented student, you just met one.”
At just 5 feet tall, what she lacks in height she makes up for in spirit and determination. At the Nov. 17 campus-wide walkout where she made the announcement, Marlene willingly disclosed her legal status to increase awareness about undocumented students on campus. Prior to the public announcement, some of her own friends didn’t even know.
Asking the campus community to drop everything on the afternoon of Nov. 17 was multi-functional. In addition to elevating the plight of undocumented students at Santa Clara and sending a message to those without official status that they are not alone, it was a specific call to action for those in attendance.
“You just agreed that if (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) comes for me because I just said I’m undocumented, that you will come out of your classrooms and you will make sure that ICE does not take me,” Marlene said.
Just a few seconds passed before someone in the audience answered her call.
“Who is her ally?” they asked.
“I am,” the crowd responded.
In 2005, Marlene immigrated to the United States from El Salvador—a country plagued by gang violence and a homicide rate that peaked in 2015 at 103.1 murders per 100,000 people. She said her life was in imminent danger living there.
“I want you to understand that if I’m sent back, I’m going to die,” she said to the crowd.
Following Marlene’s speech, which ran about 30 minutes, the amassed crowd marched through campus past St. Joseph’s Hall, the Donohoe Alumni House and the north side of Benson Memorial Center before arriving at the Shapell Lounge. Carrying signs and yelling chants that reverberated throughout campus, they were led by Marlene and other members of the Undocumented Students and Allies Association (USAA).
“Undocumented, unafraid,” the crowd chanted. “We are home and here to stay.”
Call to Create Sanctuary Campus
On Nov. 16, President Michael Engh, S.J. shared a message in support of undocumented students, saying that the university would “do everything (it) can to protect our undocumented students.” He pledged to continue allocating resources to undocumented students and provided a list of various places on campus for students to get support.
“That email was a very nice reminder that Santa Clara is on our side and they’re willing to protect their students,” Marlene said. “But I think that there’s also a lot of space for improvement—that administration can actually take very concrete actions and put more resources for students to take part of so they can feel safer.”
Then on Nov. 30, Engh sent another email to the campus community announcing a joint statement signed by all 28 presidents of the American Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). Included in the statement is a promise to protect undocumented individuals “to the fullest extent of the law” and support the continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
While Engh’s personal statement and the AJCU joint statement were generally well-received, USAA and hundreds of others who have signed an online petition are asking the university to go a step further by declaring Santa Clara an official sanctuary campus. This kind of directive is happening on college campuses across the country, with schools like University of Pennsylvania and Pitzer College leading the charge.
A sanctuary campus is one that formally commits to protect undocumented students, namely by preventing ICE from entering campus property and forcibly removing anyone. But adopting such a policy is nuanced by the threat of losing federal funding. Like other U.S. institutions of higher education that rely on money allocated by the federal government, Santa Clara runs the risk of that being taken away if they do not comply with a federal agency such as ICE.
Lorenzo Gamboa, senior associate director of Undergraduate Admission, said that because Santa Clara is a private institution, the university would risk losing a lot less money than University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) schools. He added that Janet Napolitano, Santa Clara alum and president of the UC system, is facing some difficult decisions regarding federal funds.
“Are you willing to call bluff on $100 million? And if so, do you have the backing to do that?” Gamboa said regarding Napolitano’s dilemma.
USAA is in the process of scheduling a meeting with upper-level administrators to present the petition.
Existing Resources & DACA’s Uncertain Future
While the number of undocumented students on campus cannot be known for certain because applicants are not required to provide a social security number, there are approximately two or three beneficiaries of the Albert Hurtado, S.J. Scholarship for undocumented students each year. The scholarship fund was started in 1999 and is financed by private sponsors and Jesuits. It is not part of the university endowment and is not tied to state or federal funding.
“It was (created to) help the neediest population of its time, which was classified to be undocumented students because they have no access to federal or state aid,” Gamboa said. “Those things have kind of changed and shifted over time, but still they do remain pretty much ostracized from all other areas of higher ed access.”
While federal funds are still not an option for undocumented students, the 2011 California Dream Act makes undocumented individuals eligible for state financial aid.
