When Mauro Trejo, an undocumented student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was approved in 2013 for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama administration program that provided temporary relief from deportation, his life took a turn for the better. With papers to work legally in the United States, he was able to secure a full-time job and save money so that he could start college – first at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and then at John Jay.
“That’s when hope came into my life and gave me the chance to save money and pay for college out of my pocket,” Trejo, a junior studying criminology, told Clarion. While the stability he gained was real, he knew that the security was only temporary. “It was like living on a cloud because I knew it could fall anytime.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on September 5 that the DACA program “is being rescinded.” In the announcement, Sessions
repeatedly referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens” and referred to the Trump administration decision as an end to “executive amnesty policy.”
Trejo, who calls America home, had been anxious in anticipation of the announcement. Now he’s organizing with other CUNY students and hopes that Congress will finally act on finding a permanent solution, rather than the temporary relief DACA afforded.
In New York State, more than 40,000 undocumented immigrants are enrolled in the program, according to estimates from State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, and the student organization CUNY DREAMers, a group that represents the issues of undocumented immigrants, estimates that there are about 6,000 undocumented students enrolled at CUNY. DACA, which gives temporary protection from deportation and permission to work legally in the country, is renewable every two years. With the Trump administration decision, it will begin to be phased out in six months unless Congress acts.
TAKING A CHANCE
When the program was first announced five years ago, Trejo was reluctant to apply. The $495 application fee was a steep price to pay for the 19-year-old, but more importantly, he didn’t want to out his parents as being undocumented. (The application requires proof of residency and birth forms.) Once the first round of approvals came in, Trejo decided to take a chance and apply – and he got approved.
In 2013, he enrolled full-time at BMCC, paying his full tuition from money that he had saved from working. At CUNY, undocumented students living in the state can pay in-state tuition, but they’re shut out of traditional aid programs, including the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for low-income residents and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to “immediately terminate” DACA, but then seemed to change his mind after taking office, telling ABC News that DACA recipients “shouldn’t be very worried.” This summer, 10 state attorneys general, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, issued an ultimatum in a letter to the Trump administration: either agree to “rescind” the program by September 5 or face a challenge to the program. Sessions announced the decision to terminate the program right on the September 5 deadline.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) denounced the decision hours after it was announced. “One of the major factors that makes American higher education a world-class system is the diversity of our faculty and students,” wrote AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum, noting that of the 800,000 DACA recipients in 2016, 576,000 of them are enrolled in college. “We owe it to these students and their families, as well as to other undocumented young people, to speak out against this action in the strongest manner possible.”
CUNY Chancellor James Milliken also denounced the decision and said the university “will do all we can” to support DACA students, including being an advocate before Congress and providing counseling and guidance. On the steps of City Hall and in front of Trump International Hotel & Tower, PSC members have been denouncing the decision.
In the immediate weeks following the presidential election, PSC President Barbara Bowen also wrote a letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees Chairperson William C. Thompson and Chancellor Milliken, calling on the university not to allow immigration officials onto campus, not share the immigration status of undocumented students unless required by a court of law and ensure that CUNY security is not required to enforce federal immigration law.
“There is no time to waste,” wrote Bowen in the December 2, 2016, letter. “The actions you take now will define what CUNY stands for at this time and for many years to come.”
The PSC successfully pushed for “A Call for All Colleges and Schools to Be Sanctuary Institutions” resolution in April at the New York State United Teachers representative assembly. Also, through coordination with the union, union members and CUNY students from campuses across the system have been meeting in working groups to advance measures that ensure a sanctuary campus. The activists have formed rapid response teams, which, among other things, work on verifying reports on a specific campus. They have also formed a training group, where people can do short trainings on knowing your rights and how to respond to requests for information.
“Beyond those who have DACA, we also need to remember that we have students who do not qualify for DACA due to the arbitrary limits on age and date,” said Tatyana Kleyn, an associate professor in education at the City College of New York and the faculty advisor of the college’s Dream Team, a student club dedicated to immigrant advocacy. “There’s a lot of fear on all ends and we need to continue to fight, rally and learn about ways to protect and educate faculty and staff about all our immigrant students – with and without DACA – as well as others who are under attack by this current administration,” said Kleyn.
At City College, Kleyn said the Dream Team has been holding events undocumented students know what resources they can access, including self-care workshops and free legal help from CUNY Citizenship Now. At LaGuardia Community College, faculty have organized several trainings on knowing one’s rights and the group LaGuardia Rising (comprised of administrators, staff, faculty and students) has disseminated information across campus about resources available to students in need. In addition to Know Your Rights outreach, Kingsborough Community College faculty, staff and students met with administrators about how the administration would restrict access to CUNYfirst data, including personal information on students’ immigration status and social security numbers. The PSC has stressed the data security issue in meetings with CUNY’s central administration.
At the CUNY School of Law, since DACA became federal policy, faculty and students have been advocating for undocumented students. They have helped undocumented immigrants apply and renew their status in the program, and they have worked with a coalition of community and social justice groups to create more opportunities for DACA recipients. CUNY law school graduate Cesar Vargas was party to a lawsuit, that challenged the denial of entry of qualified DACA recipients into the New York State Bar Association. In May of last year, the New York State Board of Regents allowed qualified DACA recipients to receive professional licensing.
“[Many DACA recipients] have become lawyers and doctors and nurses and teachers and everything else. They’re contributing and they’re proceeding with their lives and doing good things in the world,” said Janet Calvo, a law professor at CUNY School of Law. Calvo helped persuade the State Board of Regents to open up licensing to certain undocumented immigrants. “And of course, they’re worried and they’re nervous.”
Calvo said that students who have received DACA – even with it being withdrawn – should be eligible for licensing in the state. Many of the undocumented students whom Calvo’s worked with are remaining focused on their studies and goals.
That’s what Kingsborough student Adalberto Ventura is doing. He’s a DACA recipient who plans to become an electrical engineer, and he said that the Trump administration decision will force him to “go back in the shadows again,” but this time, he said, the federal government knows where he lives and where he works. If there’s one point of assurance for Ventura, it is that even with the discontinuation of the program, the one thing that can’t be taken away from him is his education.
“There are people who have been educated to be afraid. There are people who have been educated to step up, to take the good with the bad and the pros and cons,” Ventura told Clarion. “I’ve been educated to not give up.”