But funding their education is just the first step in an uphill battle that can continue even after they receive their degree. Many undocumented students are unable to obtain employment after graduation because federal law bars anyone without a social security number from working legally in the U.S.
One avenue for employment, however, is DACA. It is an immigration policy created by the Obama administration in 2012 that allows those who entered the U.S. as minors to apply for a renewable two-year protection from deportation. Another benefit of the program is a work permit that allows undocumented individuals to obtain legal employment.
But under the new administration, many policy experts are speculating that the program will be rescinded. During his campaign, the newly-elected president suggested repealing the program in line with his firm stance against any kind of illegal immigration. What’s more, the federal government has the personal information of the more than 750,000 DACA beneficiaries.
Following the Nov. 17 walkout, USAA hosted a panel about the impact of the election result on undocumented individuals. Among the panelists was Anna Sampaio, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department.
“Information about (DACA students) is housed in a federal database, that we know by virtue of the administrative order that created that program, was shared with ICE and Customs and Border Protection,” Sampaio said. “That information was shared under the order that it not be used for enforcement, but that was all covered under the administrative order that created the program. That could easily be vacated and changed.”
During the question and answer session that followed the panel, a senior mechanical engineering student enrolled in DACA asked if his job offer could be rescinded if the program was ended by the new administration. Law school professor Deep Gulasekaram, who specializes in immigration law and also spoke on the panel that day, said that when it comes to employment rules, federal law is black and white.
“There is no getting around the fact that federal law prohibits the employment of somebody who does not have status, unless you’re in specific circumstances,” Gulasekaram said. “There’s nothing that is going to change about that, if not get worse, at the federal level in the coming years.”
He did add that California has been very welcoming of immigrants under Gov. Jerry Brown, so it is possible to work without legal status. Options could include independent contracting or working for an employer willing to accept DACA even if it is rescinded by the federal government.
USAA Presses On
On Jan. 21, USAA held a student resource day with free legal consultations, workshops and information about student activism and current immigration policies. It was part of an ongoing effort by the group to provide more resources and support for those with questions and fears about their immigration status. According to Marilynn Escun, Marlene’s co-founder and co-president, more on-campus resources are needed for undocumented students.
“A long term goal that we hope to accomplish as a club over the next few years is to get a resource center,” Escun said. “We recognize that there is a lack of resources here on campus that undocumented students are able to get access to.”
Another future goal, according to Escun, is to create a scholarship or other form of financial assistance for undocumented students.
USAA became an official registered student organization in the fall, the culmination of months of planning that took place in the spring and summer of last year. In part motivated by the annual pushback to SCCAP’s mock border wall and wanting to put a face to undocumented students while raising awareness about the issues they face, USAA hopes to change some minds with their presence on campus.
Within weeks of being officially approved by the Associated Student Government in a unanimous vote, they were faced with the reality of the 2016 election result. Jumping into action less than a week later, they conducted a healing circle on Nov. 14 for students to share and support one another after many initially felt paralyzed by the news.
Going forward, the group will meet bi-weekly and focus its efforts on hosting panels, distributing pins and stickers for allies of undocumented students and hosting trainings for staff and faculty. Marlene said the campus community can continue to support undocumented students by attending USAA meetings, getting to know people dealing with the issue, staying up to date with proposed laws and electing legislators who are undocumented-friendly.
Reflecting on the November walkout, Marlene said the turnout was well beyond the 30 to 60 people they expected to show up.
“A lot of people who went told me after that they felt really empowered and they felt that there was some kind of renewed hope for the school,” Marlene said. “Even professors said that the walkout kind of united people in a way that they hadn’t seen in a lot of years.”
Gamboa and Sampaio were among longtime Santa Clara staff and faculty who affirmed this sentiment.
Marlene said she is thankful for everyone who came out in support of not only her, but all undocumented students on campus. Though publicly announcing her status did not necessarily make her feel safer, she said if she went missing one day, she feels better knowing that people know who she is.
“It was very emotional and very helpful for a lot of students on campus who have been hiding in the shadows,” Marlene said. “Knowing that Santa Clara cares about them and is willing to support them and protect them.”
*Last name has been omitted to protect the individual’s identity.
Contact Jenni Sigl at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4849.